Over the past two decades, there have been repeated calls for reform of the United Nations Security Council, whose composition and function have often been described as out of touch with contemporary political realities and unfairly dominated by its five permanent members. There have been repeated calls for the P-5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to agree to enlargement, to give the power of veto over resolutions to other states, or provide for new permanent members without the veto. Most recently, a French proposal called for the P-5 to pre-commit not to exercise their veto in situations before the Council involving genocide, mass atrocities, or war crimes.
The Semi-Hidden Trade-Off
There is an inherent tension between the calls for a more representative Council and for it to demonstrate more effective and timely responsibility. Proponents of enlargement argue that adding six to 10 new permanent and elected members will itself dilute the influence of the P-5 and make the Council’s decisions more acceptable to the vast majority of member states. Conversely, external critics such as Columbia University Professor Edward Luck argue that enlargement will only dilute the effectiveness and timeliness of Council decision-making—i.e. that it will prove far harder to get 21-24 member states to expeditiously agree on a clear course of action than it is for the current 15. Enlargement, in this argument, would also lead to more sub-groups competing with each other behind the scenes for control of the Council agenda.
Underneath these arguments is the reality that in most instances the Council works reasonably well and rapidly when the P-5 are in agreement with each other (the overwhelming majority of Council resolutions are adopted by consensus). It only reaches gridlock when members disagree with each other, as in the case of intervening in the Syria crisis.
Council Dynamics in the Post-Cold War Era
The drumbeat for concessions and enlargement has been unceasing since 1994-95, when, in the eyes of many, the inability of the Council to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia exposed the limitations of what US President George HW Bush in 1990 hailed as a new post-Cold War liberal order. To date, UN member states have proven unable to agree on an acceptable basis for reform, so the P-5 have been spared the need to make any adjustment either on the issue of Council size or their special prerogatives.
Critics contend that the concentration of so much power in so few countries leads to resolutions unrepresentative of the bulk of the world’s population or, at times, gridlock and inaction. Criticism of the Western dominance of the Council also arises from the reality that most proposed resolutions are drafted by one of the permanent members—either the US, France, or the UK (often referred to as the P-3)—although this is not a statutory matter. At present, texts are negotiated well in advance in semi-secrecy among this small group, before being presented to Council members in open sessions. The P-3’s collective knowledge and diplomatic base far outweighs the capacities of most other member states, giving them a unique and dominating control of the Council’s agenda and decisions.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have at times frustrated consensus by employing the veto on resolutions that propose intervention. On the Syria question, for example, Putin has been steadfast in protecting the Assad regime from efforts to remove it either militarily or diplomatically. A decade ago, under President George W Bush, the US also famously exposed what was seen as the powerlessness of a divided Council when it proceeded with the invasion of Iraq without international approval. The outcome of widespread regional instability has proven the folly of that policy.
Africa Demands Permanent Representation
The African Union, which represents 53 of the 54 African member states in the UN—most of whom were under colonial rule in 1945 when the world body was created—are the most vociferous in demanding major reform of Council membership and decisions. The AU’s Ezulwini Consensus of 2005 calls for African states to have not less than two permanent seats, with the veto. Ahead of the AU Summit in January this year, a senior Kenyan official expressed the common view that Africa’s under-representation on the Council was “discriminatory, unfair and unjust.”
It should be noted that the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), despite ostensibly being more representative and having no permanent members or veto, is itself often hamstrung by political realities. These include persistent difficulties in establishing the African Standby Force that would help to enforce its resolutions and a reluctance by many of the continent’s leaders to commit to possibly precedent-setting interventions. These problems were both exposed in the recent case of the PSC’s aborted attempts to send a “protection and prevention” mission into Burundi to help quell electoral-related violence.
