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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

UN Security Council Reforms: The Future Process

Monday 21 February 2011


by M.H. Faridi

The reform of the United Nations Security Council ((UNSC) represents a major challenge for the United Nations (UN). The increase of the number of permanent members of the Council, improving on the transparency of its decision-making and ensuring equitable representation of all UN member-states on the Council—these are just some of the issues covering the reform. The addition of new non-permanent members, that is not discussed in this essay due to lack of space, is another issue of considerable importance. The consensus on the necessity of the reform has been reached and, thus, the idea is not hopeless. Some reform proposals are workable, though many issues remain controversial. Moreover, the legitimacy of the UN as an international organisation is still quite substantive.

In September 2003, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, called for the reform of the UN Security Council to make it more effective and representative of the 21st century’s “geopolitical realities”. The concerns over effectiveness and equal representation along with demands of transparency have been articulated by a number of the UN member-states in earlier debates around the issue. The debates have become particularly vigorous after the end of the Cold War that, as Ofuaku and Ukaga point out, “ushered in a renewed interest in democratic governance all over the world”. However, on the flipside of the quest for global democratisation, the UN and particularly the Security Council came under harsh criticism for the lack of transparency and equal representation in their structure. Despite virtually unanimous dissatisfaction with the UNSC work voiced by a majority of the UN member-states, and the developing states in particular, they differ on the types of actions to be taken to improve the situation. These differences reflect the aspirations and fears of particular state actors and reveal an enormous complexity of the problems at hand.

There have been many attempts to reform the Security Council since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Although few have resulted in significant change, all have radically underlined just how intricate and complicated such a process truly is. Furthermore, as has occurred in previous years, the reform of the Security Council can refer to several different things: to changing how the Council works, modifying the right of veto or revising the composition of the membership. A look at the current state of negotiations should at least provide some hints of possible future scenarios of the various reform processes.

Within the cluster of working methods, recent developments have given rise to modest optimism. The 2006 presidential note (S/2006/507) solidified previous gains, and gave the Council a concrete starting point for further work on reform. The British statement at the latest meeting of the Working Group clearly demonstrated that there is—at least among some permanent members—a willingness to work towards a more open and transparent Security Council, but the statement also highlighted the inherent opposition from Council members against any interference in how to conduct “their business”. Thus, the key to change lies more with the permanent members of the Council, than with the General Assembly or small interest groups. According to diplomats from the P-5 faction, future work of the group will be centred more on inspiring change from within than promoting elaborate General Assembly resolutions.

Nonetheless, small steps have been taken towards change, although it is doubtful that these could lead to modifications in the right of veto. Establishing set rules of procedure might pave the way for some progress along the lines of the presidential note of 2006, but China, Russia and the United States are fervently opposed to any rules that would govern how the Council conducts its dealings. France, the UK and perhaps even a ‘daring’ non-member might be able to spur some development within the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions, on further non-binding, but publicly available, regulations. The two European countries do not necessarily want to limit their powers, but they also know that their legitimacy currently rests on increasing the transparency and inclusiveness of their Council dealings. To an extent, this has already happened in regard to sharing information with other members of the European Union; however, they realise that they also have to extend it to all General Assembly members.

THE process on working methods within the General Assembly’s ‘Open-ended Working Group’ could gain some momentum if suggestions do not impose conditionality, and in general are kept at a “reasonable level” as seen from the
P-5’s increasing notion perspective. However, developments could be hampered by member-states vying among the members for permanent seats, if the working methods debate overshadows talks of the G-4—especially Germany’s expansion, which they want to have priority, work towards more transparency and Japan—and could also be hampered by some member-states that are increasingly disillusioned by the slow process. There seems to be a growing awareness among those member states that more transparency would not necessarily translate into more involvement in the decision-making procedures of the Council. Some of the measures previously implemented to increase transparency have actually meant that more decisions have been taken in secrecy. For instance, as more public discussions have taken place in the large Security Council chambers, more informal negotiations have been moved to an adjacent closed room. Increasingly, this has tended to focus attention on other ways of influencing the Council. Some states consider the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee (administrative and budgetary), which manages the budget of the United Nations, as the only real way to influence the decision-making of the Security Council. This endeavour, however, stands minimal chances of succeeding, as one former Chairman of the Fifth Committee and ambassador of a developing country noted.

