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The UN's Fossilized Security Council

By Lionel Beehner

Unless the UN Security Council is reformed, its failure in Syria could mark the end of the body’s relevance as a tool for preventing mass atrocities. Though this subject has been raised by the past few U.S. administrations, it has never been a priority. President Barack Obama made news in November 2010 after promising India a permanent seat, but there has been little movement from the White House on the issue since.

The vote on Syria only underscores the need for change. In the past, the body was unable to intervene in Bosnia to avert the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and it was similarly impotent to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. If the Security Council cannot intervene to stop mass killings, then its entire raison d’etre is called into question. Unless the Council’s membership more fairly reflects the global realities of today without sacrificing its ability or willingness to act, it will lose its legitimacy—as issues of international import shift to other institutional forums and regional frameworks. In short, the Council risks becoming “neutered,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aptly put it in February.

The Obama administration should back a simple and equitable plan to reform the Security Council: Add five more permanent members and supply them with veto powers—presumably Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, and South Africa—but require that a resolution can only be blocked by two vetoes rather than one. This plan, which Yale historian Paul Kennedy describes as “desperate but ingenious” in his recent book, The Parliament of Man, would make membership more representative of today’s global power structure rather than that of postwar 1945, while not making the voting procedures too unwieldy or cumbersome

The push to expand the Security Council is one that goes back decades. Even as the UN General Assembly has swelled from 51 to 193 charter members, the Security Council looks remarkably unchanged since 1945. As victors of the Second World War, the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and the Soviet Union, rewarded themselves with permanent seats and vetoes. In 1965, the body enlarged from 11 to 15 elected members, but the permanent five and their vetoes were left intact. To reform the Council requires an amendment to the UN Charter and the adoption and ratification by two-thirds of the UN General Assembly, or 128 votes. Not surprisingly, only three amendments have passed since 1945.

“[The council] is built on the assumption that five of the strongest nations have the right and duty to safeguard the globe,” writes American University professor David Bosco. The Security Council remains the world’s final arbiter on matters of war and peace—thankfully there has never been an outbreak of direct hostilities between its permanent members. It is given the responsibility of declaring war, under its Chapter VII provisions. It remains the only institution whose resolutions carry the weight of binding international law to all of humanity. The body, Bosco adds, remains the “cockpit of global politics.”

 In May 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized a no-fly zone in Libya and eventually brought down the Qaddafi regime. The Bush administration sought the approval of the Security Council—and failed—before its misadventure into Iraq in 2003. A “neutered” Security Council will lead to more security vacuums and a greater likelihood of failed peacekeeping operations.

The remit of the Council has expanded immensely with the passing of the Cold War. The body has slapped sanctions against states like Iran for its enrichment of uranium; blessed interventions in the Balkans, Somalia, and Kuwait; and backed referendums on the emergence of South Sudan. Occasionally, it has targeted sitting heads of state for war crimes. But the other side of the ledger has frustrated those calling for more effective global governance. The Security Council has been helpless to prevent states like Pakistan, India, or North Korea from testing nuclear weapons or to intervene when regimes like Syria commit mass atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Several foreign policy analysts complain that the Council has been hijacked by Great Powers politics to protect their client states. Russia’s refusal to sanction Syria, which enjoys strong ties and a lucrative arms trade with Moscow, provides a case in point. The United States has used its veto over 40 times to protect resolutions condemning Israeli actions. France has similarly blocked resolutions against Morocco for occupying parts of Western Sahara. According to Middle East Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco, “The shameless protection by P5 countries of client states from international censure did not end with the Cold War.”

Indeed, without meaningful reform, the body will be seen as neither legitimate nor effective in enforcing international law. Legitimacy is a subjective thing, of course, requiring actors to perceive of the council’s actions as holding legal and moral authority. The implication is that actors obey these rules less out of self-interest or fear of sanction—Security Council resolutions are often never enforced—than out of international norms and because they believe the institution to be the only legitimate and deliberative body representative of the international community. This is why so many of the world’s thorniest disputes of international justice end up at its doorstep. Imagine the legitimacy or legal authority the Supreme Court would wield if its justices were only property-owning white males. Yet, that is how much of the world eyes the permanent five members of the Council.

