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Essay On United Nations Reforms

United Nations Security Council Reform

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“Chief responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security lies with the Security Council. It is therefore essential to its legitimacy that its membership reflect the state of the world.”
– French President Chirac’s address to the United Nations General Assembly.


The focus of this paper is on the United NationsSecurity Council reform issue. It will start by giving some history on the United Nations charter and the Security Council. This background will set up a discussion on the past and present proposals to reform the Security Council. I will also offer analysis on the feasibility of these reform proposals. I will then discuss what the key countries think about Security Council reform.


United Nations Background

The United Nations was born out of the turmoil of two devastating world wars. It was established in the hopes that a strong international organization could foster enough cooperation between nations in order to prevent future conflicts. In 1945, representatives from 50 countries met in San Francisco to draw up the United Nations Charter. Those delegates deliberated on the proposals worked out by the representatives of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States at Dumbarton Oaks, United States in August and October of 1944. The Charter was signed on June, 26 1945 by the representatives of the 50 countries. Poland, which was not represented at the Conference, signed it later and became one of the original 51 Member States. Since then the United Nations has grown significantly. The United Nations General Assembly now consists of 191 Member States.

The predecessor of the United Nations was the ill-fated League of Nations, which was conceived under similar circumstances after World War I. The League of Nations ceased its activities after failing to prevent World War II.

Fifty-eight years after the signing of the Charter, the world has changed dramatically. Its universal character and comprehensiveness make the United Nations a unique and indispensable forum for governments to work together to address global issues. At the same time, there remains a large gap between aspiration and real accomplishment. There have been many successes and many failures. The United Nations is a bureaucracy that struggles – understandably – in its attempt to bring together 191 countries. It must come at no surprise, therefore, that a consensus cannot always be reached with so many different competing voices.

Security Council Background

The Security Council of the United Nations has the primary responsibility under the United Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security.

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"United Nations Security Council Reform." 14 Mar 2018

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Security Council         United Nations         Member States         League Of Nations         Representatives         San Francisco         World Wars        

Under the Charter, all Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council. While other parts of the United Nations make recommendations to various States, the Council has the power to make decisions that Member States are obliged to obey. This gives the Security Council a very important and powerful position in the United Nations and in the world.

During the first forty-five years of its existence, the Council was paralyzed by the Cold War, which polarized many of the permanent Security Council members. During this time, world power was concentrated in the United States and the Soviet Union, but there were a few noteworthy Council actions. These include the June 1950 call for United Nations members to help South Koreans – the Soviet Union was not present at the vote. After the thawing of the international political climate, however, the Security Council has been very active.

The Security Council is currently made up of 15 United Nation Member States. Five of the members were designated permanent members in the original charter. These five countries are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These permanent members have the power of veto. This veto power has proved to be extremely controversial in reform debates. The veto is cast much less than during the Cold War, but it is still very much in use as a threat that blocks action.

The remaining ten members of the Council are elected by the General Assembly to two-year non-renewable terms. These seats are allotted regionally so that there is representation in all the major world regions – two to Asia, two to Latin America, two to Western Europe, one to Eastern Europe, and three to Africa.

Membership of Security Council in 2003
Country Membership Term ends
France Permanent Member
Germany 31 December 2004
Guinea 31 December 2003
Mexico 31 December 2003
Pakistan 31 December 2004
Russian Federation Permanent Member
Spain 31 December 2004
Syrian Arab Republic 31 December 2003
United Kingdom Permanent Member
United States Permanent Member
Angola 31 December 2004
Bulgaria 31 December 2003
Cameroon 31 December 2003
China Permanent Member
Chile 31 December 2004

The Security Council’s main responsibility is peace and security. In this realm it performs three major functions: mediation, peacekeeping, and enforcement. Acting under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, the Security Council assists in the peaceful settlement of disputes by mediating conflicts and negotiating settlements. It also establishes and oversees UN peace-keeping forces. After the Cold War when there was greater consensus among the members, the Security Council established numerous peacekeeping operations. In the mid-1990’s there were over 70,000 peacekeepers deployed . Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council can take enforcement measures against offending States or entities. For example, the Security Council has imposed economic sanctions against countries such as Iraq. Under Article 42 of the Charter, the Security Council also can use military force to promote peace and security.

