Global Policy Forum

The P5 and the Slow Pace of Security Council Reform


By Karl Limbert and Alexander Ramsbotham

UN & Conflict Monitor
Spring 2000

The P5 and the Slow Pace of Security Council Reform



Kofi Annan's Millennium Report, We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, released on 3 April 2000, highlights the urgent need for reform of the Security Council. In the report, Annan stresses that it is vital:

To reform the Security Council, in a way that both enables it to carry out its responsibilities more effectively and gives it greater legitimacy in the eyes of all the world's peoples.

Indeed, the size and structure of the Security Council has been contested since its creation. In 1945, many member states argued vigorously against permanent membership and the power of veto awarded to China, France, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States - the Permanent Five (P5). However, it was acknowledged that such arrangements reflected the overriding global political influence of the P5 and that, without these privileges, the US and USSR would not ratify the UN Charter. Thus, under Article 25 of the Charter, member states agreed to "accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council". In 1965, the number of non-permanent seats on the Council were increased from six to ten in an amendment to article 23, to reflect the increase in UN membership, and to improve representation of the African and Asian regions.

Pressure for reform intensified after the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the USSR, the rise of Germany and Japan as global powers, the relative decline of Britain and France and an expansion in UN peacekeeping had all combined to increase demands that the Council's membership and composition be reconsidered. In particular, member states argued that the existing permanent membership was anachronistic, that the Council's limited size was disproportionate to that of the General Assembly, and that the five regional groupings (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and Other States) were not equally represented. Indeed, Annan's Millennium Report stressed that:

Based on the distribution of power and alignments in 1945, the composition of the Council today does not fully represent either the character or the needs of our globalised world.

Open Ended Working Group

In response to the increasing concern of UN member states, an Open Ended Working Group was established in the General Assembly in 1993 to hear proposals and to seek out areas of agreement regarding Security Council reform.

However, apart from a handful of reforms designed to increase transparency in Council procedure, the Working Group has achieved very little. The most divisive issues have related to the enlargement of the permanent and non-permanent membership and the use of the veto. This lack of movement can be attributed to two principal factors: the diversity of opinions over the key issues; and reluctance by the P5 to consider all but the most conservative proposals. With this in mind, we can examine the various reform proposals.

Permanent Membership

There is widespread consensus that any expansion of the Council's permanent membership must include Japan and Germany, as the second and third largest financial contributors to the UN respectively, after the US. However, this would increase domination of the Council by Northern industrialised states and, in particular, the inclusion of Germany would give Europe three permanent seats. Moreover,

There is also broad support for extending permanent membership to states from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Non Aligned Movement (NAM), which accounts for two thirds of the UN membership, has stated that any such expansion must include two seats for Africa. Thus, inclusive of Germany and Japan, this category could be enlarged by six places. However, the P5 would be likely to reject such a proposal on the grounds that it would make the Council unwieldy. Moreover, other states have questioned whether financial contributions to the UN were a valid basis for permanent membership. The Foreign Minister of Mexico famously told the General Assembly that, if this were the case, then a permanent seat should be awarded to CNN boss Ted Turner, who has given $1 billion to the UN.

The UK has proposed offering permanent seats to Germany and Japan and regional seats to Africa, Latin America and Asia. In this way, the political weight of Germany and Japan would be recognised and geographical representation in the Council would be improved. Arguments in favour of such a compromise include that the membership of other UN bodies already rotates on a regional basis, such as the western group in ECOSOC, where member states simply take turns.

However, arguments against include that the precise modality for election has not been specified in the case of the rotating seats for the Security Council, nor is it clear whether each region would have to elect states in the same way. There are also political problems. First, the NAM would be likely to oppose this proposal as it provides for only one African seat. Second, there are suggestions that, for reasons of fairness, all of the permanent seats should be occupied on a rotating regional basis. Indeed, Ambassador Fulci in 1998 suggested the establishment of a European seat. However, none of the P5 are likely to agree to such a proposal and the Brazilian representative in 1998 warned that there was a risk that such a trend could lead to the establishment of a United Regions as opposed to a United Nations.

