How to reform the United Nations Security Council

#ItsYourUN > Meinung und Kommentar > How to reform the United Nations Security Council

A gra­du­al chan­ge, taking place i.a. through intro­du­cing semi-per­ma­nent mem­bership and a code of con­duct for the veto, could be a pos­si­ble solu­ti­on for reforming the United Nati­ons Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil. This is the con­clu­si­on by our guest wri­ter Anna Bre­mer, who in her Master’s The­sis, sub­mit­ted wit­hin the Master’s Pro­gram for Futures Stu­dies at the Freie Uni­ver­si­tät Ber­lin, high­lights cer­tain aspec­ts of UNSC reform, such as exer­ci­se of power and obsta­cles to poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­on. Having ana­ly­zed pre­vious UNSC reform attempts, she has iden­ti­fied key issu­es that need to be app­lied for a future reform pro­po­sal that has a pos­si­bi­li­ty of suc­cee­ding and that could enab­le the coun­cil to move bey­ond cur­rent blo­cka­ges.

The­re is con­sen­sus that the United Nati­ons Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil is cur­r­ent­ly not only grid­lo­cked in a num­ber of issu­es, but also facing a gene­ral cri­sis regar­ding its future rele­van­ce. Chan­ges in the inter­na­tio­nal order, inclu­ding chan­ges in the glo­bal balan­ce of power and the rise of emer­ging powers, have lead to grea­ter demands for reforming the UNSC.

Sin­ce now more than half a cen­tu­ry has pas­sed sin­ce the foun­da­ti­on of the insti­tu­ti­on, the­re is  widespread accordance that a cor­ner­stone in reaching this rep­re­sen­ta­tiveness is expan­ding the coun­cil. Howe­ver, how such an expan­si­on is to be desi­gned is one of the most pro­ble­ma­tic issu­es for a UNSC reform. To date the­re is litt­le con­sen­sus on what actors shall be gran­ted what kind of mem­bership (and – in exten­si­on – what rights). In addi­ti­on, the con­sent of the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the coun­cil, the P5, is cru­ci­al in order for a reform pro­po­sal to pass, sin­ce it requi­res amend­ments to the UN Char­ter.

To this day, the­re has only been one reform of the UNSC: In 1965 the­re was an exten­si­on to inclu­de ten non-per­ma­nent mem­bers ins­tead of six. Sin­ce then, in total six reform pro­po­sals have been put for­ward, none of them having been put to a vote in the Gene­ral Assem­bly.

Change as a gradual process

How is the glo­bal com­mu­ni­ty to pro­ceed with the see­min­gly impos­si­ble task of reforming the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil? A coup­le of sug­gested amend­ments to the UN Char­ter, as well as updates of the Pro­vi­sio­nal Rules of Pro­ce­du­re of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil shall now be dis­cus­sed.

It is qui­te appa­rent that the cur­rent sta­tus of the P5 wit­hin the coun­cil does not spur the wil­ling­ness of chan­ging cur­rent struc­tures. Howe­ver, also a slow pro­cess of dis­sol­ving cur­rent struc­tures may actual­ly acce­le­ra­te chan­ge, as the cur­rent pro­fi­ta­ble situa­ti­on of the P5 is not necessa­ri­ly sta­tic. As pre­vious­ly men­tio­ned, the UNSC needs to adjust to the cur­rent glo­bal poli­ti­cal set­ting, in order to stay legi­ti­ma­te. And as the power­ful sta­tus (i.e. gain) of the P5 beco­mes less cer­tain, the aver­si­on to trans­for­ma­ti­on (i.e. what the­se actors con­si­der a risk) might decrea­se. This is an argu­ment that is dis­cus­sed fur­ther wit­hin i.a. the field of beha­viou­ral eco­no­mics.

A new category of membership

To this topic, intro­du­cing a new cate­go­ry of semi-per­ma­nent seats could lead to a gra­du­al dis­sol­ving of the cur­rent struc­tu­re. It would chan­ge the dyna­mics and decrea­se the power gap that might exist bet­ween per­ma­nent and non-per­ma­nent mem­bers: First and fore­most, it might help bypass the issue of insti­tu­tio­nal memo­ry, which increa­ses this gap fur­ther. The­re­fo­re, a poli­ti­cal for­mu­la for expan­ding the UNSC ins­tead of increa­sing the num­ber of per­ma­nent seats should inclu­de intro­du­cing semi-per­ma­nent seats, of a peri­od of four years, with the pos­si­bi­li­ty of imme­dia­te re-elec­tion. A sug­ges­ti­on would be to intro­du­ce four of the­se; making the total num­ber of UNSC mem­bers 19. This also means the reform might have a grea­ter chan­ce of recei­ving sup­port from per­ma­nent mem­ber US who has oppo­sed an exten­si­ve increa­se of coun­cil mem­bers.