On the debate on the composition of the Council, the process has so far progressed very slowly. Germany is currently exploring some ideas to move the process forward as confirmed by recent press reports. With the launch of the overarching group (or perhaps, more an over-arching process) in New York, the Germans clearly signalled that they are ready to pursue some sort of further movement. However, serious obstacles remain. Neither Italy nor Pakistan have taken part in the group (or process), and the two countries continue to argue that a basic framework for negotiations must be agreed upon before any actual draft text can even be considered. In this regard, diplomats connected to the Uniting for Consensus group doubt that the German efforts are likely to produce any concrete results shortly.

The German initiative seems to be spurred on by a spreading notion among the members of the G-4—¬especially Germany and Japan—that their time to argue for permanent seats may have ended. Many commentators believe that the two countries had a better chance of getting permanent seats in the 1990s when the main arguments were based on the size of payments to the UN. Instead, sentiments seem to have moved away from adding more industrialised nations to adding more developing countries as a way to make the Security Council more representative. Among the permanent members of the Council there seems to be quiet satisfaction with this development.

A permanent seat for India is another issue. Former Indian ambassador Nirupam Sen has said many a time that he sees no added value in a solution that omits the inclusion of new permanent members. Several sources within the diplomatic community note that India continues to staunchly believe that “time is on their side”, and that they can afford to “wait the process out” in the hope of a permanent seat. If India decides to adopt such an all-or-nothing attitude, it could seriously undermine the current negotiations. Deciding to link progress within the expansion-cluster to other unrelated reform issues could have similar consequences. On the other hand, India did show flexibility by abstaining on including the right of veto, and could perhaps be willing to enter in negotiations in the face of the current resistance from the Uniting for Consensus group.

Brazil and South Africa—the other members of IBSA—also seem to have realised the enormous challenges from within their respective continents, although they might be able to garner some support if they can turn the debate into a North/South question.

However, at the moment, that strategy could backfire horrendously for South Africa. Africa is the only regional grouping with a consensus on the question, and South Africa would have to break the African position and move away from the Ezulwini-Consensus to reach a compromise on forfeiting the veto. This presents them with an obvious paradox: how could they argue that they are the African representative if they are not part of the African consensus? At the moment the African position seems solidly in favour of the Ezulwini-Consensus. African leaders even reaffirmed this position at an African Union summit in Ethiopia in early February 2008.
“The African Union (AU) decision must be a disappointment for Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, who can’t secure a seat in the Council without having Africa on board. The AU’s call to expand the use of the veto [to new permanent members] has no chance of collecting wider support at the UN. It is a self-defeating proposal, and they know it,” Ayca Ariyoruk, a Senior Associate at the UN Association of the USA, said in a recent analysis. Talks with African represen-tatives in New York have revealed that opposition continues to be stacked against permanent seats for South Africa, Nigeria or Egypt, and for many smaller and medium-sized states demanding the veto is one way of keeping the countries out. It is therefore doubtful that the group will drop its insistence on the right of veto. And it is equally doubtful that other countries or groupings will negotiate with the Africans without knowing the names of their candidates. A European ambassador even noted that there will be no negotiations without actual names of African candidates, and given the internal African turmoil, names are not immediately forthcoming. In this regard, Africa currently seems to be holding the key to further movement on the expansion debate, although many member-states of the African Union seem reluctant to use it. For over a decade, member states have fought a bitter war of attrition and reform fatigue seems widespread, with some ambassadors even hoping to shelve the process if no compromise is found by the end of the session. The road ahead looks very challenging indeed.

It should not be forgotten that the United Nations is an institution created by its members, as is the Security Council. Therefore, reinforcing the legitimacy of the UN will only be possible if the member-states are determined to commit to the reform. It is the commitment of member-states and particularly of the permanent members of the Council that will likely decide the future of the UN Security Council in the years to come.

Dr Faridi is on the faculty of the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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