Member States not on the Coucil are often unsatisfied with the results of Security Council operations. These operations are often seen as selfishly motivated by the powerful states taking part, and not sufficiently reflecting the will of the General Assembly as a whole. For example, the recent and ongoing war in Iraq instigated by the United States came with no United Nations mandate and little international consensus.

Some Security Council Actions

The awakening of the Security Council may be dated quite accurately to the Iran-Iraq war when the Security Council’s decision to impose economic penalties on Iran for continuing the war. This was in 1987-1988. The threat of sanctions helped force Ayatollah Khomeini to finally end the war. By the early 1990’s the Council had become effective for mobilizing the world community to repel aggression and maintain peace. The successes did not, however, come without failures.

Since 1945, the Security Council has not been able to stop the deaths of over 30 million people in armed conflict including genocide in Rwanda, wars in Angola, central Africa, Sudan and elsewhere . The Security Council also did nothing to prevent Britain from going to war to claim the Falkland Islands. Also, the most powerful members of the Security Council, charged with promoting peace, are– ironically enough - the world’s biggest arms traders. For Example, the United States continues to arm Israel and the Security Council does nothing.

The Reform Movement

In this section, I will first look at what is currently wrong with the Security Council and then I will discuss possible solutions.

Iraq fiasco and the bypassing of the Security Council – Catalyst for change?

The entire Iraq crisis has been a depressing period for the United Nations. As Chirac said in front of the UN General Assembly, “the war, embarked on without Security Council approval, has undermined the multilateral system.” Having failed to bully the Security Council into supporting the Iraq invasion, President Bush went ahead and attacked without a mandate. After occupying Iraq, President Bush again pushed to attain a United Nations mandate for the American-led coalition hoping that this would encourage other countries to provide financial aid and soldiers. The United States sought assistance but refused to give up leadership to the United Nations. Even with a United Nations mandate, however, its perceived lack of legitimacy ensures that a mandate will not have a large effect.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, recognized that flaws in the Security Council had been brought to light by the protracted debate over the Iraq war, but he was optimistic about the future. Mr. Annan commented that “in a way, Iraq has more or less driven home to leaders around the world that the United Nations is a precious instrument, the United Nations is important…There are lots of issues that no one country, no matter how powerful, can deal with alone.” The United States in its narrow minded unilateralism needs to work within the United Nations framework in order to be effective. Not only can the United States then share the financial burden but it can also garner international credibility and legitimacy.

Annan stressed that because the United Nations was no longer involved in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the search would continue to lack credibility. “I know that we have the British and American scientists looking for weapons in Iraq. They may find them, they may not find them. But even if they find them would they be credible?” Chances are we can only speculate on this question posed by Anna since so far the United States’ “coalition of the willing” has yet to turn up any WMDs. French President Chirac reiterated Annan’s point when he addressed the General Assembly. He said, “multilateralism is the key, for it ensures the participation of all in the management of world affairs. It is a guarantee of legitimacy and democracy, especially in matters regarding the use of force or laying down [of] universal norms.”

Security Council Representation Imbalance

Washington wanted the international community via the United Nations Security Council to take a tougher line on Iraq. The council, however, is far from representative of the international community. Decisions really come down to five countries meeting behind closed doors. This same group of permanent, veto-bearing members has shaped nearly every major international peace and security decision since World War II. Currently, four out of five veto-bearing members are industrialized countries and the fifth, China, is rapidly approaching industrialized status. Many in the rest of the world seethe at their exclusion from this elite group. Africa, Latin America, and the Islamic world, for example, have no permanent voice on the council. Without a voice, it is understandable why many countries are unwilling to send troops or aid whenever the Security Council demands it. This imbalance, highlighted by the Iraq war, has made Security Council reform a hot topic of debate.

Reform History

Any change in the membership of the Security Council requires a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly, which includes all the permanent members. The only change so far to the Security Council was in 1965. At that time, non-permanent membership was enlarged from six to its present ten.

