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USJI Voice

USJI Voice Vol.11

Rethinking Security Council Reform

Dr. Yasuhiro Ueki
Sophia University

Two decades have already passed since Security Council reform was first taken up in the working group of the General Assembly of the United Nations. While inter-governmental negotiations have resumed during the 70th session of the General Assembly, the differences among the Member States on the ways and means of reforming the Council continue to persist. The general debate held in the General Assembly on the question of Security Council reform on 30 October 2015 was indicative of the continuing difficulty in reaching a consensus. Is there any way to break the deadlock and move the process forward? The time has come to give serious consideration to a fresh approach that requires a two-stage solution.

If there is one consensus on Security Council reform, it is that the composition of the Security Council should reflect the changing power configuration of world politics. However, there is no consensus as to what that power configuration currently is.

Japan, which has been on the forefront of the push to become a permanent member as the second largest economic power, has lost its status to the emerging China, already a permanent member, and continues to slip in its financial contribution to the United Nations, falling below 10 percent of the UN budget in 2016. It is a major drop from 2000 when Japan contributed 20 percent of the budget. Germany’s priority is to keep its leadership role of the European Union as it faces challenges from both inside and outside. India and Brazil, the emerging powers desiring to attain permanent status, have not yet emerged with the political power sufficient to challenge the status quo. The African countries remain fragmented as a political force, as its leading countries have not yet overcome internal challenges.

Why has Security Council reform been so difficult to achieve? There are essentially four reasons why UN Member States have been unable to break the stalemate.

First, there is no consensus on the expansion of permanent membership and the size of the expanded Council. Actually, no country opposes the idea of expanding the membership, but when it comes to the question of how far to expand, Member States disagree. The United States, for example, is open to modest expansion of both permanent and non-permanent members and has supported Japan and possibly one more country, presumably Germany, to be made permanent members.

Japan, Germany, India and Brazil have formed the Group of 4 (G-4), and have advocated permanent membership for themselves and support expansion of non-permanent seats, increasing the overall size to 25 countries. The African Group demands two permanent seats and two non-permanent seats. The African Group’s position is supported by the G-4, France and the United Kingdom, among others. The Uniting for Consensus Group with a dozen core group members, which opposes the G-4 initiative, supports enlarging the Council to 26 seats by adding 11 non-permanent seats only. Russia supports expansion but not more than 20 seats, while China supports “reasonable reform” and increased representation of developing countries, though it has not committed to any specific numbers. Neither Russia nor China has clarified the number of additional permanent and non-permanent seats they can support. The Arab Group wants permanent representation for them. The Eastern European Group asks for an additional non-permanent seat, while the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) wants a “special seat’ for island developing countries.

The veto power accorded to the Permanent Members is also a matter of major contention. The G-4 does not negate the veto power for new permanent members but has announced not to use it until it was reviewed some years later. However, the African Group continues to insist on full veto power for the new members, which in the past prevented any consensus among the advocates of reform. France calls for voluntary suspension of the veto in cases of mass atrocities, and this position is supported by the United Kingdom and some others. The United States, however, opposes changes to the veto. Russia and China will not support restrictions to their veto power. Too many permanent members with veto power may in fact stifle the role of the United Nations in dealing effectively with conflicts in many parts of the world, as expanded permanent members are likely to be involved directly or indirectly in many of these conflicts.

The next issue relates to which countries should be made permanent members. Each of the G-4 countries has an arch-nemesis: Korea for Japan, Italy for Germany, Pakistan for India, and in the case of Brazil, both Argentina and Mexico. They formed the core of the “Uniting for Consensus Group” and opposed the G-4 proposal which would make the G-4 countries permanent members at the expense of their competitors. The African Group is thinking of rotating their two permanent seats among Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. However, that creates an anomaly about such status, and there is no guarantee that it may not be challenged by some other African countries in the future. China does not support Japan’s permanent membership.

The fourth issue involves the procedures and the hidden veto power of the permanent members when it comes to the revision of the UN Charter. In accordance with Article 108 of the Charter, amendments can come into force when they have been signed and ratified by two-thirds of the UN membership, including the permanent members. Any proposal for Security Council reform has not yet attained the necessary two-thirds majority support. Even if a proposal has received the required support, one permanent member can block it. China’s position on Japan’s permanent membership suggests that any amendment including Japan’s permanent membership is doomed at this point. If more than two-thirds of the UN membership supports a reform proposal, including Japan’s permanent membership, would China change its position? Judging from the current status of Japanese-Chinese relationship, there is no guarantee that China would.

Other than the G-4 proposal, several other reform proposals have been offered up to now. The seventh UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, on the basis of the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change he established, proposed two ideas in reforming the Security Council in 2005.1 The first idea was to create 6 permanent members without veto and add 3 more non-permanent members, thereby increasing the total number of seats to 24. The second idea was to create 8 semi-permanent members and add one non-permanent member, with the same total of 24. These ideas were not accepted either by the G-4 or by the “Uniting for Consensus Group” for different reasons. The G-4 was determined to carve out additional permanent seats for themselves, while the Consensus Group could not accept any proposal to create an additional privilege without them.

If we are to break this impasse, we should give serious consideration to the two-stage approach to Security Council reform.2 In the first stage, only non-permanent membership will be amended. The number of non-permanent seats may be increased from the current 10 to 16 or slightly more, and their term of office should be extended from the current two years to four years. They should be eligible for immediate re-election, which is not the case right now. That way, most of the regional powers will be in a position to be elected and participate in the decision-making of the Security Council on a longer-term basis, while giving some space to smaller powers to join as well. While the sense of inequality may persist between the permanent and non-permanent members, it will diminish among non-permanent members.