Most proposals to reform the Council are either too piecemeal to make a difference or too radical to have a chance of being accepted. Many just tinker around the margins and do not ameliorate the main criticism of the institution: that it is a fossilized institution unrepresentative of today’s realities. Consider the following: Europe comprises less than 10 percent of the world’s population but has a 40 percent vote in the P5. India is a country of over 1 billion people, while Japan is the United Nations’ second largest contributor to the UN. Yet both powers, puzzlingly, are outside the Security Council’s permanent five. Latin America and Africa—areas of over 560 million and 1 billion respectively—get no veto on matters of war and peace.

In 1995, scholars at Yale University wrote up a report suggesting that the Security Council expand to 23 members, while restricting the scope of the veto only to peacekeeping and enforcement measures. But the plan makes no mention of whether future permanent members would get full vetoes and if so, how this might make consensus more likely. A similar plan calls for expanding the P5 without equipping new members with a veto, while also expanding the number of rotating members from 15 to 24. But this plan would, in effect, create a three-tiered Security Council, making it increasingly unwieldy. A plan floated by then-secretary general Kofi Annan called for expanding the P5 to the P7 (or P8), but again this would create an even more confusing body and make consensus-building more difficult, since any permanent member could effectively block a resolution.

In recent years, there has been a push by human rights advocates Ariela Blatter and Paul D. Williams to create a code of conduct, much like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, whereby P5 members agree not to veto resolutions aimed at preventing mass killings or genocides—a Responsibility Not to Veto (RN2V). But this kind of principle would be subjective, vague, and open to interpretation. Moreover, it does not address the underlying structural need for membership and procedural reform. 

The veto is what former ambassador Thomas Pickering calls the “ghost at the picnic.” For any meaningful Council reform to be seriously considered by the permanent members, the veto cannot be removed or replaced. But the plan advocated above does not require the P5 to give up its veto or even alter the ratio of members necessary to block a resolution (one-to-four). Nor would it water down the institution’s effectiveness, given concerns that an expanded Security Council will make consensus nearly impossible. That would certainly be the case if the P5 were enlarged to ten members, each supplied with vetoes. But under the plan outlined above, the balance of power on the Council would not be effected, only the voting rules. Admittedly, under this plan’s rules, the resolution against Syria would still not have passed. But at least it would have required greater coalition building and helped prevent any one member from unilaterally obstructing a resolution in the future.

To those who say the plan would be dead on arrival in the P5 or U.S. Congress, upon closer examination and given the other alternatives, it is the most viable option. It does not remove the veto but gives a greater voice to developing states, which in turn will endow its resolutions with more legal and moral authority. More importantly, this reform plan would make it more difficult for permanent members from unilaterally playing the role of spoiler or obstructionist.

The biggest fear of the United States is that Security Council reform would dilute its power—Washington would be at the mercy of nine veto-wielding members, not four. Security Council reform also smacks up against American exceptionalism. But these fears are overblown.

 First, nearly all of the states shortlisted for Security Council membership are democracies whose interests often align with those of Washington. Of course, occasions will arise when the United States does not get its way, but that is how a deliberative and representative body is supposed to work. Another concern is that the United States would lose its ability to protect Israel from condemnation by Security Council resolutions. Blocking such a resolution would require the United States to form coalitions and convince others to get behind it. But this would, if anything, make the United States feel less isolated while enhancing Israeli security over the long run.

