Pros and Cons of Security Council reform
By Jakob Silas Lund, 19 January 2010
In the heated environment that accompanies Security Council reform debates, opinions and narrow national interests are oftentimes presented as altruistic aspirations or hard facts. As a result, it can be difficult to obtain unbiased information from diplomats about the “pros” and “cons” of various proposals that aren’t colored by national sentiment. Through extensive interviews with experts as well as current and former Ambassadors and diplomats who have been close to the reform process, this article outlines and analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of the components incorporated in the proposals currently on the table.
The Five Key Areas
In 2007, the President of the General Assembly (GA) Sheikha Al Khalifa introduced what she termed the “five key cluster areas”. These areas are: the size of an enlarged Security Council; the categories of membership; questions concerning regional representation; questions regarding extending the power of the veto to additional member states; and the working methods of the Security Council and its relationship with the General Assembly. All the proposals currently on the table build on the structure of these five areas. It soon becomes apparent that the five areas overlap to a great extent and the sharp division in which they are presented here—and by member states—is in many ways artificial. Nonetheless, viewing each of the areas separately provides us with a logical structure in which to focus on distinct aspects of each of the reform proposals.
Size of A Reformed Security Council
The No Expansion Option
Allowing things to remain as they are, however, may be a much more realistic option than one might assume. One expert close to the process says that some of the G41 countries are genuinely nervous that the no-expansion option may actually be the more likely outcome of the continuously stalled negotiations. According to this expert, Germany and Japan are particularly wary of this possibility, whereas India perceives that its case for permanent membership on the Council is only growing stronger as its population and economy grows in both absolute numbers and relative to the rest of the world2. While no one openly favors not expanding the Council at all, it seems that some countries are actually quite satisfied with the current situation. Particularly for those who oppose expanding the Council by adding permanent members, no expansion may seem a better option than allowing a development they so strongly oppose. Furthermore, some individuals who have followed the progression of the reform debates for years believe that some of the P5 countries are more than happy to see reform moving at near-zero-velocity speed. They note that a P5 country’s distaste for reform may at times come in the guise of explicit support for one—and only one—of the potential candidates, say Germany or Japan. The country can then appear to be supporting reform while actually, knowingly blocking progress by insisting on its support for one specific country.
Low Twenties Option
High Twenties Option
In an interview with the Center, one expert and former participant in the reform process compares the Council to national governmental cabinets, which rarely exceed 20 ministers. That is so for a reason, the expert says, arguing that a too large a Council would render it a different kind of body altogether undermining the executive powers it holds today. That is the very reason, in the opinion of this same expert, that some countries lobby for the high-twenties model: they resent the executive power of the Council and see a grossly expanded Council as the best way to curb this power. On the other hand, it can be argued that for the decisions of the Council to be efficacious, the major players on the world stage must be included in the decision-making process. Can a range of the world’s largest countries be expected to buy-in to and accept policy decisions affecting the whole world if their voices have not been heard in the process of forming these policies? How important is it to address such concerns?
It is difficult to assess the claims about efficiency. There is no lack of those who contend that the Council is not particularly efficient in its current state. But whether that is due to its size is a wholly different matter. Most analysts agree that political will—or lack thereof—is the main reason for any lack of efficiency and that numbers may not, per se, be an aid to or an obstacle to efficiency.
A final aspect to consider is that an increased number of members in the Council would most likely result in a changed proportion of permanent vis-à-vis non-permanent members. As the weight of permanent members would change relative to the non-permanent members, non-permanent ones could end up with either a larger majority or just the opposite: being in a minority in a Council with, say, six new permanent members. This, of course, will depend on the categories of new memberships. Furthermore, the implications of this potential shift would depend on several factors, such as whether a new group—for example the “P11”—would act in a unified manner. In addition, how many votes would be needed to reach a decision and how these would be apportioned among the different categories of Council members would also be a factor. For instance, when the Council was expanded to 15 seats in 1965, 9 votes, not 8, to include all of the P5, was set as the number of votes needed to pass a substantive measure.
Categories of Membership
One difficulty surrounding the intermediate model, however, is getting agreement on which countries should be included in the group of member states that will get the proposed long-term seats with the possibility of re-election. Aside from groups formed primarily to reflect economic might, such as the G20, other political considerations also have to be taken into account when electing members for the Council. An expert familiar with the debate believes it may be impossible to leave out an Arab voice or to overlook regional disputes, which may make if difficult if not impossible to include one regional power while leaving out another. The guidelines from the UN Charter are sparse. Article 23 (1) just states that due regard must be paid to the contribution of potential non-permanent members to the “maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization” as well as to “geographical distribution.” This definition is broad enough that Japan can argue that its monetary contribution falls within the category, while some Troop Contributing Countries can maintain that they represent the clearest example of contributing international peace and security. It should be noted that the Charter names the 5 states that are to have permanent seats and does not provide any provisions for adding additional permanent seats or standards that should be used for such a purpose. Should provisions be made for adding additional permanent or semi permanent seats, however, it would make common sense to apply the same criteria for selecting permanent or semi-permanent members that Article 23 (1) sets for selecting non-permanent members. The process to be used in making the selections of such members, however, may have to be different in consideration of the permanency or the potential for permanency of the appointment. The possible methods to be used in making the actual appointments and the differences on the views of member states on this question are taken up below.
