Is Reforming the Security Council Possible?

Security Council Reform
A chart representing the Security Council seats held by each of the United Nations Regional Groups. The United States, a WEOG observer, is treated as if it were a full member. This is not how the seats are arranged in actual meetings of the Council. African Group (Blue) Asia-Pacific Group (Green) Eastern European Group (Red) Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC) (Pink) Western European and Others Group (WEOG) (Yellow)

An important characteristic of the United Nations is its ability to adapt to meet the needs of a changing world. As the world faces new challenges and states  strive to meet new demands, the United Nation provides fora for discussion, logistic support and expertise to the global community. The United Nations works hard to maintain its relevance and respond to the needs and wants of its Member States. But change isn’t always easy, and not everything that is popular among the many translates to action by the United Nations. This week, we’ll be exploring one such case as we discuss Security Council reform.

As we’ve covered in previous posts (Meet the Security Council and Understanding the Security Council Veto), the Security Council deals with matters of international peace and security. It has 15 members, composed of five Permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and 10 non-permanent members, who serve two-year terms. In addition to their permanent membership, the P5 hold veto power, meaning they must concur on all substantive issues. If even one of the five votes no, the motion fails. These special benefits were conferred on these five countries in the UN Charter and many argue that these provisions increased the likelihood of the new organization’s success by ensuring the world’s most powerful actors in the wake of the Second World War would participate and be committed to the United Nations.

The Security Council is a body with unparalleled power in the United Nations. All of its decisions are binding; all Member States must agree to abide by the Council’s resolutions. Given this importance and its limited size, the Security Council has often been a target for reform efforts. Unsurprisingly, most reform efforts have targeted two aspects: membership and veto power.

The nature of the Council and its need to act quickly lends itself to a limited membership; a smaller body is more likely to reach consensus faster. But because the Council’s decisions are binding, it is also important that all Member States believe their voices have been heard. To this end, the rotating Council seats are distributed to ensure roughly-equitable geographic distribution. Even so, this means each area of the world may have only one or two Member States on the Council. As the number of Member States to the United Nations has grown, there have also been been calls to expand Security Council membership and add more representation. Historically, these calls have seen some success. The original Council was only composed of 11 members, 5 permanent and 6 non-permanent, but, as more states gained independence post-WWII and UN membership expanded, Member States called for a reassessment of the Council’s size. In 1965 the Council added four more non-permanent representatives to reach its current size of 15. More recent calls for increased representation have not been as successful. In 2005 the Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed expansion to 24 members under his Larger Freedom plan. And in 2011, a group of countries banded together under a Uniting for Consensus proposal that called for raising the number of non-permanent members to 20.   

There have also been calls to add more permanent members to the Council. Current P5 composition is based on the most politically relevant states at the time the United Nations was founded. The world has changed a lot since 1945, and other countries have grown to become global political and economic leaders. If the United Nations structure were to evolve with the global community, the “P5” might look quite different today. Some have suggested that more recent global leaders such as India, Brazil, Japan or Germany should be granted a permanent seat on the Security Council. There have also been calls to appoint a African country to permanent status. What permanent membership for these states would look like has been a point of contention. Few favor expanding the number of states with veto power. Some proposals, such as Annan’s plan, have suggested creating a new level of membership on the Council, one that has permanent status but does not hold veto power.

In addition to membership reform, there have also been calls for veto power reform. It is easy to understand how the veto can be frustrating to Member States. In highly tense, political circumstances, the P5 countries may wield their veto power as leverage, threatening to veto action in the Security Council for political reasons, elevating domestic or internal concerns over a broader sense of international peace and security. Proposals for reform include eliminating the veto entirely, limiting when it can be used or requiring approval from other countries for its use.

Many of these reform ideas have merit and strong support in the international community, so why is making them a reality so difficult? The key difficulty in establishing any of these reforms is the mechanism for change. The rules of Security Council membership are written in the United Nations Charter (Chapter 5 Article 23), and any change to membership or the membership rules requires an amendment to the Charter. However, the rules for amending the charter grant the P5 veto power over any proposed amendments, meaning all of the P5 would have to agree to any changes regarding Council membership or veto power. When it comes to veto power reform or granting veto power to more Member States, getting unanimous P5 agreement is something that is unlikely to happen. That isn’t to say reform is impossible, but achieving reform takes a great deal of effort. As the United Nations rises to meet new challenges, Member States will continue to strive for change to keep the Council relevant and in line with the evolving global power structure.


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