United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City
While the focus of the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City largely centered on the body’s new Sustainable Development Goals, a less publicized ‒ but equally important ‒ topic of discussion was the need to reform the UN Security Council. Representatives from all continents raised concerns about the legitimacy of the Council in the modern, post-Cold War era, focusing in particular on the restriction of permanent membership to five nations and the veto power they hold over all Security Council decisions.
Several nations have criticized the veto power among the five permanent Security Council members – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia – as an impediment to urgent decision making, most recently highlighted by the Council’s inability to agree on concerted action in the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Ukraine – both due to vetoes from Russia, with backing from China on the Syrian issue. Ukraine has even called for Russia to be stripped of its veto power for repeatedly blocking intervention against pro-Russian separatists. The US, for its part, has warned Russia of the dangers of abusing the veto, despite the fact that the US has used its veto 14 times since 1991 – almost always to protect Israel from international intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‒ as compared to Russia’s 13 since it took over the USSR’s seat on the Council.
As of Wednesday, some 75 member states had put their support behind a French proposal to restrict the use of the veto “in cases of mass atrocities and genocide” ‒ a proposal largely motivated by the stalemate in Syria. But how far can such proposals go in reforming the Council so that it accurately represents the modern geopolitical landscape?
While cases of mass violence and genocide are of course cause for concern, they have arguably become secondary to the national and regional interests of the Council’s permanent members. Russia, for instance, has defended its supposedly abusive use of the veto, pointing to NATO-led military action in Libya, authorized by the Security Council, as an example of the national and regional interests of the US and Europe driving intervention to go further than protecting Libyan civilians, resulting in the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi. The concern for fair international representation on the Council has led other nations to call for an expansion of the number of permanent members on the SC. Leaders from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent have been among those who have called for a restructuring of the Security Council to reflect the change in international relations since 1946 (the permanent members having not changed since the Council’s formation).
Leading claimants to permanent membership include the rest of the BRICS coalition besides Russia and China – namely Brazil, India, and South Africa – as well as Japan and Germany. These bids demonstrate the shifting centres of power in the modern, globalised age: while Germany and Japan are established members of the ‘developed’ sector of world affairs, countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa represent growing centres of political and economic influence on the previously disenfranchised continents of South America, Asia, and Africa, respectively. Though Germany and Japan have received modest expressions of support from arguably the most important member of the Security Council, the US, it is highly unlikely that the US would truly support a bid to expand the permanent membership of the SC. The world power would more likely opt for expanded power of the Council’s non-permanent membership or even the creation of “semi-permanent members” holding terms of 4 to 5 years, rather than the current 2 years afforded to non-permanent members.
In fact, it is very much unclear as to which of these rising powers would have a serious chance at a permanent seat on the Security Council: Japan’s candidacy is effectively cancelled out by adamant opposition from China due to the two nations’ long history of conflict, and South Africa is an outlier in the group, the other candidates belonging to a group called the G4 (or Group of Four) that support each other’s bids for permanent seats. South Africa’s exclusion, however, would mean the exclusion of permanent representation of the African continent, thus only marginalising the continent further in world affairs. The matter of Middle Eastern representation is yet another issue to be contended with, particularly given how situations such as the Syrian crisis are among the Council’s most pressing issues. Instances such as Indonesia calling for representation of the world’s Muslim population on the Council provide further problems for the SC to contend with, since this would add the aspect of religious interests to the current focus on national and regional interests. If a country can claim a permanent seat on the Security Council in the name of one of the world’s largest religions, this could set precedent for other largely religious nations to make similar claims.
In the long run, change in the set-up of the Security Council is inevitable. The General Assembly has already made a consensus decision to reform the Council, a landmark move in the UN’s history. The only question is when and how this reform will happen. It would be to the benefit of countries such as the US for it to come sooner rather than later, so as to make use of their current position of power in world affairs, dwindling as it is in the face of rising competitors. While the creation of an initiative such as the “semi-permanent members” idea would keep both the current permanent members and the rest of the General Assembly at least relatively pleased, true progress is unlikely to be made until the veto power is distributed more fairly and evenly among international actors. This even and fair distribution must occur by means of inclusion of nations from each geopolitical region ‒ a complicated task, to be sure, particularly with continents such as Africa and Asia, which are so large and diverse that inclusion of multiple nations would be required to accurately portray regional interests. There is also the issue of efficacy: the larger the Council becomes, the harder it may be for it to act decisively, particularly if the veto power is continued as a practice among permanent members.
These are only a few of the questions that will need to be answered once reforms are made, but for now one thing is certain: almost 70 years after the Security Council first convened with the same five permanent members, it seems the time has come for progress to finally be made.