It is generally agreed that something still needs to change. Even though everyone seems to agree on the fundamental idea of reform, efforts have been stymied for over a decade. Most reform proposals relate to the work, size, and composition of the Security Council. Concerning size and composition, the General Assembly at the prompting of General Secretary Kofi Annan adopted resolution 48/26 in 1993. This established the Open-ended Working Group to consider all the issue of Security Council membership reform.. For a decade now, diplomats and committees have been working on Security Council reform. Most of the discussion has revolved around technicalities such as how much should it be expanded, should they be permanent members, and whether they should have vetoes or whether vetoes should be abolished altogether.

In 1997, there was a strong push to get Germany and Japan permanent Security Council seats. The initiative faced many hurdles that eventually derailed the effort. Many delegations opposed any more permanent members since they would create more arbitrary distinctions between member states. Other delegations felt it was unfair to only add Germany and Japan since it would elevate yet another European state and make the council even more unrepresentative of the world’s people. Italy intensely opposed the Germany-Japan initiative and pushed for its own Italian Proposal. This proposal rejected further permanent members in favor of a special class of intermediate states that would be elected periodically by the General Assembly and would rotate in and out of Security Council seats.

Many argue for expansion, if only to reflect the steady rise in membership in the United Nations. The General Assembly has grown from 51 to 191! The number of permanent members, however, has remained the same. Most reform proposals suggest expanding the council from five to ten permanent members, and elected members from ten to fourteen. Beyond that there is little agreement. What should the new geographic composition be? Which new members should be awarded permanent seats? Should states be elected by regional groupings?

“If you add another five permanent members, all of them casting vetoes, forget about anything being accomplished,” says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum. “It’s not just casting a veto, but the threat of casting a veto that keeps the whole issue off the agenda. A lot of council members wanted to act regarding Chechnya, but the Russians wouldn’t even allow any discussion, much less action.”

The countries that will most likely receive a permanent seat on the Security Council if it ever happens would be Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil. Later in this paper I will discuss in further detail the position of individual countries.

Security Council Reform Idea: Giving or taking away the Veto

How did the permanent five secure these privileges in the first place? After World War II, the victors took another crack at forming an international body to bring stability to the globe. Hoping to do better than the ill-fated League of Nations, the victors anointed themselves responsible for providing the money and muscle to “maintain international peace and security.” Others saw them as simply protecting their own interests, but decided that this was a small price to pay if it meant peaceful coexistence. The Cold War unfolded soon after and polarized the globe and effectively froze the Security Council. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, this inactivity changed. There was an outbreak of ethnic, tribal, and religious conflict across the globe which spurred Security Council activism in both peacekeeping missions and punitive sanctions. At that point, the rest of the world, confronted with an active and powerful Security Council began to question the wisdom of the veto.

Use of the veto after the Cold War has dropped off dramatically but the statistics belie the true power of the right to veto. The mere threat of the veto has prevented many actions or talks to ever get under way. For example, the Security Council never acted in Chechnya since it was assured that Russia would veto any measure. Following is a graph that shows how many times each of the Permanent Five countries have used this power. Also included is a chart showing the subjects of recent veto issues.

Subjects of UN Security Council Vetoes
Source: data from the UN and Sydney D. Bailey and Sam Daws “The procedure of the UN
Security Council,” 3rd Edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998
Year Date of Vote Vetoing Vote Subject
Member State (yes-veto-
no or abstain)
2003 October 14 USA 10-1-4 on the security wall built by
Israel in the West Bank.

