United Nations Security Council Reform Michael Teng

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United Nations Security Council Reform

Michael Teng

EDGE Autumn 2003

Professor Bruce Lusignan

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 Nations Security 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.1 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. 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.2 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


Membership Term ends


Permanent Member


31 December 2004


31 December 2003


31 December 2003


31 December 2004

Russian Federation

Permanent Member


31 December 2004

Syrian Arab Republic

31 December 2003

United Kingdom

Permanent Member

United States

Permanent Member


31 December 2004


31 December 2003


31 December 2003


Permanent Member


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 VI3 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 deployed4. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council can take enforcement measures against offending States or entities.5 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.6

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.7 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 elsewhere8. The Security Council also did nothing to prevent Britain from going to war to claim the Falkland Islands.9 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.”10 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.”11 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?”12 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.” 13

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 1993.14 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.15 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.

Security Council Reform Idea: Expansion of Security Council


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.”16

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.

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