UN General Assembly 2012: Reforming Security Council Should Be Top Priority


This week marks the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Along with round after round of speeches by the world's diplomats, there will be debates on the functioning of the United Nations itself. One of the longest-running of those debates centers on the possible reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

In many ways the UNSC operates as the Board of Directors for the 193 members of the UN, though the UNSC also has certain powers unique to themselves, including the power to authorize peacekeeping missions – in essence to order troops into harm's way. The UNSC is comprised of 15 members, 10 of which are elected to two-year terms on a rotating basis; the nature of the other five though are the reason behind the calls to reform the UNSC. These other five – China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States – are permanent members of the UNSC, and are the only members with veto power: a single "no" vote from any permanent member kills a motion within the Security Council (non-permanent members do not wield this veto power). A very recent example of veto power in action has been Russia and China putting a halt to Security Council resolutions for action in and against Syria.

The five permanent members of the UNSC were not selected at random; they represent the winning powers in World War II. Many of the United Nations members though have grown increasingly critical of the make-up of the Security Council, saying that it represents the reality of global power 60 years ago, not today.

The critics make an excellent point. Even a casual glance at the permanent members of the Security Council shows that broad swaths of the globe are unrepresented, while Europe can claim three of the five permanent seats (or 2 ½, depending on how you want to count Russia). The argument isn't so much that the Security Council should be reformed – there seems to be a general consensus that reform is needed – but rather what shape should that reform take. Most reform plans center around the idea of expanding the number of permanent, veto-holding members of the UNSC to better represent the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. 

The strongest proponents for expansion have been the so-called “G4 nations” – Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan, who mutually support each other's bids for permanent seats on the UNSC. Still other UN members say that an African nation needs to also hold veto-power within the UNSC, while others support the elevation of a country from the Arab world, and/or a nation with a Muslim-majority population to permanent-member status.

India's selection as a permanent member should be a no-brainer: India is the world's largest democracy and home to a sixth of the world's population; in short, it is too large a country not to be a permanent member. The case for Brazil is also strong: like India, it too is a multi-ethnic democracy and one of the world's top emerging economies. Inclusion of Brazil and India would also put two representatives from the “Global South” permanently on the UNSC.

Similarly, the candidacies of Germany and Japan should be rejected: Europe is arguably already over-represented on the 21st century version of the UNSC, which strongly argues against Germany's inclusion; and while Japan is a modern democracy, it is also one of the most insular and ethnically undiverse nations on Earth, and also a nation that lacks a robust foreign policy or sphere of influence. While it could be argued that France and Britain serve as proxies for the interests of their former colonial holdings, or that Brazil and/or India could represent the developing world, Japan would represent only Japan; that's not a strong enough case for permanent membership.

Adding India and Brazil would still leave the other interest groups unaddressed. Adding Egypt as a permanent member would check off the African, Arab, and Muslim boxes, but Egypt is still in too much revolutionary turmoil to seriously consider them as a candidate at this point. Nigeria or South Africa could represent Africa, but both are flawed candidates: while Nigeria has economic clout and cultural influence (though their Nollywood movie industry) in Africa, the country is also notoriously corrupt and currently wracked with sectarian strife; South Africa managed to emerge from the Apartheid era as a stable country, but politically it is a one-party state, though the ruling African National Congress is showing signs of fracturing – these circumstances would seem to disqualify each for the time being. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, has in recent years achieved stability and become an emerging market to watch, though it is also likely too soon to consider them for permanent membership as well.

Every potential permanent member is sure to be opposed by some other member of the United Nations; for example, we can expect Pakistan to vehemently oppose the elevation of their historic rival, India, to permanent member status. But this level of disagreement can be expected of just about any action the United Nations could ever consider taking; it in itself is not a compelling enough reason to oppose any proposed addition to the UNSC, especially if these new permanent members can represent a portion of the world's population that currently lacks that voice on the UNSC.

The current Security Council is a snapshot in time from the late 1940s, it has failed to keep up with the geopolitical development of the world. Expansion of the permanent membership of the UNSC would go a long way towards addressing this shortcoming. At the same time, the UNSC cannot be expanded too much – it is hard enough to get consensus among 15 members, increasing that number to 25, 30 or more is a recipe for gridlock. A UNSC of 18 members – eight permanent/ten rotating - makes sense, as does giving two of those new permanent seats to India and Brazil. The question of who gets the eighth seat remains open, but it should not hold back the expansion of the UNSC, an idea whose time has come.