Security Council Reform, So near and yet so far

 Security Council Reform

On July 31, the President of the General Assembly, Mr Sam Kutesa, circulated a new text for the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The text, which, according to the letter, is the outcome of consultative, inclusive and transparent process, is intended to serve as a “sound basis” for the next phase of the IGN for the UNSC reform which are more than inevitable now given the fact that under the Charter the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security but it has become undemocratic, unrepresentative and has remained exactly where it was in 1945 when it was established.


The Security Council is undoubtedly the most powerful organ of the United Nations and a premier forum in international politics. Through its decisions, mandated operations and enforcement actions, the UNSC directly influences the present and future state of international peace and security. However, due to its limited geographical balance combined with five exclusive permanent seats that have veto powers, this key UN organ has become less representative than desired by many Member States, especially emerging ‘middle’ powers. That’s why they are increasingly calling for a restructuring of the Council to make it more democratic, effective and credible for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Why Reform?

Being the most powerful organ of the United Nations, the Security Council is at the centre stage of the international security regime. But, due to lack of change in its structure and function since its inception in 1945, the Security Council has become a narrow-base UN organ. At present, it is not a true representative of the world nations as it is often paralyzed by the — fair and unfair — use of veto power wielded by its permanent members. It is often alleged that when the UNSC comes out of the hibernation to do something, it acts mostly to defend the interests of that small group of countries. That’s the reason why various member countries have been calling for reforming the Council. 

Moreover, today the geopolitical realities are very different from those when the UN was founded in 1945. Of the original two superpowers that were born at the end of the war, one has been toppled from its pedestal; a new superpower is emerging; and the two European countries that once boasted vast colonial empires in far-flung parts of the globe have forfeited all claims to be the world powers. Another very important geopolitical reality is the emergence of about a dozen and a half large- and medium-sized states that are no longer prepared to accept a world order in which the big powers from a bygone age still call the shots.

Because of the widening gap between the current composition of the Security Council and the present-day geopolitical realities and abuse of the veto power by its permanent members, the Security Council has steadily been losing its credibility and legitimacy.

Security Council ReformCase for Reform

Following are some shortcomings which the proponents of the UNSC reform point out in the existing setup which needs an overhaul as early as possible.

1. Composition

According to Article 23 of the UN Charter, the Security Council consists of fifteen members of the United Nations and among them China, France, Russia, the Great Britain and the US are permanent members while the 10 non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly for a two-year term. At the time of its inception, the United Nations had 51 member states. At that time, the strength of UNSC was 11 — five permanent and six non-permanent members. However, in 1963, when the UNSC was expanded from 11 to 15 member states, the membership of the United Nations numbered more than 100. But, today when the UN membership has reached 193, there are still 15 members in the UNSC with the same old structure of five permanent and ten non-permanent member states.

2. Regional Representation

Since Article 23 of the UN Charter articulates that to elect ten non-permanent members of the UNSC “due regard being specially paid… to equitable geographical distribution,” the issue of regional representation goes to the heart of this concern.
When seen in the context of representation of world’s all inhabited continents, we see that no permanent UNSC member is from Africa and Latin America while representation of Europe and Asia is not proportional to their size in area or population. When it comes to non-permanent members, the UN lists 68 countries that have never been elected as non-permanent members.

3. Financial Contribution

Although Japan and Germany are among the biggest contributors of finance to the UN Peacekeeping, yet their share in decision-making at the UNSC is meagre. Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are three biggest troop contributors, but none of them is a member of the prestigious ‘permanent club’ of the Council.

4. Predominance of Few States

Nothing in the UN system has invited more criticism than the veto — a negative vote cast by any of the P-5 on a motion in the Security Council thus killing it. For instance, whenever a resolution against Israel is tabled in UNSC, it is vetoed by the US. More recently on July 8 this year, Russia vetoed a UNSC resolution that would have described the Srebrenica massacre — some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in 1995 by Bosnian Serb troops in what is described as the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two — as “genocide”.

Interestingly, in the entire UN Charter, there is no mention of the word “veto”. The power is derived from Article 27 (3), which states that the “decisions of the Security Council shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members.”

Those who oppose veto power say that if everybody is equal before law, then every country is equal before international law. The five permanent members holding the veto power have jointly or severally defied even UN General Assembly decisions passed with absolute majority. Thus the veto power is an undemocratic instrument wielded by the world powers to their own advantage.

