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A Setback for the Prospect of UN Security Council Reform!

Dr. Yeshi Choedon is Professor at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • August 17, 2015

    The reform of UN Security Council is long overdue and serious effort towards it started officially in 1992. The first phase of the effort culminated in the World Summit of 2005, when the high hope of reaching a decision on reforming the Council was shattered mainly due to the divergence of interests among developing countries. A new phase of the initiative for expanding the Council was started by the President of General Assembly in 2007 through the establishment of a new mechanism of Intergovernmental Negotiation (IGN) on Security Council reform. After intense discussions, the IGN came out with a framework text which could be the basis of negotiations to reform the Security Council. This text was introduced in the General Assembly by its president Sam Kutesa on August 1, 2015. However, the prospect of fruitful negotiation and positive outcome in the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations received a shocking blow when the United States, China and Russia came out against it.

    The demand for reform arose in the context of the Council’s post-Cold War adoption of an activist role involving the deepening and broadening of its task. In this reactivated and expanded role of the Security Council, the P-5 began to frequently meet in closed-door consultations with the aim of increasing unanimity among them, thus leading to more decisions than ever before. But this process did not involve the effective participation of the Council’s non-permanent members. Many countries, especially in the developing world, expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the Council’s unrepresentative character and the P-5’s arrogant exercise of power 5. This set the stage for member states to demand reforms that would make the Council a more representative and transparent organ reflecting the changed power configuration.

    The Nonalignment Movement’s Summit of September 1992 took the issue of Security Council reform as one of its central concerns. It expressed concern “over the tendency of some states to dominate the Council” and also observed that “the veto which guarantee an exclusive and dominant role for the permanent members of the Council are contrary to the aim of democratizing the United Nations and must, therefore, be reviewed.” Nonaligned countries were determined to play a leading role in the revitalization of the UN and pressed hard to get the Council’s membership reflect the increased membership of the UN as a whole. At the same time, the demand for reform gathered greater momentum when the United States showed interest in the inclusion of Germany and Japan as permanent members of the Council, mainly for burden-sharing purposes.

    Reforming the UN Security Council involved two issues:

    1. Expansion of membership, which required a formal amendment to the UN Charter; and
    2. A change in working procedure, which could be carried out without a formal amendment of the Charter.

    For the last more than two decades, the issue of expansion of the Security Council membership has proved to be most controversial because it is concerned with the status and power of states in the international system. The five permanent members do not want to share or dilute their clout by including new permanent members. At the same time, some countries are intent upon preventing their regional rivals from gaining the coveted permanent seat at the high table of the most powerful global political institution. Indeed, any talk of including new permanent members has the instant ability to make regional rivalries flare up.

    Because of the vast diversity of views among member states, the General Assembly established on December 3, 1993 an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to consider all aspects of the question. Discussions in the OEWG indicated general agreement on the need for expanding the membership of the UN Security Council. However, there was considerable disagreement on almost every aspect of the issue involved such as the future size of the Council, the categories of membership, the criteria of membership, and veto power.

    The High-Level Panel to examine the whole gamut of UN reforms established in 2004 proposed the A and B models for enlargement, both of which suggested expanding the Council to 24 members. Model A proposed adding six new permanent seats, but with no veto power, and three new two-year term elected seats. Model B created a new category of eight seats, renewable every four years, and one new two-year non-renewable seat. The Secretary General had urged the members of the panel to consider the two options and take a decision on this important issue before the summit in September 2005.These alternative Models and the deadline for decision generated heated debate and further sharpened the polarization among member states. Two groups emerged, fiercely contesting each other’s position. Japan, India, Brazil and Germany came together as the Group of Four (G-4) and put forward their own proposal of reform. Initially, the G-4 proposal had favoured permanent membership with veto power. But later, it dropped the demand for veto in order to gain wider support for its proposal in the General Assembly.