September 16 USA 11-1-3 on the Israeli decision
to "remove" Palestinian
Authority leader Asser Arafat.
2002 December 20 USA 12-1-2 on the Israeli killings of
several UN employees and
the destruction of the World
Food Program (WFP) warehouse

June 30 USA 13-1-1 on the renewal of the UN
peacekeeping mission in Bosnia
and the immunity of US
peacekeepers from ICC
2001 December 14 USA 12-1-2 on the withdrawal of Israeli
forces from Palestinian-
controlled land and condemning
acts of terror against

March 27 USA 9-1-4 on establishing a UN observer
force to protect Palestinian
civilians (report of Council
meeting SC/7040)
2000 no vetoes
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------1999 February 25 China 13-1-1 on the extension of UNPREDEP
in the Republic of Macedonia
1998 no vetoes
1997 March 21 USA 13-1-1 Demanding Israel's immediate
cessation of construction at
Jabal Abu Ghneim

March 7 USA 14-1-0 Calling upon Israel to refrain
from East Jerusalem settlement

January 10 China 14-1-0 Authorization for 155
observers for the purpose of
verification of the ceasefire
in Guatemala

While in recent years the permanent members have shown restraint in using the veto, this guarantees nothing of the future. Moreover, the simple threat to use the veto has been shown to strongly effect the final outcome of Security Council debates. The position of Belgium’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Erik Derycke is that “the right to veto is incompatible with the general interest.” Many countries feel the same.

Security Council Reform Idea: More Transparency

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 to bringing the Security Council and the General Assembly closer together.

Security Council Reform: Dissolution

One bold proposal would forget about expansion of the Security Council and just 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 powers. 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.

Perspective of the Players

I have already given an overview of the United Nations and Security Council. I have also discussed why reform is needed and what some possible reforms are. This section will now discuss the various positions that different major countries have taken in the reform debates. The countries discussed will include the current Permanent Members and commonly discussed candidates for expansion.

Keep in mind that changes in the United Nations Charter requires the vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly. Obviously, the support of the veto-bearing members is particularly important since they carry a lot of weight and influence.

The Permanent Five: China

It is in China’s interest not to make any drastic changes probably because it is already a veto-bearing Security Council member. In an official statement to the United Nations Working Group on Security Council of Reform in 1998, Ambassador Shen Goufang crystallized the position of China. First, on the topic of the veto Goufang said that the veto “was formed on the basis of lessons drawn from the experience of the League of Nations. Its existence is a historical necessity as well as an objective reality. Therefore, in our view, the mechanism of veto has both historical and practical rationality.”

Second, Goufang discussed what reforms would be acceptable and effective. He opts for more democratic and inclusive working methods rather than more drastic expansion plans. In essence, Goufang argues for more transparency by further cementing “the Council’s relationship with the General Assembly and the vast number of Member States…so that decisions and actions taken by the Council will be able to reflect the will of the overwhelming majority of Member States.” Referring again in the same statement to the veto, Goufang says that instead of losing veto power, “Permanent Members of the Security Council should exercise caution” when thinking of using the veto.

The Permanent Five: France

Less than three months ago, French President Chirac made a bold statement in support of Security Council expansion. The main motivation cited was strengthening the Security Council so that it would carry more international legitimacy. Chirac also pointed out that since the inception of the Security Council “there are countries that were unknown that have become very important for political reasons, demographic reasons, [and] economic reasons.” Chirac called specifically for the addition of Germany and Japan – two countries often mentioned for inclusion. Chirac also mentioned that he could see Asian, African, and Latin American countries gaining seats as well. He singled out India as a possible candidate saying “it’s very hard to imagine how one could exclude India from the possibility of having a permanent seat in Security Council given its characteristics.”

On the subject of the veto, France is unwilling to give up its right and it is unclear about whether it would be willing to give new Permanent Members the veto power.

The Permanent Five: United Kingdom

Britain has long been consistent in its support for an expanded Security Council. Robin Cook, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, supported expansion in a statement to the General Assembly in 1997. He argued that

“the Security Council must move on if it is not to lose its legitimacy. Japan and Germany should be included in an expanded permanent membership, and there should be a new balance between developed and developing countries in a modernized Security Council. We are all agreed on the need for change; we have been discussing it for four years. It is time that we agreed that a proposal for change which has the backing of the vast majority of Members is better than a status quo which has the backing of none.”

Five years after this statement a proposal for change still has not made it through the General Assembly. Along with Germany and Japan, in early 2002 Britain’s Blair also assured India that Britain supported India’s quest for a permanent seat.

