Intransigent powers: reforming the United Nations Security Council



Speaking at a conference in Nairobi on Saturday 27 August, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged his country’s support for Africa to have a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. His pledge matched a 2013 African Union vision document titled Agenda 2063 that called for reform to the UN organ charged with maintaining international peace and security. This is not the first time the composition of the Security Council has been challenged; Japan itself seeks a permanent seat on the UN’s most powerful body. However, campaigning for Security Council reform is a daunting task and one unlikely to succeed.

The Security Council currently has five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The ‘P5’ represent the five great powers that emerged as victors from the Second World War, which was the catalyst for the establishment of the UN. Article 27 of the UN Charter, its founding document, requires all five members to ‘concur’ on non-procedural Security Council decisions for the resolution to pass, effectively providing each permanent member with a veto. It is this veto power that causes many non-permanent members, particularly in Africa, to accuse the P5 of being undemocratic and self-interested, and to call for reform.

There are limited precedents for changing members of the Security Council. The Nationalist-led Republic of China (ROC) initially held a permanent Security Council seat. However, the Nationalists were defeated in a civil war in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party and they fled to the island of Taiwan. Although they no longer controlled the mainland, the ROC continued to represent China on the Security Council until 1971, when the UN recognised the Communist-led People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government and it replaced the ROC. Similarly, the Soviet Union held a permanent Security Council seat until its collapse. Of the fifteen republics to emerge from the aftermath, Russia was recognised as the principle successor state and it replaced the defunct Soviet Union on the Security Council.

Though these precedents exist, they occurred in response to unusual circumstances and the UN Charter contains no official procedure for changing the P5. The only way to add or remove a permanent member is to amend the Charter itself. However, the procedure for amending the Charter requires the consent and ratification of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly and all of the P5. Consequently, to remove a P5 member, the nominated member would have to consent to its own removal from the Security Council. This is unlikely to ever occur.

The same difficulties exist for admitting additional members to the Security Council. Several states claim the right to a permanent position owing to their influence in modern international politics, including Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, all of which support each other’s bids. Yet they face opposition from the P5; Japan in particular is thwarted by veto-wielding China with which it has historic and contemporary disputes. Abe’s promotion of a permanent African seat would likely encounter similar obstruction from the P5.

Beyond the difficulty of adding new members are practical concerns. The P5 already struggle to reach consensus on important resolutions because they often support opposing sides in the international security situations they’re meant to police. The Middle East provides clear examples, with the US vetoing resolutions condemning Israel's settlement activity and Russia shielding Syria’s Assad regime from referral to the international criminal court. Installing more members that exercise vetoes would further raise the transaction costs in the Security Council and undermine its purpose.

Abe’s pledge to support an ‘African’ permanent seat on the Security Council also raises questions about representation. He did not specify which state Japan might back to represent Africa’s 54 diverse sovereign nations. Any single state could act in its own interests rather than for the region. An African Union seat could negate this problem; it might even set a standard for replacing the permanent members with regional blocs, such as substituting France and the UK for an EU seat. Yet it would be difficult to implement in other regions, particularly Asia, as China, India and Japan would be unlikely to cede leadership to either of the others.

The UN is deadlocked. Non-permanent members of the Security Council can demand reform, citing the self-interested behaviour of the P5, yet enacting reform requires the P5 to act selflessly and surrender their positions. Adding more permanent members would only further complicate the situation, increasing the Security Council’s transaction costs and raising questions about representation. The only way around this situation is establishing a ‘new’ UN with clear rules for dealing with great powers—but doing so would require more effort than pressing for reform. Ultimately, this means Prime Minister Abe can champion a permanent African seat all he likes, but his support is an empty gesture.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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