After 43 Years of Negotiations, Security Council Reforms Move at the Pace of a Paralytic Snail

The UN Security Council. Credit: United Nations
  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

“It has been 17 years since world leaders expressed their support for the so-called “early reform” of the Council, calling it an essential element of the overall effort to reform the United Nations”.

“And it has been 13 years since the General Assembly launched an intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) process”, he added.

But a lingering question remains?

Will reforms be ever achieved in the lifespan of the United Nations, which has made significant contributions as a humanitarian relief organization but remains deadlocked as a political body, outliving its usefulness?

After more than four decades, the reform process has been at a virtual standstill --or perhaps moving at the combined pace of a paralytic snail and a limping tortoise.

Pointing out the deadlock, K?rös said there are groups of Member States who are very much for the expansion of the permanent and non-permanent membership. There are others who favour expansion only—of non-permanent memberships.

And then, there are countries that favour the preservation of existing veto rights, while others would like to abolish all veto rights.

There are also countries supporting the expansion of non-permanent memberships with similar veto rights or reformed veto rights compared with the one today, he pointed out.

“It would be intellectually very easy to suggest a solution but it’s not my role. I cannot step out of my role, So, it will be the responsibility of Member States to iron out a compromise”

“As we stand, compromises are not on the horizon,” he declared.

Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics, University of San Francisco, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council, told IPS given that the veto-wielding members of the Security Council have a strong stake in maintaining the status quo, it is hard to imagine that these latest efforts at reform will be any more successful than previous attempts.

This can only hurt the credibility of the United Nations, whose enforcement mechanisms will continue to be trapped in a 1945 worldview, he noted.

“It was the Soviets who primarily abused their veto power during the first quarter century of the United Nations. During the next four decades, it was the United States which emerged most frequently as the lone dissenting vote blocking scores of otherwise unanimous Security Council resolutions”.

During the past decade, he pointed out, it has been Putin’s Russia which has emerged as the greatest obstacle to unity.

In almost every case, the negative consequences of vetoes by Washington and Moscow have most seriously impacted not each other, but peoples of the Global South.

“It is a travesty that while only 16% of the world’s population is white, 80% of the permanent seats in the Security Council are held by majority white countries,” said Zunes.

Currently, the 15-member Security Council is composed of five permanent members (P5)– the US, UK, Russia China and France, armed with veto powers, along with 10 non-permanent members, without veto powers, elected for two years, on the basis of geographical rotation.

Meanwhile, the contenders for permanent seats include India, Japan, Germany and Brazil-- with or without vetoes.

Africa seeks two seats, and the countries staking their claims include Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt. But the 55-member African Union is now seeking a seat of its own. Last week, Algeria made a case for a permanent seat on behalf of North Africa.

The reform process known as Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN), that began in 2009, is co-chaired by Permanent Representatives Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani of Qatar and Martin Bille Hermann of Denmark.

David M. Malone, Rector of the United Nations University and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, told IPS: “I fear Security Council reform involving permanent seats-- rather than working methods, and perhaps some variations on elected seats, with some of these perhaps becoming semi-permanent with or without vetoes-- is likely to be blocked for as long as the UN is around, not least precisely because the world has changed so much that each of the P-5, with the possible exception of China, has something to lose, if even modest reform on composition occurs”.

Adding more vetoes is likely to make the Council even less effective than it is now, and likely slower, he pointed out.

“The reason I put my comment this way is that each of the P-5 has its own reasons for not wanting further competition in terms of power within the Council”, he said.

France may fear the emergence of the idea of an European Union (EU) seat, if the debate gets serious. For the UK, more permanent seats would simply devalue its own, which is a rare jewel (at least in terms of self-image) in the crown after BREXIT.

The US already finds it very hard to get its own way, said Malone, a former Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations.

Nobody wants more Russias, particularly at the moment. And China, while formally supporting more permanent seats for countries of the Global South has, noticeably, done nothing concrete to help make this happen.

“The circumstances generating a new multilateral dispensation representing the global community in the sphere of security are likely to arise only after a global catastrophe, just like the UN’s creation was an outcome of World War II”.

And who really wants another World War II type disruption of the current global order, even recognizing the gross equity deficit in the Security Council’s current disposition? he asked.

“As I’ve observed (and, for my country, at times, on and off played a role relative to) the Council for slightly more than thirty years, I’ve come to think of the Security Council reform issue (as it pertains to composition, rather than to, say, working methods) as a parlour game greatly enjoyed by delegates and observers of the UN.”

They so enjoy it because they know the score is bound to be a nil-one in the final reel.

So, the debate is gratis and gratuitous, however good the intentions of a number of delegations may be, said Malone author of The UN Security Council in the 21st Century (as co-editor; 2015, Lynne Rienner Publishers) and the second edition of Law and Practice of the United Nations (co-authored graduate textbook; 2016; Oxford University Press).

Martin S. Edwards, Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, told IPS since President Biden opened the door on this, it makes every bit of sense to rise to the moment.

“But it also means that the window here is narrow, as he will soon have to focus on reelection. And we know that the UN is not going to be a focus in a Republican administration. So, the time for serious dealing is now.”

Recognizing US domestic constraints is important for a second reason as well. What many do not understand is that for the P5, these proposals require ratification, he said.

For the US, that’s a 2/3 vote in a polarized Senate. It is difficult for me to imagine circumstances that would cause Republican Senators to give President Biden a win. And delay on the part of countries will again cause that window to close, Edwards noted.

Many countries are seeking the perfect at the expense of the good. For example, if the issue is representation, then is pursuing a veto really needed?

“Countries have spent several years trying to delegitimize the veto, so it makes little sense to ask for it. Rhetorically, no one wants to propose anything less, and this also makes it difficult to find a deal: you either have a veto or you don’t”.

Some of these proposals are clearly self-serving, said Edwards.

By itself that’s not a bad thing, but since the goal of the African countries was to develop a common negotiating position – the Ezulwini Consensus – it would be a shame for African countries to try to break it.

“To me, there are two questions about that consensus, which is two permanent seats and two elected seats for Africa. Can Africa live with less? And then what does the rest of the SC look like?”

The P5 countries were accorded veto power because of their status as both great powers and the victors in World War II. They continue to exercise that power even though they do not represent the changing global demographic composition or realities of current geopolitical power.

Moreover, whereas the Council was bestowed with the powers to maintain peace and international security with enforceable mechanisms, it has generally failed to reach consensus on enforcing some of its own resolutions, declared Edwards.

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