The puzzle of reforming the UN

Zachary Barker - Writer

(Be aware, this article contains some strong language, which some may deem inappropriate)

To me, the political issue of reforming the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) exemplifies many typical political problems.  Almost everyone sees reform as an issue that needs to be addressed but not exactly how it should be.  The story of the history of politics if ever there was one.  As one of the six principal organs of the UN, the United Nations Security Council maintains symbolic, as well as very real political importance.  It remains the only UN organ able to both authorise military force as well as sanctions.

Since the first meeting of the UNSC on 17th January 1946, the UNSC has acted as an executive committee analysing and reacting to new and continuous crises.  Reflecting the power realities at the time of the end of the Second World War the five permanent seats (the P5) were assigned to the main victors of that war: the United Kingdom, United States, France, the Soviet Union (later Russian Federation) and China.  Eventually the council was expanded to include non-permanent members which since 1965 has been expanded to 10 such members.  The non-permanent members are elected in for two year terms every January by the General Assembly.  To try and keep some semblance of fair representation these 10 seats have been allocated by regions in the following way; 3 seats for Africa, 2 seats for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2 seats for Asia-Pacific, 1 for Eastern Europe and the rest go to Western Europe and others.  On alternative years the African or Asia-Pacific group leaves one of their seats vacant for an Arab power.

So what is the problem?  The main problem is that the world is changing and it is becoming ever harder to justify a council that enshrines the power realities of a war won 70 years ago.  The UK and France have since shed themselves of their empires, bar a few small territories, although they still maintain some of the highest defence budgets in the world and possess nuclear arsenals.  While Russia has one of the largest land masses in the world in addition to a large nuclear arsenal it’s dominant position in the UNSC is also being questioned.  Arguably only the United States and the People’s Republic of China truly reflect two of the most unquestioningly influential powers in the world, although many would argue the United States is on a downwards power trajectory (prematurely this author would argue).  In addition to reforming permanent and non-permanent member representation, one of the main sticking points remains the veto.
While resolutions are ordinarily passed via a majority vote on the UNSC the P5 member retain veto rights.  This allows any of the P5 members to scrap a resolution during a vote even if there is an overwhelming majority in favour of it.  But the veto does not just cover resolutions.  The P5 retain a veto over UN Charter amendments, UN Secretary General nominations and even the membership of individual countries.  While nominally the P5 are supposed to use this special privilege to help them maintain peace and stability, inevitably they have used it for reasons of political self-interest.  The UK and France have respectively used the veto to kill resolutions addressing issues to do with their former colonial possessions.  The United States has consistently protected Israel against most criticism.  Russia has very recently scrapped resolutions addressing the crises in Syria and Ukraine.  China for its part much like Russia shows an aversion to any military intervention it deems as unnecessary.  The net result all too often can be inaction on pressing issues.  It may not surprise readers to know that the P5 are not exactly enthusiastic about cutting their own substantial powers. France has recently come up with the idea of P5 countries voluntarily wavering their right to a veto in the case of addressing a human rights atrocity.  While this is probably the least likely idea to be vetoed it is arguably also one of the most potentially useless.  This was demonstrated during the UNSC’s debates about the Rwandan Genocide where France among other countries refused to even recognise the incident as a genocide.  The ulterior motives of P5 members means that a real human rights atrocity can be dismissed as an overzealous police action or at most an exaggerated incident.

So who are the potential new permanent members of the UNSC?  The most obvious candidates are represented in the group called the G4 comprising of Germany, Brazil, India and Japan.  Germany is one of the world’s largest economic powers and is very influential diplomatically.  The only real roadblock is that there are already two European countries in the P5, and that doesn’t include the representation already among the non-permanent members.  Brazil is a recognised rising power and also a big contributor to UN peacekeeping forces.  The problem with bringing Brazil in is that their permanent membership is opposed by Argentina, which is a part of the influential Uniting for Consensus group.  India is a very influential military, cultural and economic power who also contributes much to UN peacekeeping forces.  However somewhat unsurprisingly it’s promotion is objected to by it’s regional adversary Pakistan.  Japan is one of the greatest powers in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition it is one of the largest contributors in terms of international development.  However due to the current South China Sea islands dispute as well as recriminations over WWII, China is vehemently against the elevation of Japan to permanent status.  As important as considering these candidates is also taking into account Africa’s claim.  In addition to over 10 of the worlds’ fastest growing economies being located in Africa, it is also true that much of the UNSC’s work is preoccupied with Africa.  Africa’s vast population is also a powerful argument for their greater representation.

One of my hobbies is getting involved with Model United Nations (MUN) during sessions of which, I have often debated this topic.  From experience we are inclined to believe that pushing for greater non-permanent membership representation is likely the most easily achievable piece of reform. As for the permanent members, Germany may be allowed on at a push, since they are widely respected.  India could also be elevated after some hard headed diplomacy.  No doubt Pakistan will be upset at India’s promotion but far more countries support this move than object to it.  A rotating African permanent seat may be achievable.  The African Union could have responsibility for selecting candidates each year, with the one condition that they are not sanctioned countries (eg. Zimbabwe).  As for the veto, it is not going away simply because the P5 do not wish it to.  The P5 are shameless in defending their substantial power.  Once when I was taking on the role of France in an MUN debate, a non-permanent delegate asked them what they bring to the world.  “Blowjobs and democracy” was the answer of the French delegate. While the veto is not going away a simple and easy reform would be for all of it’s wielders to be obliged to give a written reason for using it.  Those P5 that sniff at this request could always write  “no comment”.

Image credits: Number 10|Flickr.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles
Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol's Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1
  • Hi Rachel. I would agree with you. But I am pretty sure the P5 would veto that idea too. Furthermore this would in all likelihood completely paralyse the UNSC from further action. Given the inaction over many major issues already, this would hardly be an improvement. Plus there is always a chance that a tinpot dictatorship like Zimbabwe may get one of the news permanent seats.

  • Rachel

    We should just make every country a permanent member and see how that goes ;)