The Permanent Five: Russia

The idea of reforming the Security Council is not a top priority of Russia. Russia will neither initiate nor particularly insist upon reform, especially if the power of veto is altered. At this time, Russia is generally seen as not strong enough to dictate anything that is solely in her interest. That is not to say, however, that Russia’s interests will be ignored outright. It still has a formidable collection of nuclear weapons that can not be discounted.

In a 1999 statement to the Working Group on Security Council Reform, a Russian representative said that the veto is “crucial to [the current Council’s] ability to function effectively and to arrive at balanced and sustainable decisions.” I think that this Representative has hit upon a pragmatic truth. The veto provision may ensure that any Council decision that does pass will have a good chance of actual implementation. Russia’s view is that the veto is a reality because with or without it countries can hijack decisions be merely refusing to participate or give up resources.

Russia has stated that it is willing to expand the permanent membership but whether they should be given veto power is another matter that “should be given substantial consideration after the composition…[has] been agreed upon.” Russia has, for example, backed the bid of India. Russia is also keen on the idea of improving the Council’s working methods by way of more transparency.

The Permanent Five: United States

“Whether progress will be made on the council reform issue depends on the U.S.” said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official. The United States is the most powerful country in the world and carries tremendous influence.

Its inclusion in the Security Council is crucial, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship is one-sided. The United States, as evidenced by the situation in Iraq, also needs the United Nations. The Bush “go it alone” attitude is ineffective and detrimental to peace and security. In a world so dependent on global trade and ties, the United States cannot afford to be arrogant. Perhaps current president Bush will internalize the lesson of the recent WTO steel tariff decision against the United States. The lesson being: the rest of the world has plenty of leverage against the sole superpower of the world.

The United States has, however, supported reform of the Security Council. During the Clinton administration, the United States backed and fought hard for expansion and inclusion of Germany and Japan. The plan eventually stalled after a number of small and weaker states were afraid that their influence would diminish with expansion. With the collapse of this plan the momentum for reform in the mid 1990s was lost. The United States invested a lot in this effort and unfortunately nothing was ever passed.

On the topic of the veto, the conservative leadership in the United States is fearful that they will lose sovereignty if their veto power is ever diluted or taken away. The veto power is also, not surprisingly, used most by the United States - recently to defend its Israeli allies from any formal criticism (see veto history on pg.11). Another concern of the United States, whether under the leadership of liberal internationalists or conservative nationalists, is that the Security Council not be too large and unwieldy that it cannot come to conclusions.

Potentials: Japan

Japan is first or second in line to get a permanent seat on the Security Council if it is ever expanded. Japan has worked very actively to realize reform without ever succeeding. In a 2000 Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs document, Japan’s position was outlined. Here are some of the main points.

“1. It is absolutely necessary to expand the permanent membership with the addition of both developed and developing countries which possess the ability and will to assume global responsibility for international peace and security. Japan is prepared to assume greater responsibilities as a permanent member of the reformed Security Council.

3. In order to maintain both effectiveness and representativeness, the appropriate size of the expanded Security Council should be twenty-four members, with the addition of two developed and three developing countries to the permanent membership and four non-permanent members.

5. Concerning the veto, as a matter of principle, there should be no differentiation between new and old permanent members. In Japan’s view, the resolution of this issue will require the political judgment of all nations at the final states of negotiation.
6. The Security Council’s work methods should be improved to increase transparency and accountability.”

Another point that Japan has brought up to justify its place on the Security Council is the fact that they are major contributors to the United Nations budget. In fact they shouldered over 20% of the budget in 2000 – second only to the United States.

Japan’s bid is not without opposition. Opposition comes not only from member states but also domestically. In Japan, a large sector of the public fears that a Security Council seat might draw Japan into distant conflicts and strengthen Japanese militarism.

Potentials: Germany

Usually spoken in the same sentence as Japan, Germany is another country that will likely be added if expansion ever occurs. Germany’s situation also shares a lot in common with Japan’s situation.

Both enjoy the support of many member states. One notable exception is Italy. Italy intensely opposes a permanent seat for Germany and has often made harsh references to history in making its case. Italy is also probably worried of being the one major industrialized European country left out of the council. Instead, Italy has proposed that no new permanent members be added but an expansion in the number of non-permanent members. Germany also faces some domestic opposition from the conservatives in Germany. Germany also insist that as second and third largest due-payers they are entitled to special status.

