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It’s Time to Reform the United Nations Security Council

11 Aug 2022
By Anil Anand

General View of the room where European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini speaks to the security council at U.N. Head Quarters on March 09, 2015 in New York.  Source: European External Action Service, Flickr,

The P5’s veto power has disempowered general consensus and subjugated member states, creating unequal nations in an institution of equals. It is time for change.

Members of the UN General Assembly are increasingly concerned that the UN Charter is demonstratively asymmetrical — it is neither effective, nor reflective of the new world order. For decades this concern has fuelled calls for the Security Council to be modified, modernised, and reformed — with Australia, Spain, and Uganda amongst the strongest advocates for change.

The Security Council – consisting of five permanent and ten elected members – has remained virtually unaltered since inception in 1945. Its five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are collectively known as the P5. Because they possess the power to “veto” any Resolution, they determine every issue of importance and are virtually above the law.

“The members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.” These 24 words enshrined in Article 25 of the United Nations Charter preserves the supremacy of the Security Council above all other members of the General Assembly. The clause assigns supremacy to the Permanent Five, in a manner that seemingly contradicts the values of a post World War II democratic world order.

As an example, on 13 December 2021 Ireland and Nigeria tabled a draft resolution seeking to integrate climate‑related security risk into UN conflict‑prevention strategies. Although the resolution aimed to help counter the risk of conflict relapse, backed by the second highest number of co-sponsors (113) for any draft resolution in the Council’s history – 134 states backed a successful resolution on the fight against Ebola in 2014 – it was vetoed by the Security Council. Specifically, Russia vetoed it – though India also voted against the Resolution – on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to justify the link, and that the Irish and Nigerians had made insufficient efforts to secure consensus for their initiative.

Concerns about the effectiveness of the Security Council have festered for decades. In 1993 Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, called for “radical reform” of the UN system acknowledging that the United Nations no longer meet the needs of its members.

Annan stated: “We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded.” He added, “I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them.”

Given the ideological divide that separates the P5, finding common ground, has proven increasingly challenging. The ten elected members, which serve two-year non-consecutive terms but without the privilege of veto are relegated to a marginalised role.

On 25 February 2022 Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution that demanded that Moscow stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops. While 11 of the Council’s 15 members voted in favour of the resolution, China India, and the United Arab Emirates abstained. The resolution failed despite 141 of the 193 members of the General Assembly voting to reaffirm Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

As far back as 26 June 1945  Australia’s Representative to the UN H.V. Evatt had expressed concern with the exclusive authority empowered to the Permanent Members noting that they would have a double veto, first on whether to accept issue before the Council, and then on the outcome. He said such a member, “can say not only I can veto the decision of the Council, but I will determine the question which I will veto.”

There is now a resounding view that too many conflicts, violations of the UN Charter, human rights abuses, and atrocities have been failed due to the competing self-interest of the P5 – Darfur, Myanmar, Eritrea, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the recent invasion of Ukraine to name but a few. Each failure further weakened the moral and systemic integrity of the institution empowered to uphold international order, peace, and accountability.

In a rare move, the General Assembly on 26 April 2022, adopted a landmark resolution aimed at holding the P5 accountable for use of the veto amid growing criticism of inaction by the Security Council on the war in Ukraine: a small step, long overdue.

In 2013 Saudi Arabia turned down an offer of a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. The Saudi foreign ministry noted “work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace.” The minister added that Saudi Arabia had no option but to turn down Security Council membership until the Council was reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving peace and security.

The exclusion of any African, Latin American, or Middle Eastern representation within the P5 has also diminished its legitimacy. It is unlikely that someone setting up the UN today would give veto power and permanent membership to middle-ranking powers such as Britain and France but not to India, Japan, or Germany.

On 28 June 2022 Loraine Sievers, Director of Security Council Procedure, told the Council that its outdated working methods needed improvement in order to create a transparent, nimble 15-nation organ capable of tackling contemporary global challenges. Sievers presented wide-ranging proposals from restraining the use of the veto, to reforming the sanctions regime and the system of drafting resolutions. Sievers concerns accentuate the geopolitical challenges that have heightened levels of fragmentation within the Council and placed it under intense scrutiny.

Amendments to the UN Charter can be made by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly, which has occurred on three occasions (1963, 1968, and 1971). Attempts at reform of the Security Council have however failed, in part because of resistance by the P5 and in part because of the inability of members of the General Council to reach consensus.

The Chinese won’t support either Japan or India, Africa cannot agree on any one candidate, nor can the Arabs, and while Britain and France would support Germany, most would not support the addition of another permanent European member. A sense of injustice, suspicion, lack of power, and frustration have led emerging powers to assert their influence in other ways; contributing to a sense that the General Assembly has grown increasingly anti-West.

As Gideon Rachman in Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline observes: “While Britain and America often praise India as the “world’s largest democracy” and assume that this should mean they share a common worldview, in practice this is often not the case. According to Rachman an internal exercise by senior official in Britain’s Foreign Office in 2014 found that India had voted against the British position at the UN more often than any other large nation.

Sievers’ report to the Security Council is an indication that the Secretary Annan’s concerns have remained idle on that fork in the road, as her proposals likely will too. It is unlikely that the members of the P5 will accept any further diminishment of the veto, let alone radical reform, nor entertain expansion of the Council in any form that would alter the existing balance of power within the Council. Perhaps small steps do and will lead to larger, more meaningful reform.

Anil Anand is an independent Canadian policy researcher and author with extensive experience in law enforcement, security, and social justice.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.