The Veto

The problem of the veto cuts across the enlargement issue, the most fundamental question addressing its continued existence. Since the veto has often been used indiscriminately by the members of the P5 to further their own national interests, often at the expense of the collective, there have been vociferous calls from inside and outside the UN for its abolition. Understandably, the P5 has resisted such demands and the Charter empowers it to quash any such move. However, the end of the Cold War has seen a marked reduction in the number of times the veto has been used, convincing many member states to suggest voluntary ways of limiting its effect. Germany, for example, has proposed that any use of the veto must be followed by an explanation before the General Assembly; the NAM has asked that the permanent members agree not to use the veto and to express a firm commitment to its being phased out in the long term; Italy has argued that the use of the veto should require the agreement of two permanent members; and other states have suggested restricting its use to Chapter VII issues only.

Another key question relates to whether new permanent members should be given the power of veto. The P5 have fudged this issue by insisting that the debate on offering the veto to new permanent members be postponed until after they have taken their seats. This contradicts repeated calls by the Working Group that the issues in the reform package be considered as an integrated whole. Ultimately, there would appear to be little qualitative difference between permanent rotating seats without the power of veto and the existing non-permanent seats.

Non-Permanent Members

In response to the lack of movement on the veto and permanent membership, the NAM has also focussed on what it refers to as its 'fall back position' of enlarging the non-permanent membership from ten to twenty-one. This is a good deal more than any of the P5 have proposed. The UK and US both support the creation of four new non-permanent seats for the Asian, African, Latin American and Eastern European groups. More importantly, the US and Russia have both told the Working Group that they are unwilling to discuss any reform issues outside the quantitative parameters of 21 Council members in total. However, the P5 are perhaps more likely to move on this issue than either the veto or the permanent membership.

A problem with the NAM fall back position is that it also includes a possible reduction in the representation of the Western European and Other States group in the Council. Since this could involve the loss of one permanent seat, the proposal is likely to meet with strong opposition from the P5. However, the fact remains that this group is over represented in the Council with three permanent seats and two non-permanent seats.

Conclusion: Effectiveness vs Legitimacy

Kofi Annan's Millennium Report emphasised the inherent tension between effectiveness and legitimacy in the Security Council:

The Council must work effectively, but it must also enjoy unquestioned legitimacy. Those two criteria define the space within which a solution must be found.

As we have discussed, reform of the Council - probably through enlargement - is essential to increasing its legitimacy. However, the relationship between enlargement and efficiency is not clear. For instance, it is debatable whether the Council's present structure allows it to function efficiently. Recent events have highlighted the fact that the permanent members continue to pursue national interests over the collective. The Council was pressurised by China to abandon the peacekeeping mission in Macedonia because of that country's ties with Taiwan, while, as mentioned above, many southern states complain about Council bias towards regions where they have political, economic or other interests.

However, lack of effectiveness in decision making has been a common and vociferous complaint against the Council. A recent example was its failure to reach consensus over Kosovo, allowing NATO to take unilateral action without explicit Council authorisation. The P5 members have tended to use such arguments as the rationale for maintaining their exclusive positions. Here, the stance of Russia has proved the most entrenched. At a recent meeting of the General Assembly, Russian Ambassador to the UN, Sergei Lavrov, declared that

[an] inevitable prerequisite of reform was the full maintenance of the full status of the incumbent permanent members of the Council.

He also argued that the veto must not be touched since it had proven

[an] irreplaceable tool for co-ordinated Council activities and to arrive at balanced decisions.

Although such conservative arguments by members of the P5 are often perceived primarily as means to maintain their privileged positions, it should be acknowledged that there are genuine reasons behind their position. The predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations, had a much more cumbersome decision making system, vastly restricting its capacity to reach agreement. Article 5 of the League's Covenant required unanimity for most substantive decisions, allowing the national interests of individual member states to override the organisation's collective aspirations. Furthermore, this state of affairs dissuaded many powerful states from engaging fully with the League (the US actually refused to join), seriously diluting the League's authority and power. Thus, if only for pragmatic reasons, it is important to acknowledge the ideals of the P5 states and strive to secure their support for any reform measures that are introduced, without, however, pandering entirely to their more self-interested ambitions. Thus, while the various arguments relating to Security Council reform appear complex and intractable, the Secretary-General's recent statements have highlighted the necessity to reach agreement in order to maintain the legitimacy, authority and effectiveness of the UN as a whole.

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