Reform of the United Nations Security Council encompasses five key issues: categories of membership, the question of the veto held by the five permanent members, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council and its working methods. The issues are contested as Member States, regional groups and other Member State interest groupings have developed different positions and proposals on how to move forward.
The Security Council has changed very little since its inception in 1945. The UN Charter was shaped by the winners of the Second World War in their national interests. The geopolitical realities of the world has changed a lot since then with the emergence of several new nations, the collapse of Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, etc.
As a result, old structures and procedures are increasingly challenged. The only significant reform of the Security Council came to pass in 1965 after the ratification of two-thirds of the membership, including the five permanent members of the Security Council that have a veto right on Charter changes. The reform included an increase of the non-permanent membership from six to 10 members.
In 1992, Boutros Boutros-Ghali the then Secretary-General launched the reform discussions of the UN Security Council. He published ‘An Agenda for Peace’ to restructure the composition and anachronistic procedures of the UN organ recognizing the changed world. By then, Germany and Japan started to demand a permanent seat as they had become the second and third largest contributors to the United Nations. Also, Brazil and India started asking for a permanent seat as these countries saw themselves as the most powerful countries within their regional groups and key players within their regions. This Group of Four countries formed an interest group later known as the G4.
The regional rivals of G4, however, were opposed to these countries becoming permanent members with a veto power. Instead of permanent seats, they favoured the expansion of the non-permanent category of seats with members to be elected on a regional basis. This resulted in Italy, Spain, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Pakistan forming an interest group, known as the ‘Coffee Club’ and later ‘Uniting for Consensus’. On the other hand, the African Group started to demand two permanent seats for themselves, on the basis of historical injustices and the fact that a large part of the Council’s agenda is concentrated on the African continent. Those two seats would be permanent African seats that rotate between African countries chosen by the African group.
On the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council, a report delivered by the General Assembly Task Force on Security Council Reform recommended a compromise solution for entering intergovernmental negotiations on reform. The ‘timeline perspective’ of the report suggests that Member States begin by identifying the negotiable to be included in short-term intergovernmental negotiations. Crucial to the ‘timeline perspective’ is the scheduling of a mandatory review conference – a forum for discussing changes to any reforms achieved in the near-term, and for revisiting negotiables that cannot be agreed upon now.
In 2005, the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on the UN to reach a consensus on expanding the Council to 24 members, in a plan referred to as ‘In Larger Freedom’. He gave two alternatives for implementation. Plan A calls for creating six new permanent members, plus three new non-permanent members for a total of 24 seats in the council.
Whereas Plan B calls for creating eight new seats in a new class of members, who would serve for four years, subject to renewal, plus one non-permanent seat, also for a total of 24. The same year, five UN member countries, Argentina, Italy, Canada, Colombia and Pakistan, representing a larger group of countries called Uniting for Consensus, proposed to General Assembly another plan, supposedly embraced by China. The plan favoured maintaining five permanent members, and raising the number of non-permanent members to 20.
Candidates usually mentioned for permanent membership are the G4 nations which support one another’s bid and Nigeria. The G4 membership is also supported by three permanent members—France, Russia, and the UK. Italy has always opposed this kind of reform, and has submitted since 1992 another proposal, together with other countries, based on the introduction of semi-permanent membership. In addition, the membership of Japan is opposed by South Korea, that of India by Pakistan, and that of Brazil by Mexico and Argentina.
Another major problem within the UN is the UNSC ‘power of veto’, established by Chapter IV of the UN Charter. By wielding their veto power, any of the UNSC’s five permanent members can prevent the adoption of any non-‘procedural’ UNSC draft resolution not to their liking. The power of veto often prevents the Council from acting to address pressing international issues, and affords the ‘P5’, as they are called, great influence within the UN institution as a whole.
For example, the Security Council passed no resolutions on most major Cold War conflicts, including the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Additionally, the veto applies to the selection of the UN’s Secretary-General, as well as any amendments to the UN Charter, giving the P5 great influence over these processes.
Proposals to reform the UNSC veto include limiting the use of the veto to vital national security issues; requiring agreement from multiple states before exercising the veto; and abolishing the veto entirely.
However, any reform of the veto will be very difficult as Articles 108 and 109 of the UN Charter grant the P5 veto over any amendments to the Charter, requiring them to approve of any modifications to the UNSC veto power that they themselves hold.
According to a formal statement by the U.S. Department of State, the overall position of the United States on reforming the Security Council is that the U.S. is open to UN Security Council reform and expansion, as one element of an overall agenda for UN reform. The U.S. advocates a criteria-based approach under which potential members must be supremely well qualified, based on factors such as: economic size, population, military capacity, commitment to democracy and human rights, financial contributions to the UN, contributions to UN peacekeeping, and record on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation. While the overall geographic balance of the Council has to be looked into, effectiveness remains the benchmark for any reform.
The United Kingdom and France also hold similar views on reform to the United Nations Security Council. They favour reform of the UNSC, both its enlargement and the improvement of its working methods. They support the candidacies of Germany, Brazil, India and Japan for permanent membership, as well as for permanent representation for Africa on the Council. Both countries have expressed willingness to consider an intermediate solution, which could include a new category of seats, with a longer term than those of the current elected members and those terms would be renewable; at the end of an initial phase, it could be decided to turn these new types of seats into permanent ones.
As per the official website of India’s Permanent Mission to UN, any package for restructuring of the Security Council should be broad-based with adequate presence of developing countries. India favours expansion of permanent members’ category based on an agreed criteria, rather than a pre-determined selection. It favours an inclusive approach based on transparent consultations and supports expansion of both permanent and non-permanent members’ category.