Major Reform Factions

1. Group of 4

India, Germany, Japan and Brazil known as G-4 have been staking their claim for permanent seats for themselves since 1992 supporting the process of reforms in the UNSC that aims for the expansion in the permanent as well as non-permanent members to give the Council a more representative status. These countries base their claims on several different arguments; for instance, Japan and Germany point towards their contribution, particularly financial, to the maintenance of international peace and security or the United Nations. While Brazil and India present themselves as the emerging economies home to billions of people, India is by far the most devoted supporter of the G-4 stance.

2. Uniting for Consensus

Another group is “Uniting for Consensus (UfC), nicknamed the Coffee Club, which is supported by some 40 states. The group, which includes Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, Argentina, Colombia and some other countries, was developed in the 1990s in opposition to the possible expansion of the Security Council. It aims to counter the G4 bids for permanent seats and is calling for a consensus before any decision is reached on the form and size of the Security Council. They oppose any increase in the permanent membership and demand an expansion of the Council in non-permanent category only.  

3. African Group

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. The African common position commands respect and understanding. It has placed the African continent in a key role in the ongoing inter-governmental negotiations (IGN) in New York.

Key Reform Areas

The United Nations General Assembly Decision 62/557 of 2008 lists five key areas of consideration in relation to the Security Council’s reform. These are: categories of membership, status of the veto power, regional representation, size and working methods of an enlarged Security Council and the relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations.

1. Categories of Membership

Members of the UfC group have made a proposal to create a new category of Security Council members who would serve for a longer term than the two years for the current elected members and would also be eligible for re-election. Recently, this proposal received the backing of The Elders, an unofficial group of senior statesmen headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But there is a catch. As the Elders wrote, the proposal would enable the new semi-permanent members to become de facto permanent members, and the group urged the aspirants for permanent seats to accept it “at least for the time being”.

2. Veto Power

Admission of more permanent members to the UNSC with veto power would further render the UN ineffective in resolving the major issues of global concern like in the past. The Palestine and Kashmir issues, which are potential threats to regional and global peace have also remained unresolved due to the veto power enjoyed by the permanent members. Moreover, the permanent members enjoy the right of veto in the selection of UN Secretary-General which gives the P-5 great influence and clout in world affairs.

Nevertheless, it is a good omen that France recently proposed that permanent members should voluntarily agree to an informal code of conduct placing limits on the use of the veto in cases of large-scale atrocities, but even this very modest proposal is not acceptable to all permanent members. Nevertheless, it is significant as an acknowledgement that absolute veto power cannot continue forever. So, there is a dire need to abolish the veto altogether to eliminate the power biases of the P-5.

3. Regional Representation

To make the UNSC more democratic and more representative, there is an urgent need to increase representation of countries belonging to different geographical areas. Proponents of regional representation, like Italy, see the European Union as the first potential candidate for a regional seat on the Council representing the interests of a large number of states. Besides EU, Africa is also a strong contender for a permanent seat on the Council. UfC also has supported Africa by saying that it has a strong and legitimate case for redressing the historic injustice and seeks its rightful representation on the Security Council.  Pakistan, as member of the UfC, wishes to engage more closely with Africa, to share and understand each other’s perspectives, and to pursue our common objectives.

4. Increasing the Size

One bold proposal is to eliminate all permanent membership and create a council of elected representatives from different regional areas. Those advocating this approach point out that permanent members are like presidents for life. The problem with this drastic proposal is its unfeasibility. Any proposal that does pass would have to have the support of the powerful veto-bearing countries. A more pragmatic suggestion would be to add five permanent Security Council members but without veto power. This idea is based on basic 21st century political reality and not on any ideal concept of equality or fairness. The result of adding more countries would increase global representation and thereby bolster its credibility.

5. UNSC and UNGA Relationship

The Security Council is an exclusive club and acts the part. Oftentimes their discussions are back-door closed talks. This problem is already being addressed by measures that would enhance the communication between the Council and the General Assembly. There is really no argument against maintaining, improving and formalizing these measures. Some of these measures include: regular meetings between the Security Council and the General Assembly, briefings on the work of the Security Council, more open meetings of the Council, and transparency of the work of sanctions committees. These efforts will go a long way in bringing the Security Council and the General Assembly closer together.


Despite all the above-mentioned points, the prospects for substantial UNSC reform are remote because amending the UN Charter requires an affirmative vote and domestic ratification by two-thirds of UN member states. This includes all of the Security Council’s permanent members, who are unlikely to take measures that curb their own influence. While there is broad agreement among UN members that the Security Council’s makeup is outdated, each of the various proposals for reform inevitably leaves some aspirants alienated.

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