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Why UNSC reform is elusive

THE world has seen sweeping geopolitical changes over the past 70 years. The international landscape has been fundamentally transformed by the dispersion of power more widely among states. This redistribution of global power is a dynamic process and continues apace, accelerated by economic and technological developments of the 21st century. The shift in economic power from the West to the rest is one of the defining features of the contemporary world. Multipolarity is an increasing reality. So too is the fact that in a diverse, complex and interconnected world even the most powerful countries cannot achieve outcomes on their own and need the help of allies.

The institutional architecture of the international system, however, remains the product of a specific historical era. International institutions — the Bretton Woods twins, IMF and World Bank, and the United Nations — created in 1944-1945, reflect the realities of that time. The structure and composition of the UN’s premier organ, the Security Council, reflect the historical arrangement reached 78 years ago by the victors of World War II. They became the five permanent members of the Council that has 10 non-permanent elected members. Possession of the veto power further buttressed the P5’s position and created an inequality that persists to date. Thus the UN body charged with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and whose decisions are supposed to be binding remains anchored in the past.

Calls for reform of the 15-member Council have been heard over the decades from countries across the world. Most recently, UN Secretary General António Guterres again added his voice to these calls. Speaking at a press conference last week in Japan, on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit, he said it was time to reform both the Security Council and Bretton Woods institutions to align them with the “realities of today’s world”. These institutions, he added, reflect the power relations of 1945 and needed to be updated.

It isn’t as if efforts for reform haven’t been undertaken. Since 2009 talks have been going on to reform the Security Council in informal sessions of the General Assembly. The GA which created the intergovernmental negotiations process set the goal of comprehensive Council reform involving five equally important and interlinked issues. These are: categories of membership, veto, regional representation, size and working methods of an expanded Council, and the relationship between the Security Council and General Assembly.

Countries agree on reform but fundamental disagreements persist on specifics.

There is general agreement among countries on reform and increasing the Council size, with more representation for developing states, especially Africa. But beyond agreement to make the Council more representative by additional non-permanent members and improving its working methods, consensus on other issues has been elusive. The question of veto continues to be a source of intense contention while convergence on other issues has emerged over the years. Dialogue has never broken down but fundamental differences persist, which continue to hold up reform.

The principal disagreement, mainly responsible for slow progress in decades-long negotiations, is between countries that aspire for permanent seats for themselves and others who oppose this and, instead, propose enlarging the Council by adding more elected, non-permanent members. This has put the so-called G4 — Germany, Japan, India and Brazil — at odds with the Uniting for Consensus (UFC) countries led by Italy and including Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Canada and other like-minded states. G4 countries support more permanent members as well as additional non-permanent seats, while asserting their claim to permanent membership ostensibly on grounds of their economic strength, political standing and contributions to the UN. They back each other for Council membership and have also secured support from some P5 countries. For example, the US and UK support Japan, Germany, Brazil and India for permanent membership. The common African position is support for expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories. This is predicated on the view that the continent’s under-representation is an act of historical injustice, which should be addressed.

The UFC group, in which Pakistan has always played an active role, calls for comprehensive reform and seeks a Council that is more representative, accountable, democratic and effective by adding elected members who can counter-balance the power of the veto-wielding P5 countries. The UFC argues that the Council’s frequent deadlock and paralysis is due to discord and the clashing interests of the P5, which prevents it from playing the role expected of it and enjoined by the Charter. Adding more permanent members with veto powers will only compound this dysfunction, not end it.

Pakistan voices the position of other UFC countries by arguing that reform should not reinforce inequality and preserve privilege for a few, but give all member states, big, medium and small, a chance to serve on the Council by rotating elected seats. This would make the body more representative of the membership. Moreover, in the democratic era, reform should be in sync with the spirit of the age. The principle of election is the bedrock of democracy. That should also apply to Council reform. More elected members will make it more democratic and accountable to the general membership.

The G4 and UFC don’t just have divergent perspectives. They have conflicting visions about the nature and future of the UN. One vision seeks to accord privileged status to a handful of countries on the basis of ‘permanence’. The other wants to see the organisation embody the principles of democracy and representativeness and offer opportunities to all states to become Council members.

Against this backdrop, the prospects for reform depend on how these and other differences are reconciled, which is by no means easy. Even if this can somehow be achieved, the process of reform will have other challenges to surmount. Reform requires the UN Charter to be amended. This involves the General Assembly adopting a resolution on reform by a two-thirds majority. And then, the amendment based on the resolution, has to be ratified by at least two-thirds of the UN membership as well as the five permanent members. All this makes reform a distant possibility even though a major push for it is anticipated at next year’s Summit of the Future.

Maleeha Lodhi, "Why UNSC reform is elusive," Dawn. 2023-05-29.
Keywords: Social science , Social issues , Social rights , Social needs , Social reforms , Social justice