Potentials: Brazil

Brazil is seen as a leading contender for a seat among developing countries and in its South American region. Currently, there is no permanent representation from South America and little representation from developing countries. In a statement to the United Nations Working Group on reform, the Brazilian Government states that it would like to see changes take into consideration “the emergence of countries – developed and developing alike – that are capable and willing to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. Permanent membership would entail additional responsibilities and costs.” One issue that opponents of Brazil’s entry is that it fails to represent the South American region well since the official language is Portuguese and not Spanish.

Potentials: India

Recently (2001-02), India has clamored for Security Council reform. Any expansion of the Security Council would definitely include a developing country since this representation is currently lacking. India is using this argument that the Security Council is “unrepresentative and anachronistic” to push forward its own agenda of gaining a seat on the Security Council. Along with Brazil, India is seen as one of the strongest candidates among developing countries.

A large number of powerful countries have come out in support of India’s bid. Britain, Russia, and France have all made strong statements supporting India in its quest. In the strongest example of support, Britain’s commitment was solidified in the New Delhi declaration signed by Blain and Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee in early 2002. “Britain continues to view India as a natural contender for permanent membership of the Security Council and will work with India to achieve it,” the declaration said.


Security Council reform is unlikely to be taken seriously while George Bush is still in office. Hopefully the frustration that has gathered in connection with the unilateral action of the United States in Iraq will translate to momentum at an opportune time. At which time, Security Council reform will have a chance to succeed.

In my own opinion, I believe that moving forward the best reform would be to expand the Security Council by five permanent members who do not get the veto power. I think that this is pragmatically the best idea because it has a realistic chance to pass. Furthermore, it makes the Security Council more representative of the world without making the Council too bulky.

The challenges facing today’s international community, such as tension in the Middle East, AIDS, and the environment, can only be resolved through coordinated and multilateral efforts. The reason being is the global nature of many of these problems. As the United Nations debates possible reform let us not forget the importance of having a strong international organization. As frustrating as it might be for the largest country or the smallest country to work within the United Nations framework the alternatives are not worth considering.

Work Cited

United Nations website.

“Who’s in, Who’s Out: UN Security Council Mulls Reform.” Christian Science Monitor. Oct. 16, 2002. Michael Jordan.

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Reform of the United Nations is a much debated subject constantly on the UN agenda. This essay argues that UN reform is necessary in order to strengthen the UN’s effectiveness as a multilateral organization, bring more transparency to the institution and enhance its credibility. The main focus is on the reform of the Security Council (SC), as this is the most powerful UN institution with the most potential for bringing change. However, by further investigating the existing problems of the SC, it becomes clear that in fact the implementation of reform is extremely complex and widely contested. A Liberal Idealist view will be taken below, seeing a realistic opportunity for change and improvement (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 213). Nevertheless, considering valid Realist arguments that the permanent five SC members are further likely to decelerate SC reform (ibid.) seeing it is against their own interests, the process of SC reform and thus, of the whole UN system can only happen gradually. This essay also briefly discusses other areas in need of reform such as UN financing and the General Assembly (GA).

The UN was set up with the principal aim of maintaining world peace and security (Article 1.1; Cassese, 2005: 320). However, it has been more successful in areas seen as less significant by its founding fathers in 1945, such as diminishing colonialism and promoting human rights, than in maintaining peace and security and settling disputes likely to endanger peace (ibid: 323). The UN is in need of reform to realign its goals with its activities (Luck, 2004: 361). The world of 1945 was very different from the world in the 21st century. Many of the structures and processes of the UN reflect a bygone era – changes that have happened in the last 65 years must be taken into consideration. Not only has the UN increased its number of member states from 51 to 192 in 2006 (Taylor&Curtis, 2008: 314), but also, new global issues have arisen since 1945 (Brand, 2005: 160), such as the lack of natural resources, the rapid population increase, environmental issues, climate change, weapons of mass destruction, and new internal conflicts representing a threat to peace (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 215). Furthermore, some of the UN’s structures have shown great inefficiencies, ranging from the incapability of the UN to make states pay their membership fees (Global Policy Forum1, 2010), to terrible peacekeeping failures (Open Democracy, 2006) and the inability of the SC to act in order to prevent the genocide in Rwanda (BBC News, 2004). Yet, there is sharp disagreement on which aspects should be reformed (Global Policy Forum2, 2010). Many smaller states are in favour of a more effective multilateral organization, however, the most powerful governments, are generally opposed to strengthening the institution and use their power to stop any significant change (ibid.). Making changes to the UN’s complex structure and processes has proved extremely difficult, especially when it comes to ‘constitutional changes’, amendments of the UN Charter, (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 213) of which there have so far only been three (Weiss, 2009: 160).

