Reforming the UN Security Council - Mission or Membership?
I remember discussing the need for a reform of the UN Security Council nearly 10 years ago when I was still in university. Though nothing has changed with the principal security organ of the UN since then, with the current state of global affairs, the issue seems just as relevant as ever.
As some will know, the UN Security Council is made up of 15 states, five of whom are permanent members with the power to veto any decision. These are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. The ten non-permanent members are elected on a two-year basis and currently consist of Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway and the United Arab Emirates.
The UN was created shortly after the WWII, with the aim of preventing future conflicts through global cooperation (and to address the failings of its predecessor, the League of Nations). Indeed, the UN Charter made it illegal to wage wars altogether (with a few exceptions, naturally, such as the right to self-defence). The five permanent members of the Security Council represent the Allies, or the victors, of WWII. Since the set-up of the UN, those five members have remained the world’s strongest military powers and the only countries with the legal right to carry nuclear weapons.
But global dynamics have changed since the Second World War. And this is crucial, if one is to balance the powers of the UN Security Council with the overall aim of the UN – to prevent war and suffering and protect human rights.
There are two main characteristics that distinguish the UN Security Council from the UN General Assembly. The first is that the Security Council has what is referred to as “Chapter VII” powers. These are powers to authorise collective military action to “restore international peace and security”. However, the UN does not have its own army. To take military action, it is therefore reliant on the armies of its member states. The second is that its decisions are legally binding on UN member states. These two characteristics combined make it a particularly powerful organ, especially when politics are involved.
Despite being in a unique position to intervene during times of conflict where civilians are being subjected to unimaginable horrors, due to international politics and general global dynamics, the UN Security Council has failed, and been criticised for its failure, to intervene in e.g. the conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Syria to name just a few. Indeed, there are relatively few conflicts the Security Council has been able to prevent or terminate since its creation.
Most difficult are the situations where one or more of the permanent Security Council members are themselves involved in international conflicts. Without commenting on the complex history of these conflicts, it is hard to see how the Security Council could ever have authorised interventions in e.g. Vietnam War or even the conflict around Ukraine today, given the existence of veto powers.
Most international lawyers agree that a reform of the Security Council is necessary. The trouble lies in how to reform it.
One suggestion is to scrap permanent membership (and its accompanying veto powers) altogether, and to instate a simple non-permanent rotating membership for all. Although possibly being the fairest option, this is unlikely to work in practice, given that the UN doesn't have its own military. It is reliant on the militaries of its member states. And since the current permanent members have the strongest armies, their “approval” would likely be necessary to intervene in any future conflict anyway.
Another suggestion has been to expand the current permanent members to 10 or 11, with the introduction of Brazil, Germany, India, Japan (known as the G4 countries) plus one African member and/or one member of the Arab League. Personally, I struggle to see how increasing the number of permanent members (and thus the number of countries who could veto a Security Council decision) would help the UN Security Council safeguard international peace and security.
Maybe it is the mission of the UN Security Council that should be reformed, rather than its membership. Perhaps rather than looking to the Security Council to intervene during times of injustice, which is clearly a difficult task, we can look to the development of international law instead. Take for instance the attacks on ISIL in Syria, which I wrote a lengthy academic piece about here. The UN Security Council was blocked from intervening using its Chapter VII powers, but that did not prevent groups of states from coming together to carry out targeted attacks on ISIL, on the belief that it was necessary to prevent human suffering. This is often how rules of international law develop – a large group of countries take actions they believe they are legally obligated or permitted to take, and so the rule is born.
Don’t get me wrong – the UN Security Council plays an important role. I am a firm believer in communications between states (and individuals) as a means of preventing conflict. The fact that a forum exists, that at least formally has the capability to authorise military force and whose decisions bind its members, may at the very least deter some states from taking certain actions they would otherwise take - and that is not something we should take for granted.