Why reform of the UN Security Council is problematic


Why reform of the UN Security Council is problematic

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Expectations that the UN Security Council will be reformed to reflect contemporary global realities have not been met. The Council’s composition and structure still reflects the historical arrangement reached over 75 years ago by victors of World War II, who became the five permanent members of the world’s premier crisis management forum. Possession of veto power further buttressed their position in a body charged with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. 

Originally, the UN Charter provided for six non-permanent members. But in 1963 the General Assembly amended the Charter to create four more non-permanent seats, which expanded the Council to 15 members. That is still the case today for a body that remains anchored in the past. 

For decades, talks have been going on to reform the Security Council in an informal plenary of the General Assembly. The GA which created the IGN (Intergovernmental negotiations) process in 2009 set the aim of comprehensive reform of the Council that addressed five equally important and interlinked issues. These being: categories of membership, question of veto, regional representation, size of an expanded Council and its working methods, and the Security Council-General Assembly relationship.

While there is general agreement among UN member states on the need for reform to make the Security Council more representative and effective, consensus has been elusive beyond that. There are deep-seated disagreements over details. In fact, the prolonged deadlock in negotiations is due to the seemingly unbridgeable gap in positions between countries that aspire for permanent seats for themselves and others who oppose this and instead advocate enlarging the Council by more elected, non-permanent members. 

Adding more permanent members will compound this dysfunction, not resolve it. Moreover, additional permanent seats would also reinforce an inequality and instead of making the SC more representative of the broader membership, would be its antithesis. 

Maleeha Lodhi

 This discord has for years pitted the so-called G4 countries – Germany, Japan, India and Brazil – against the Uniting for Consensus countries led by Italy and including Pakistan, Argentina, Republic of Korea, Canada and others. G4 countries support additional non-permanent members but their position rests on the claim that they are entitled to permanent seats due to their economic power, political standing and contributions to the UN. They support each other for the Council’s permanent membership and have also managed to secure the backing of some P5 countries. The common African position is support for expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories. This is predicated on the view that the continent’s under-representation has been an act of historical injustice, which should be remedied.  

The Uniting for Consensus (UFC) countries call for comprehensive reform and want to see the Council more representative, accountable, democratic, transparent and effective by addition of elected members who can counter balance the power of the veto-wielding P5 countries. The UFC’s core argument is that the deadlock and paralysis of the SC is due to divisions among the P5 which prevents it from playing the role expected of it and enjoined by the Charter. Adding more permanent members will compound this dysfunction, not resolve it. Moreover, additional permanent seats would also reinforce an inequality and instead of making the SC more representative of the broader membership would be its antithesis. 

The G4 and UFC don’t just have divergent positions and perspectives. They have competing visions about the nature and future of the UN. One vision seeks to accord privileged status to a handful of countries on the basis of ‘permanence’, while the other seeks to transform the organization into one that embodies the principles of democracy, representativeness and effectiveness and offers opportunities to all states to become Council members. One vision is driven by power politics while the other posits that principles should have primacy over power. 

As a member of UFC, Pakistan has had a consistent and principled position. This is based on two fundamental principles. First, that any reform should not reinforce inequality and preserve privilege for a few, but give all member states, big, medium and small, a chance to serve on the SC by rotating elected seats. This would make the Council more representative of the membership in accordance with the principle of sovereign equality. Since the SC’s last enlargement, UN membership has grown substantially which necessitates that all member states should have an opportunity to serve on the Council.

Second, in the democratic era, reform should be in sync with the spirit of the age. The principle of election is the bedrock of democracy. That should also apply to democratic reform of the Council. More elected members will make the SC more democratic, inclusive and accountable to the general membership.

Given the long running impasse in negotiations, what are the prospects for reforming the UN’s most important body? Unless fundamental differences between opposing groups of countries are reconciled and some kind of compromise formula found, it is difficult to see any substantive progress in the near term. The UFC has shown flexibility by proposing longer term elected seats to the Council. But the G4 and its allies haven’t demonstrated similar flexibility. This means the impasse is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.

Moreover, the process of  reform is by no means easy as it will require an amendment to the UN charter. This will involve first, that the General Assembly adopt a resolution on reform by a two thirds majority. And second, the amendment of the charter based on the resolution must be ratified by at least two-thirds of the UN membership including the five permanent members. This makes it a daunting prospect even if all countries agree that some kind of reform is necessary.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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