Global Policy Forum

Comments by Global Policy Forum on Security Council Reform

July 2009


In 1994, the UN General Assembly began discussions about the reform of the Security Council. Member states broadly agreed that the Council was unrepresentative and undemocratic, but they could not reach agreement on reform proposals. The Assembly's "Open-Ended Working Group" continued its debate for so long that it came to be known humorously as the "Never-Ending Working Group." Its failure to act was not due to indolence or indifference but rather to deep divisions among states over the future of the Security Council and how its representation should change.

Today, fifteen years later, debate on the topic continues. But the GA discussion has recently picked up steam. On September 15, 2008, the Assembly moved its discussions into a formal intergovernmental negotiation. Since then, there have been two rounds of negotiations in the winter and spring of 2009. Negotiators have addressed several key issues, notably:

• Categories of membership
• The veto
• The relationship between the General Assembly and the Security Council
• The future size of the Council
• Working methods of the Council

Fundamentally, two opposed visions have clashed. On one side stand the countries hoping to attain permanent membership in the Council. These "aspirant" members and their allies are led by the "G-4" composed of Japan, Germany, Brazil and India. Opposing them are regional rivals such as Italy, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea and others, who lead another group, known as Uniting for Consensus. A third group, powerful but relatively silent, is the bloc of current permanent members. They evidently seek to maintain their own privileges and to keep the aspirants outside their exclusive club.

The 2009 "push" for a breakthrough on Council reform is the third since the talks began. The previous moments of high activity came in 1997 and in 2005. On both occasions, a burst of diplomatic maneuvers and pressure by aspirant members did not produce an agreement. GA President Razali Ismail in 1997 abandoned a broader reform agenda and sought a "quick fix" - which would have given permanent Council membership to Japan and Germany and left aside permanent membership for the emerging powers of Latin America, Asia and Africa. But his effort collapsed in the face of broad opposition. The majority of UN members felt that such a move would unfairly favor the rich countries of the North over the poorer cousins from the South and make the Security Council more unrepresentative than ever.

The discussion today goes well beyond the simple issue of permanent membership. It includes: Whether or not there should be more elected ("non-permanent") members and if so what the ideal size of the Council should be. Whether there should be different "categories" of membership beyond the existing categories - that is, whether some members should be added for longer terms.  And whether the controversial veto privilege should be restricted or abolished.

The Council reform debate in its details can appear complex, obscure and even insignificant, but in its fundamentals it is extremely important and revealing. It reflects the wider issue of power and privilege in the world system. Some countries want to hang on to their power, others want to make claims based on their rising power, while still others prefer a more equitable system, less dominated by an oligarchy of privilege. This same debate rages elsewhere -- over the governance of the IMF and the World Bank, the role of the G-8 and the G-20 and many other matters of global decision-making.

It will be intriguing to see whether this latest reform "push" results in action, or whether it too collapses in the face of diametric opposition. Some observers think that this time, a viable proposal may emerge, based on enlargement of the elected Council members. GPF believes that enlargement will never solve the quandary of representation and may even make the Council more unwieldy and ineffective. Instead, a regional basis of representation (with seats for Europe, Latin America, etc.) would provide the best possibility for a really representative, effective and democratic Council in the years ahead.


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