    The G-4’s regional rivals, informally known as the Coffee Club and later as the “Uniting for Consensus” (UfC) Group, tried to derail the G-4 proposal. They put forward a proposal favouring an increase of only the non-permanent seats. Their draft resolution called for the addition of 10 non-permanent seats and no new permanent members. Although the African group decided to oppose the veto in principle, it strongly felt that the veto should be extended to all permanent members ‘so long as it exists’. The African Union put forward its own proposal, which sought six new veto-wielding permanent members with two of these from Africa and five additional non-permanent members with again two from Africa. In total, the African Union sought a 26 member Council.

    In the end, none of the three proposals was put to a vote since none had the prospect of getting passed. Thus, the high hope of reaching a decision on the expansion of the UN Security Council at the World Summit in 2005 was shattered mainly due to the divergence of interests among developing countries.

    A new initiative on the expansion of the Security Council was again started by the President of the General Assembly in 2007, when she appointed five facilitators to gauge the views of member states. The facilitators suggested an interim transitional measure to bridge the gap between the proposals of the G4 and UfC. While some G4 members such as Germany and Brazil were ready to consider an interim transitional measure, India rejected it outright on the ground that any reform without expansion of permanent members is no reform. Thereafter, the discussion moved towards the need for embarking on negotiation rather than mere discussion. Under India’s leadership, the L69 group (consisting of developing countries including Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa) put forward a proposal towards the end of the 61st session of the General Assembly. The main contents of this proposal initially were:

    1. Expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories.
    2. Greater representation of developing countries, including island and small States.
    3. Representation of developed countries and those with transition economies reflective of the contemporary world realities.
    4. Comprehensive improvement in the working methods of the Security Council.
    5. Equitable geographical distribution.
    6. Provision for a review.

    According to the Indian representative, the main purpose behind the L69 proposal was to generate ‘some momentum’ to an otherwise painfully slow process. The proposal met with a strong reaction and generated acrimonious exchanges among members. As a result, the L69 proposal of 2007 was withdrawn without being put to a vote. But it achieved its purpose as the General Assembly established a new mechanism of Intergovernmental Negotiation (IGN) on Security Council Reform. With that, the theatre of activity shifted from the OEW to IGN. On 25 September 2014, the G-4 Foreign Ministers said in New York that the reform process “should not be seen as an endless exercise” and appealed to all members to make the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in 2015 as the target date for reform.

    Many UN member states are of the view that text-based negotiation is the best way to take the process forward. Consequently, after long and intense discussions within the IGN, the General Assembly President Sam Kutesa achieved a breakthrough of sorts by circulating a text to members that will form the basis for the negotiations. However, the prospect of smooth sailing for the reform efforts received a rude shock when Kutesa also circulated letters containing the positions of various groups and Member States. These indicated that the United States, Russia and China do not wish their own proposals to be included in the body of the negotiating text.

    It is not yet a forgone conclusion that this position of the three of the five members of the P-5 would derail the prospect of fruitful negotiation in the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations. Nor is it a setback only for India, since the proposal advocates inclusion of other members as well and it is desired by other members also. The only question at the moment is whether the sponsors of the framework proposal are confident enough to insist on proceeding further with negotiations and putting the proposal to a vote. If they proceed further, that itself would be a forward movement. The concurrence of the P-5 is required only at the ratification stage. According to the UN Charter, amendments on the composition of the Security Council require the approval of two-thirds of the membership present and voting in the General Assembly. The existing permanent members of the Security Council could block it only at the stage of ratification as the Charter stipulates that any amendments have to be ratified by two-thirds of the membership, including the five permanent members, before they come into effect. Once the proposal for the expansion of the Security Council is passed in the General Assembly with an absolute majority, blocking it would involve high political cost for any member of the P-5. Doing so would mean going against the expressed desire of the majority of the members of the United Nations. Even if some members of the P-5 were to block the proposal from taking effect, the process itself would make it clear who is in which side. That would be better than endless discussion and consultation.

    Dr. Yeshi Choedon is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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