Quoting the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005, “No reform of the UN would be complete without reform of the Security Council” (Annan, 2005). The SC is the UN’s main executive body with the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security (Article 24) and the necessity of SC reform is widely agreed upon (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 225). It does not reflect today’s distribution of military and economic power, nor a geographical balance (Taylor&Curtis, 2008: 317). Much rather, it still consists of the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and the ten non-permanent members, elected by the GA every two years, thus, reflecting a Realist hierarchy within the UN system (ibid: 315).  In spite of rapid growth during the decolonization process and increasing pressures for SC expansion (Luck, 2006: 113), strong cases for permanent membership of major member states powers, such as Germany and Japan, as well as of developing countries, such as South Africa, India, Egypt and Nigeria, have been unsuccessful so far. (Taylor&Curtis, 2008: 317). Furthermore, the veto granted to the five permanent members that can disable SC decisions, makes it extremely difficult to reform (Weiss, 2009: 162). During the Cold War the envisioned collective security system failed, due to the East-West-division (Cassese, 2005: 323) and the UN’s deep financial and constitutional crisis, as several  countries refused to pay for peacekeeping operations such as in Congo (Luck, 2004: 367). In 1965, the Council was enlarged from the initial six non-permanent members to ten, remaining the only SC enlargement process within its history (ibid.) After the Cold War, there was a greater surge for reform; thus, in 1993; the General Assembly’s Open-Ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters Related to the Security Council was established (ibid: 115). It has addressed veto and voting procedures but has so far proven to be more effective in improving accountability and transparency (ibid.). In 1997, Razali Ismail, the President of the GA in 1996-7, proposed a reform plan to the Working Group, including enlargement and working methods, which was unsuccessful (ibid: 116). A further attempt at SC reform by Kofi Annan was the creation of a high-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP) (ibid: 117). However, despite all of the efforts of the last 20 years, the SC has not seen great change.

While there are arguments that an expansion of the SC would make it more representative of the 192 UN members, in fact most members would still remain unaffected by SC enlargement even if it were to allow seats for developing countries such as South Africa, India, Egypt, Brazil or Nigeria (Luck, 2006: 122). Furthermore, it would be very difficult to justify which states were awarded seats and which not. Japan, for instance, is the second biggest financial contributor to the UN but has still not been awarded a seat (ibid: 120). Perhaps the SC should be represented by blocs, such as the European Union, instead of a British, a French and a potential German seat (Taylor&Curtis, 2008: 317). Further blocs could represent other regions not yet in the SC, such as Mercosur or the African Union. However, the P-5 are likely to continue to oppose expansion. Furthermore, if the SC were to have even more members, it would probably make it even harder to achieve agreement. In order to make the SC more capable of change, it would also be necessary to abolish the veto. The P-5 could voluntarily restrain their veto powers and restrict them to matters of humanitarian intervention, for instance, but this is again, unlikely to happen (Weiss, 2009: 165). Another possibility is for coalitions of states to seek moral approval outside the SC, as did the Kosovo Commission when NATO intervened in Kosovo, arguing that the intervention may be ‘illegal’ without SC authorization but still ‘legitimate’ on ethical grounds (ibid.). Alternatively, the veto can be by-passed by adopting “the General Assembly in Emergency Special Session under the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure” (ibid.). However, this process has its limits, as a 2/3 majority is necessary in the GA, its resolutions are not legally binding and many countries are reluctant to act without SC authorization (ibid). Furthermore, the SC’s working methods must be improved, especially concerning transparency and reporting measures, as well as repetitive speeches during sessions (Luck, 2006: 122-126). This is essential to the enhance the SC’s performance and it would also have a more immediate impact for many countries than an SC enlargement, as the working methods address how the members outside the SC are “represented”, while enlargement would affect relatively few (ibid.). A key issue for the SC is engagement with the US (Weiss, 2009: 167-168). While, the US was crucial in creating the UN (ibid.), it has also greatly diminished the SC’s credibility, as in its unauthorized military action in Iraq and its interest in unilateral rather than multilateral power (Glennon, 2009: 150). Cooperation of shared interests should be highlighted, such as Resolution 1368 condemning terrorism and the spread of infectious diseases such as (HIV/AIDS, Ebola virus, SARS) (Weiss, 2009: 167). While Realists such as Glennon argue that a successful SC reform is unlikely (2009: 159), it is vital for the SC to act in order to keep and improve the general acceptance of its authority and legitimacy (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 225).

