Global Policy Forum

Security Council Reform Gains Traction

On the occasion of the UN 67th General Assembly, many leaders, including France’s Francois Hollande, called for an urgent reform of the Security Council (UNSC). Considering the dissatisfaction of emerging powers and the growing influence of developing nations, Kaveh Afrasiabi argues that “the chance of reform appears better now than ever”. Yet, proposals for reform solely focus on an expansion and not a transformation of the existing system. Welcoming more permanent members might allow the UNSC to be more representative of today’s geopolitics but it is definitely not a credible answer to the lack of democratic practices that have always defined the Council’s decision-making mechanism.

By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

September 28, 2012

At this week's parade of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, old and hitherto fruitless talk of reforming the Security Council received a timely revival.

In contrast to past decades of inaction on the issue, the chance of reform appears better now than ever due to several interrelated factors. These include the dissatisfaction of emerging powers with the status quo, the council's occasional paralysis and the growing influence of developing nations via outlets such as the Non-Aligned Movement.

There is also growing consensus in the UN community that reform focused on expansion of and other changes to the Security Council is an important requisite for restructuring the body so it can better address world problems. In his opening speech at the assembly, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon sounded an "alarm" about the condition of turmoil the international community finds itself in today.

What's different about this year's treatment of this issue at the UN annual summit is that so many leaders cited the need for Security Council reform, and not just from the Global South.

French President Francois Hollande may have surprised his Western audience with the centrality he placed on the subject in his UN speech on Tuesday. He stated France's support for an enlargement of the council, a proposal forwarded by Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, and favored an increasing the presence of African nations, including among the body’s permanent members. Being on the Security Council was not "a privilege handed down through time," Hollande said, rather it entailed "the duty to act in situations that required joint responses".

Unfortunately, there was not even an indirect hint of support for this in US President Barack Obama's speech, which was largely a sermon on democratic values to "new democracies", as if the US was a firm custodian of free speech. The simple fact is that there are serious limitations in the US on the right to criticize the state of Israel, as this author has repeatedly experienced.

Clearly, at the moment France and Germany seem the only members of UN Security Council with a genuine interest in expansion of the council. The prevailing sentiment among the other veto holders - US, Russia, England, and China - is to maintain the status quo with perhaps only cosmetic changes in the foreseeable future.

Yet, these powers are now facing fresh pressures that may be impossible to ignore, particularly if the General Assembly turns into a global coalition for Security Council transformation. In that case, the momentum would generate a major credibility problem for the Security Council, as it is basically out of tune with the will of majority of member states.

This much is clear by scrutinizing speeches delivered at the UN that indicated a new willingness to treat Security Council reform as a top priority. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono referred to this issue in the context of his discourse on a post-Cold War "warm peace" that is inherently unstable and demands a serious effort to restructure by the UN.

The sentiment was echoed by, among others, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, who in his much-anticipated speech delivered a damning condemnation of Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people and continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons without any attempt to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while reiterating his peace initiative on Syria and calling for reform of the UN and other global financial institutions.

Although his speech was more moderate in tone than that of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an analysis of Morsi's address shows a great deal of synergy between the two leaders, reflecting a new "twin pillar". (See Egypt and Iran, new twin pillars, Asia Times Online, September 1, 2012).

As of Wednesday, the most powerful attack on the UN's defunct power structure was delivered by Ahmadinejad, who lambasted the Security Council as dictatorial and dominated by a few powers. This was Ahmadinejad's eighth and final speech at the assembly as the Iranian president. He had raised the theme of UN reform in previous speeches but the difference this year was that Ahmadinejad was also speaking as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), representing 120 UN member states.

This meant Western states could no longer simply ignore him or walk out of his talks. However, the US representative did just that, despite Ahmadinejad alluding to the tragedy of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden as the "culprit", and refraining from any mention of Holocaust issues.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a bigger or more democratic UN Security Council would be more effective in tackling the world's growing list of peace and security issues, in light of big power discord between the US and China and a host of other rivalries inviting council inaction or paralysis, as is the case with Syria today, despite growing calls for immediate Security Council action to end the violence in Syria.

Irrespective, the countries advocating Security Council expansion and / or change remain adamant that the council's present structure is outdated and unfit for the 21st century - that the UN must evolve both organizationally and otherwise.

Several key proposals on how to reform the Security Council are on the table, but it may require a new initiative by the secretary general, such as appointing a new "high-level" group to give recommendations on how to proceed, to give the issue real momentum. However, without receiving a green light from the US and other permanent members this is unlikely to happen and it would be unrealistic to expect Ban Ki-moon to unilaterally take on the entire big powers at the Security Council.

Still, Ban is the leader of the entire UN organization and must deal with the growing disquiet of so many members regarding the Security Council's outdated power structure. Even France's gestures are not taken seriously by many Third World diplomats, and some from African nations have told this author that they believe France's "half-hearted" embrace of Security Council reform is merely "tactical".

Perhaps France is simply ahead of its time and - unlike the US and other big powers - realizes that a point of "no return" is approaching.


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