Immediate re-election for non-permanent members

Fur­ther­mo­re, ins­tead of expan­ding the num­ber of non-per­ma­nent seats, the insti­tu­ti­on could give aspi­ring coun­tries the pos­si­bi­li­ty of imme­dia­te re-elec­tion (if agreed on by their respec­tive regio­nal group). This would draw advan­ta­ge from insti­tu­tio­nal memo­ry, and hence, con­tri­bu­te to evening out the power balan­ce wit­hin the UNSC. In addi­ti­on, this might decrea­se even­tu­al regio­nal ten­si­ons con­cer­ning the aspi­ra­ti­on on semi-per­ma­nent seats.

Changes in regional grouping

As part in the stri­ve for a more equal Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, the num­ber of non-per­ma­nent seats to the regi­ons of Asia (the home of 60% of the world’s total popu­la­ti­on) and Afri­ca needs to be increa­sed. A sug­ges­ti­on would be to divi­de the regi­ons into two indi­vi­du­al groups, increa­sing their total num­ber of non-per­ma­nent seats by one. The Eas­tern Euro­pe and Wes­tern Europe/Others group might be mer­ged into one, as sug­gested in the 2004 report A More Secu­re World – Our Sha­red Respon­si­bi­li­ty.

Improved working methods and limitations to the veto power

In order to rep­re­sent a more rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ve, trans­pa­rent and effec­tive coun­cil, a sug­gested model for reforming the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil also needs to encom­pass impro­ving its working methods. First, the­re needs to be a cla­ri­fi­ca­ti­on on what con­sti­tu­tes a so-cal­led pro­ce­du­ral mat­ter; the­se mat­ters only requi­res the affir­ma­ti­ve votes from nine mem­bers of the coun­cil to pass, with an even­tu­al veto being irrele­vant. This is a vital part in making the coun­cil more equal: Wit­hout abso­lu­te cla­ri­ty on what mat­ters the veto does app­ly to, the per­ma­nent mem­bers wit­hin the coun­cil might exe­cu­te their power to a grea­ter extent – espe­ci­al­ly sin­ce their even­tu­al oppon­ents are swit­ched out every two years; this being ano­t­her examp­le of how P5 are able to take advan­ta­ge of insti­tu­tio­nal memo­ry.

Moreo­ver, as brought foward by Fran­ce in 2013, the per­ma­nent mem­bers should be cal­led on to com­mitt to a code of con­duct for using the veto, limi­t­ing their right to veto a decisi­on to cases that are not with regard to a mass crime. This cate­go­ri­za­ti­on is to be made by the Secreta­ry-Gene­ral, after the request of at least 50 UN mem­ber sta­tes. This, howe­ver, exclu­des decisi­ons whe­re vital natio­nal inte­rests of a per­ma­nent mem­ber are at risk,

As for more gene­ral chan­ges of coun­cil working methods, the Pro­vi­sio­nal Rules of Pro­ce­du­re of the UNSC need to be adop­ted. The­se still being pro­vi­sio­nal ent­ails a lack of pre­dic­ta­bi­li­ty as well as trans­pa­ren­cy, which may con­sti­tu­te a gre­at dis­ad­van­ta­ge for the non-per­ma­nent mem­bers.

In addi­ti­on, and as men­tio­ned in pre­vious reform pro­po­sals, the UNSC needs to stri­ve to increa­se the coope­ra­ti­on with exter­nal actors, i.a. through a more tho­rough coope­ra­ti­on with the Inter­na­tio­nal Court of Jus­ti­ce.

Last­ly, in order for the UNSC to stay à jour with the future glo­bal poli­ti­cal situa­ti­on and main­tain or streng­t­hen its legi­ti­ma­cy, a refor­ma­ti­on of the coun­cil needs to be fol­lo­wed by a review con­fe­rence, pre­fer­a­b­ly 15 years after the amend­ments have ent­e­red into force. Such a review could i.a. exami­ne the con­ti­nued role of the nati­on sta­te in the UNSC, as well as the oppor­tu­nities of reser­ving seats for inter­na­tio­nal orga­ni­za­ti­ons.

For more infor­ma­ti­on on the struc­tu­re and pro­ce­du­res of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, plea­se see:


Anna Bre­mer is a gra­dua­te of the Master’s Pro­gram for Futures Stu­dies to the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­ti­on and Psy­cho­lo­gy of Freie Uni­ver­si­tät Ber­lin. She worked to “The Future United Nati­ons Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil. A Reform Pro­po­sal” and published this arti­cle as a excerpt of her the­sis.

Comments on “How to reform the United Nations Security Council
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