Can such a plan be passed over the objections of Russia or China, both of which will surely try to block Japan or India from joining? I believe it can, because neither will want to be on record as blocking reform efforts. So long as their veto power is not threatened, this plan is more palatable than others that have been tabled. The reconfiguration of power may also align with their interests, since they would no longer face the bloc of the United States, Britain, and France and may find more common cause with partners like South Africa or Brazil. Moreover, the expanded P5 would become less Eurocentric. Neither India nor Japan alone could alone block a resolution to China’s liking, which would remove the threat of Beijing being encircled by its enemies.

Many believe reforming the Security Council would be next to impossible, given the P5’s unwillingness to give up their exclusive privileges namely, the veto—and not to mention the cumbersome amendment process. The concern is that stirring the hornet’s nest, as it were, might fracture diplomatic partnerships and harm peace efforts. But this kind of defeatist position neglects the fact that the window for reform is rapidly shrinking as the developing world turns its attention to other frameworks.

Driven both by America’s faltering economy and the belief that Washington cannot be all places at once and is overextended abroad, the orientation of the United States is shifting from its post-9/11 position of pro-democratic idealism, counterterrorism, and overzealous nation-building to one of retrenchment and realism. The U.S. should seek a strengthened UN Security Council, because collective challenges require greater collective action. Contrary to claims that multilateral institutions like the UN are incompatible with American realpolitik, a stronger UN will enable the United States to manage strife around the world more cost-effectively, while sharing the burden and minimizing pressure on Washington to respond to every crisis. An example was the use of a Security Council resolution to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. In an increasingly multipolar world, rising powers will seek to challenge U.S. influence and hegemony. That does not necessitate conflict, as some power transition theorists suggest, but it does require greater compromise and pragmatism. If the U.S. does not want to be the world’s policeman, then part of the new reality is ceding some of its authority to the UN. Hence, Washington should push for reform sooner rather than later, while it can still negotiate from a position of strength.

 Already the lack of leadership and representativeness by the Security Council has resulted in greater powers bestowed on groups like the G20. The body, which comprises the world’s fastest growing economies and accounts for more than 85 percent of the world’s GDP (and 65 percent of its population), was very involved in dealing with the fallout from the 2008-09 global recession. But the G20 remains an informal group invested with no legal authority, no peacekeeping missions, and no secretariat. Its members remain deeply divided on not just matters of international financial issues, but also on security issues. For matters of war and peace, institutions like the G20 cannot fill the gap left by a weak Security Council. It has no peacekeeping capabilities or enforcement mechanism for upholding international law.

The Security Council should expand its permanent membership to be more inclusive and reflective of today’s realities. But any plan that discards the veto rights of its P5 will not be taken seriously. By expanding the Council’s so-called P5 to ten members and requiring two vetoes instead of one, the plan preserves the body’s balance of power without watering down its effectiveness. It also enhances the institution’s legitimacy without losing the veto. A more representative Security Council will mean a safer world for all UN members.

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Lionel Beehner is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, former senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, and PhD student in political science at Yale University.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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Anonymous's picture
Instead of expanding the


Instead of expanding the number of veto-wielding members, a more realistic proposal for India, Germany, and Japan is to seek their own global institutions outside of the United Nations which is dominated by Anglo-Saxon interests. They have a choice to leave you know. They do however, have no choice in determining the make-up of the UNSC; they can either accept it or leave to form their own rival global institutions.

Anonymous's picture
UNSC Reform: An Imperative Need


This is the most substantive analysis on why reform is required at the UN Security Council that I have come across so far. I am in complete agreement with the proposal that the author has mooted. The reasons have also been convincingly argued. It is unacceptable that a global body today consists of countries that were victors in the World War II more than a half a century ago. Global reality has changed significantly since. The UNSC is fast losing its credibility as the representative of global voice and custodian of world peace thanks to the intransigence of its permanent members to initiate reforms by opening the door to rising powers and giving them an equal share of the powers that they enjoy. A more representative UNSC will ensure that global interest prevail over that of member countries and prevent narrow regionalism from coming into play while broad policy measures with wider ramifications are decided at the horse-shoe table.
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