Beyond the perceived justice or injustice that permanent membership on the Council represents, some see expansion in the permanent category as a threat to regional dynamics. In the EU, granting Germany a permanent seat would skew the power balance and arguably render Italy, Spain and other “medium powers” weakened relative to France, the UK and Germany. Some have suggested merging the EU’s permanent membership aspirations into either one or two seats that would rotate between member states. This would, of course, not only change the power relationships within the Union but also require France and the UK to agree to the loss of their current special status. In Latin America, the threat perceived by some countries to the power balance becomes evident when looking at the group of countries opposed to adding permanent seats to the Council, the UFC, which includes Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and other Latin American countries.
But those who oppose expansion in the permanent category argue that only increased non-permanent membership will lead to more efficiency in the Council. One of the things the Council has traditionally been criticized for is its stalling tactics and failure to provide timely action when needed. Critics ask why the Council didn’t take action in Rwanda in 1994 and why more wasn’t done to stop the appalling situation in Darfur, and those who favor expansion in the non-permanent category ask rhetorically how endowing more member states with the right to veto would help address the lack of meaningful action in the face of atrocities and other urgent crises.
As pointed out by an expert and former participant in the reform process interviewed by the Center, the discussion about categories of membership really revolves around the veto more than anything else. The bigger point, in this expert’s opinion, is that there are some countries, which it would be too costly to coerce into complying with the voice of the majority. He bases his analysis on a cost-benefit basis: what would be gained or lost from granting country X a permanent seat? If, for example, the GA magically succeeded in abolishing the veto altogether it is likely that the P5 would take their business elsewhere. The UN would then, in this expert’s opinion, end up with a net loss. He lists the possession of nuclear weapons as another factor that should be taken into account when doing the cost-benefit analysis, adding that the moral principles one would like to apply when discussing reform may at times clash with what is most realistic and effective.
An additional question one may want to ask regarding the composition and structure of a reformed Council is to what extent the agreed-upon solution will be flexible and capable of adapting to future geo-political changes. Could it be imagined, for example, that it might be desirable to remove countries from the Council rather than adding more? The intermediate model envisions a review period that could result in not granting re-election to some candidates, which some see as a much-needed option but no one has proposed the idea that all permanent members should also be subject to review or a change in their status based on specific criteria. This, of course, would go against the very notion of permanency and would most likely be entirely unfeasible from a political perspective in view of the Charter amendment that would need to be ratified to accomplish it, but these ideas might nonetheless be worth contemplating for the sake of exploring future scenarios.
Working methods and relationship with GA
Extending the Veto to New, Semi-permanent Members
Those opposing expansion of the veto say it will hamper the ability of the Council to address crisis situations in a timely fashion, or in some situations, at all. Added to that is possibly a certain level of wariness on the part of many Western countries with a taste for such concepts as the responsibility to protect, concepts which have received harsh criticism from many African countries. Some speculate that granting two African countries the veto may be a serious blow to implementing the doctrine of the responsibility to protect as well as weakening the International Criminal Court, which is in some circumstances depend on action by the Council, as provided by Article 13 of the Rome Statute.
Some speculate that a few of the most arduous proponents of expanding the veto are, in fact, trying to halt progress on reforms that they do not really support. The complex explanation for this is that an African country with no chance of winning either of the two permanent seats being requested for Africa, may see insisting on including the veto power as the best way to maintain a pan-African ethos of solidarity while simultaneously ensuring that none of the current front-runners will actually succeed in gaining permanency on the Council. This is the reason why some view the African group as being the most difficult stumbling block for the G4 in their quest to include additional permanent seats in any Council expansion.
Abolishing the Veto for Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity
An additional complication, which arises when considering abolishing the veto under the aforementioned circumstances, is the issue of whether to include designating a crisis ”genocide,” “crime against humanity,” or a ”serious violation of international humanitarian law.” This was made abundantly clear in the Council debate surrounding whether or not the atrocities carried out in Darfur in the last decade fell within the legal definition of genocide included in the Genocide Convention. Some speculated that the recently published Goldstone report further strengthened US opposition to giving up the right to use the veto in cases of certain specified crimes, given the disagreement about whether Israel’s conduct in Gaza constituted war crimes or not5. Both Russia and China have their own internal conflicts to deal with and have little appetite for discussing whether actions they have taken in dealing with these could be designated a crime for which the use of the power of the veto could no longer be invoked if the proposed reform were to be adopted.