Of course there are many more areas in need of reform. The following paragraph offers an overview of some of the most popular reform topics. It can be said that the UN has a lot to do but too little money, as it is in a permanent financial crisis due to the unwillingness of many members to pay their contributions on time (ibid: 221-222). Thus, in August 2003, only 98 members had made their full payments and in March 2004, 24 countries had still not paid (ibid.). Possible solutions to reform UN finances are a ‘reserve fund’ or even a ‘world tax’ (ibid.). As long as the UN’s budget remains tightly constrained, it cannot be effective (Global Policy Forum, 2010). GA reform is another important issue, as it is usually only on the sidelines of mainstream debates and can only make non-binding recommendations (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 225-226). There have been suggestions to make it resemble a bicameral parliamentary assembly and thus act as a ‘World Parliament’; whether this is likely, however, is questionable (ibid.) The Economic and Social Council has been criticized, as it has become overshadowed by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which are lacking democratic processes, transparency, and accountability (Global Policy Forum3, 2010). Thus, there have been suggestions to replace ECOSOC with a smaller and more effective “Social and Economic Security Council” (ibid.). Furthermore, a reform of international law should be considered (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 233-234). While the vast number of international law treaties affecting international trade, economics and human rights has proved very effective, laws prohibiting the use of force have been less so, as states primarily still follow their own interests, such as the forceful regime change in Iraq by the US-ledcoalition (ibid.). In 2000, the Brahimi Report proposed wide reforms for Peacekeeping, as in recent years peacekeeping missions have often failed (Gareis&Varwick, 2005: 227-228), as in Rwanda. Its demands for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations include to constitute more necessary personnel and structural preconditions for complex missions, as well as tangible results from member states (ibid). In 2008, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon further outlined needs for improvement in areas such as the environment, public health and human security (UN News Centre, 2008).

In conclusion, as numerous UN failures have shown, reform of the UN, and of SC in particular, is essential for the UN to make more effective decisions and act under great stress. Several largely unsuccessful SC reform efforts have shown, however, that SC reform is extremely difficult to implement, mainly due to the Big Five’s veto. Furthermore, there is the question of which aspects to reform. SC enlargement, though bringing the advantage of representing regions that so far have had no permanent seat, might only further decrease the SC’s decision-making ability. Restraining the veto power would make a big difference but is unlikely to be agreed to by the permanent members. There is also the issue of great powers, especially the US, by-passing SC regulations, in order to act in their own interests. Change in SC working methods is probably the most likely reform in the near future and has already shown some success. Improving the SC’s openness and transparency is definitely a start. This essay has also demonstrated that many more areas need to be reformed in order to make the UN more effective, such as UN finance. All in all, while change must and will happen if the UN does not want to lose its global role, there seems to be no immediate solution to SC reform; it is likely to remain a slow process.



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Written by: Nicola-Ann Hardwick
Written at: Royal Holloway, University of London
Written for: Dr. Stephanie Carvin
Date written: March 2010