You are here: Nora Gordon and Richard Gowan on new pressure for Security Council reform: revolution or distraction?

Is there any point in talking about Security Council reform?  Most of the UN’s members agree that the current structure of the Council, based on the balance of power in 1945, is unfair.  But repeated efforts to change it since the end of the Cold War have failed.  For diplomats serving on the Council today the Syrian crisis, the break-up of Ukraine and a host of African conflicts are vastly more pressing issues.

Yet the Council’s failure to respond effectively to Syria’s collapse has created widespread exasperation among the wider UN membership.  Saudi Arabia signaled this discontent by refusing to take up a seat on the Council last year.  France has stirred up debate with a proposal for curtailing the veto in mass atrocity situations (see Bernard Emié’s article).  A group of small and mid-sized UN members, under the de facto leadership of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, are lobbying for the Council to be more transparent.

This discontent has also created an opening for Brazil, Germany, India and Japan (known as the G4) to revive their joint campaign for new permanent seats on the Council.  The G4 renew their effort every few years – their last sally was in 2011 – but while a majority of UN members support their claims, they have never reached the two-thirds backing needed to win a resolution for reform in the General Assembly.

The G4 hope that time is on their side.  2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding, and the 50th anniversary of the one expansion of the Council (the number of non-permanent seats grew from five to 10 in 1965).  The 2005 World Summit called for “early reform” of the Council.  Next September leaders will descend on New York for another summit, this time on the post-2015 development agenda.  The G4 argue that it should cover Security Council reform too.

The current permanent five members of the Council are split on the issue.  Britain and France generally support the G4, but question the need to have this fight now. 

The Obama administration was initially interested in promoting reform.  But it has largely given up on this issue in no small part because it was so unimpressed by Brazil, India and Germany’s criticisms of the Libyan war.  China and Russia are firmly opposed to change.

Yet the decisive players in advancing the G4’s cause could be the 54 members of the African Union.  If this bloc, or a large part of it, swung behind a model of reform it would probably have the votes to pass.  But since 2005, the African states have been bound by the “Ezulwini consensus”, which demands two permanent and five non-permanent seats for the continent with veto rights for the new permanent members.  This rigid position has slowed down the entire reform discussion.

There have been signs that at least some African countries are willing to move beyond Ezulwini.  At January’s African Union summit, South Africa’s President Zuma called for a ministerial retreat to reconsider the issue.  A group of African leaders met in Brazzaville in May to discuss UNSC reform, and appear to have made little progress.  But discussions with African officials suggest that the doubts about Ezulwini will continue to grow and potentially widen.

If the G4’s members are tactically adroit they may be able to exploit those cracks to create new momentum for reform (equally, China has huge leverage over many African governments, and can use this to defend the status quo).  It is unlikely that there is time between now and next year’s UN summit for the G4 to secure enough votes for reform.  But they probably can use their combined influence to ensure that there is at least some high-level discussion of the question.

For diplomats working on the post-2015 development agenda, that may sound like an irritating distraction.  But if world leaders do meet next year and fail to address Council reform, they will be accused of ignoring the body’s egregious failure in Syria.

Some sort of discussion of Council reform is thus politically necessary and the US, UK and France should put their doubts aside and support this.  The task of crafting a compromise on the matter may fall to Denmark, which has nominated Mogens Lykketoft – Speaker of the Danish Parliament – to serve as President of the General Assembly in 2015-2016.  Assuming Lykketoft is elected (he is currently unopposed) he will have the honour and headache of overseeing the 2015 summit.  Copenhagen should get ahead of the game and appoint a special envoy on Council reform later this year to tour major capitals and work out how to handle this neuralgic issue.

Nora Gordon and Richard Gowan work at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation and are co-authors of a new report on “Pathways to Security Council Reform”.