Limited enlargement of the UN Security Council that gives more representation to African countries would partly respond to AU demands, although it is very unlikely that any new member states would be given veto power. Also, enlargement would not necessarily guarantee the promotion of democratic aims at a time when leaders in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Burundi, and Uganda have altered, or sought to alter, their constitutions to provide extended presidential terms, thereby establishing de facto non-democratic regimes in violation of commitments in the AU Constitutive Act.
In any event, wary of the need to obtain P-5 support for their bids, candidates to become the next Secretary-General view the Council reform issue as anathema, and have studiously avoided making public commitments to any of these proposals or formula on offer.
Are Matters as Bad as Critics Say?
Notwithstanding the recurrent criticism regarding membership and procedures, several realities create a quite different narrative, namely that the Council has continued to be one of the central pillars of the international system since the end of the Cold War. Even with the many anachronisms and failures attributed to it, major decisions involving global peace and security are regularly put before its members. US respect for the Council has been largely rehabilitated under the presidency of Barack Obama, suggesting that the regime characteristics of Council members might matter more than structure.
Post-Cold War criticism of the Council also ignores the fact that the pre-1990s power struggles between the US and Soviet Union, and those countries in their respective spheres of influence, had a similarly, if not more pronounced, paralyzing effect on decision-making. Persistent criticisms of the ineffectiveness of the Council, and the UN more generally, also fails to take account of the common, statistically verifiable observation that the present is among the most peaceful periods in human history—even as the intensity of recent conflicts seems to threaten this record. Furthermore, the evolution of the Council in the post-Cold War era has seen it take on more expansive role in seeking peace, which is evident in the growth of resolutions approving peacekeeping missions, the imposition of sanctions, and more normative projects such as the landmark Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, in 2000.
The Security Council: Where the Action Is
Given these realities, there is no shortage of member states lining up to join the Security Council, even as they and others criticize it as an ineffective platform for representing their interests. Kenya, for example, is one of two African countries currently bidding to serve on the Council from next year. This is despite its disappointment with past Council actions, including its failure to delay International Criminal Court proceedings against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
In fact, countries often actively vie to serve as rotating members on the Council five to 10 years ahead of time. Due to the fact that seats are allocated on a regional basis and any member state must first receive the endorsement from its grouping, they also often compete among themselves. This year, for example, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden are all vying for the two seats allocated to the European group.
Notably, 128 states, excluding the P-5, have been on the Council for one or more two-year terms. Those which have done so most frequently include Japan (11 times), Brazil (10) Argentina (8), Pakistan (7), India (7), and Colombia (7). In contrast, just 68 UN members have never sought Council membership. These are mostly small states—predominantly small island nations—a handful of perennially dysfunctional countries such as North Korea, and former Soviet republics. Among this latter category, Kazakhstan is now actively campaigning for a seat, indicating that it represents a desirable reentry point into the international order.
The long-term planning involved in bids to join the Council is also striking. Estonia began preparing its application in 2012 to join the Council in 2019. Canada, under its new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is hoping to rejoin in 2021, having lost its bid in 2010, while Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop outlined in 2015 a plan to join the Council in 2029. This was not long after the end of its 2013-14 term and was criticized as too far off by the parliamentary opposition.
Saudi Arabia has been the only country to decline membership after being elected, citing—perhaps disingenuously in light of current actions in Yemen and elsewhere—its “historical responsibilities towards its people, Arab and Islamic nations as well as towards the peoples aspiring to peace and stability all over the world,” and the Council’s supposed failure to do the same. Despite the persistent criticisms from Africa and elsewhere, no larger cohesive boycott movement has developed to seek meaningful change.
The underlying reality is that the Security Council is where the action is. Most major international decisions on peace and security sooner or later come before it. The Council has the juridical and political power to take decisions under Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter, involving a wide range of multilateral options to address actual or potential conflict. These range from mediation and sanctions to the deployment of special political missions and peace operations. Despite its limitations, it seems virtually certain that the Security Council will remain the primary body charged with the maintenance of international peace and security for years to come. With or without reform, the line of applicants for election to two-year terms will remain long.