Extending the Veto to Semi-Permanent Members Conditionally
Completely Abolishing the Veto
Among those who oppose abolishing the veto—and the P5 are the most prominent in that group—references are made to the League of Nations, which many believe ended up in demise because major powers such as the US refused to join. This, they argue, is exactly what would happen if the veto was abolished: the major powers of the world would either leave the UN or disregard or refuse to pay for UN actions they oppose. Whether the major powers would actually risk losing the legitimacy provided by the Charter is an open question, but the scenario presents the flip side of the cost-benefit analysis discussed above in the section on categories of membership. In reality the debate would seem to be moot as long as any P5 member refuses to agree to abolish or modify the veto: Article 108 of the Charter provides that two-thirds of the membership of the UN including all of the permanent members must ratify amendments to the Charter. Only then does the amendment come into force for all UN members.
While the veto could appear to be one of those irreconcilable issues that divide people as abortion, health care and tax questions do in local American politics, some diplomats close to the process say that it will not be a major determining factor when push comes to shove. As discussed recently by the Center, there are rumors that the African group may be willing to soften their insistence on the Ezulwini consensus, which includes a demand for at least two permanent and two non-permanent seats in the Council for Africa, and supposedly this would include their stance regarding the veto.
As described in a recent article by the Center, there is, at least theoretically, a large majority of member states in favor of revamping the working methods of the Council as well as its relationship with the GA. Two issues, however, seem to inhibit progress: those who can directly decide on the matters, the P5, are not eager to change things, and those who could put pressure on the P5, the remaining 187 member states, cannot thus far agree on whether and how to do so.
To date, the Center has found unanimous agreement among non-P5 member states that the Council should hold more open meetings. Even P5 representatives to whom the Center has spoken agree that more open meetings could increase transparency at the UN as a whole. And indeed, the number of open meetings has gone up over the last several years. There have reportedly also been more meetings between the President of the GA and the Council in recent years. Nonetheless, many also note that there is a limit to the number of open meetings the Council can have. Representatives from these countries maintain that certain discussions need to stay within the exclusive forum of the Council for it to maintain its efficacy.
Furthermore, as recently reported by the Center, some believe the increased number of open meetings has resulted in more decisions being reached outside the formal forum of the Council’s chamber before they are brought to the full Council for a vote. Among other things, the informal meetings, oftentimes held by the P5—at times even by a smaller segment of the permanent members—are reportedly used to negotiate ways around usage of the veto. By settling contentious issues in an informal environment, the veto-wielding powers avoid having a veto cast when they vote on the action to be taken in the chamber. This process is seen by some as a positive way of reaching compromises and thus avoiding vetoes being cast, while others see it as an undemocratic rigging process that may block effective Council action while protecting the reputation of the veto threatening power or powers, but harming the image of the Council itself for its inability to contain a crisis situation. It is easy to imagine that extension of the veto to a handful of additional member states would make agreement in some crisis situations harder to reach, while at the same time lending greater weight to and support for those agreements that are reached. These contending views serve to underline the power associated with wielding the veto and why some member states believe that to achieve equitable representation the veto needs to be extended to more countries or eliminated altogether.
Asked about the advantages and disadvantages of reforming the working methods of the Council, experts were hard pressed to list aspects that would be disadvantageous to the world as a whole rather than merely to the P5. It is clear that the P5 is very concerned with any non–Council member trying to meddle with the procedures of the Council. The P5 has continuously made it clear, as did a P5 diplomat in an interview for this article, that the Council and the GA are two equal and independent bodies and must behave as such.
As expanded geographical representation would necessarily include numerical expansion, the advantages and disadvantages associated with broadening the geographical representation are the same as discussed above regarding a general expansion of the Council. Additionally, there is the question of whether a country can represent anyone other than itself that arises when considering whether to add regional or more individual seats.
If this type of agreement could be reached in Africa, Latin America and Europe, however, expansion would suddenly be seen in a different light. One of the main obstacles Africa faces in its quest to obtain two regional seats—aside from its insistence on including the veto power—is its insistence that the two countries to be offered permanent membership must be elected by the African Union. The US, for one, has stated that this is unacceptable and has underlined that the two countries must be named before they will even negotiate the question of giving them permanent seats. This observation could undermine the idea of providing for rotating seats. While the US might be willing to accept seats for Latin-America rotating between, say, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico or for Europe between, say, Germany, UK, France, Spain and Italy, it would be politically difficult for them to argue in favor of rotating seats if the countries to rotate were to be elected by the Organization of American States or the European Union, respectively, rather than being restricted to a rotation amongst specifically pre-named member states in advance.