The structure of the Council should be reviewed after 15 years or so with a view to amending the permanent membership, which will constitute the second stage of reform. Whether the reform succeeds or not will depend on the power configuration at that time. The current permanent membership emerged in the wake of the Second World War. Only when another major shift occurs in the distribution of power can the second stage of Security Council reform have a chance to succeed. Of course, there is no guarantee that the world political structure will fundamentally change in 15 years or so, but there are many signs to indicate that we are moving in the direction of a more multi-polar world.

Will such a multi-polar world bring more stability or create greater instability? The current signs are mixed. All the permanent members are involved directly or indirectly in conflicts or politically tense situations, thereby diminishing the role of the UN Security Council in conflict resolution. The Security Council can only be effective when the major powers are united. If more permanent members with veto power emerge, it is more likely to lead to an even further diminishing role for the Security Council. When the Security Council cannot act effectively, conflicts are more likely to be dealt with outside the confines of the United Nations. The Group of 7 (G-7), later expanded to G-8 and then reduced to G-7 again after Russia’s involvement in Crimea and Ukraine, was a formation of like-minded Western democracies. It invited other emerging powers to join in 2008. That was a tacit recognition of the changing power configuration. And yet, that did not translate into changing the permanent membership of the Security Council. Growing economic powers alone are not sufficient to change the existing power structure.

The permanent members, fearing the erosion of their political status in the United Nations with the addition of more veto-wielding permanent members, has in fact responded to the demand for structural change by increasing transparency in the work of the Security Council. They saw that the root cause of the demand for reform lay in a sense of exclusion felt by the emerging powers from the decision-making process of the Security Council that had become the de facto center of power and decision-making at the end of the Cold War. Even the matters that seemingly had no direct relationship with international peace and security, such as the role of women in decision-making and public health issues like HIV/AIDS, began to be brought before the Council. The Security Council was seen to have finally begun to be performing its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, as had been envisaged in the UN Charter. Naturally, this made many regional powers want to be part of the decision-making.

During the Cold War, the work of the Council was mostly hidden from public view. Its agenda was not made public prior to the meeting. Informal consultations, where substantive discussions took place, were shrouded in secrecy. There were no mechanisms to influence the actions of the Council other than in behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Most countries did not care much about the Security Council, since it was severely affected by the superpower rivalry. All this changed with the end of the Cold War.

The Security Council now announces the agenda ahead of the meeting, briefs the press and the non-Council members on the work of the Council, and issues a monthly work program. It has adopted such mechanisms as the Arria formula and the Informal Interactive Dialogue to listen to the views of the parties to the conflict and other stakeholders outside the formal structure of the Council. The Council also issues Presidential and press statements, organizes open briefings and meets with the troop and police-contributing countries before adopting resolutions on peacekeeping. These actions have increased transparency, blunting the push for a structural reform.

The power dynamics of the permanent members is also changing. The Iraq war of 2003 split the world into two camps. The United States, which advocated war against Iraq, could not muster the 9 out of 15 votes in the Security Council necessary to adopt a second resolution authorizing the use of force, and ended up taking a unilateral action without the support of the international community. It caused the lack of legitimacy and led to diminished influence moving forward. Russia was isolated for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. China is mired in the territorial disputes with its neighbors, while the British and French influence has weakened globally. The Council has been partially paralyzed by the unilateral actions of the major powers in recent years. And yet, following the Paris attacks by the “Islamic State”, we have witnessed the Council coming together to deal with the common threat. It demonstrates that the current structure of the Council can work when the permanent members can find a common interest.

The objective of the G-4 derives from their desire to acquire international status commensurate with their power, however power is defined. It can be recalled that Japan and Germany were permanent members in the League of Nations. Brazil withdrew from the League, protesting that it was not made a permanent member when Germany was admitted and made a permanent member. India, while it was still a British protectorate during the League era, is the largest democracy in terms of population today. They are members of the G-20 and deserve a better representation.

As for Japan, the permanent membership in the Security Council was seen initially from the economic perspective after having achieved the status of the second largest economy in the world. “No taxation without representation” was the phrase it used to press for its case, borrowing the phrase from the American independence.3 The problem with the Japanese approach was that its economic power did not automatically translate into political and military power, given its historical constraints and Constitutional limits. Japan’s dependence on the United States for its own security does not give Japan a free hand in influencing international politics, even though efforts are being made to assert its activism. As long as Japan remains the steady US ally, the United States will protect the interest of Japan in the Security Council, thereby diminishing the need for Japan to attain permanent membership with veto power. What Japan needs is a better international representation and not power status. The best way to achieve this goal is start with what is possible to attain now. In this sense, the two-stage approach mentioned above is the most realistic option for Japan. Unless Japan takes initiative in shifting the strategy along such lines, nobody else will.

The United States, instead of sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the discord among Member States, should reconsider its approach and help facilitate a consensus around the two-stage process to Security Council reform. Any proposal to add more than one or two friendly permanent members with veto power is sure to be rejected by Congress. It is also likely to be seen as weakening the US commitment to the United Nations. The United States should act before frustration with the stalemate results in political discord even with their allies and more so with the emerging powers. While the United States will remain the major world power for the foreseeable future, its relative decline cannot be avoided. It would be to its own advantage to engineer a change in the Security Council, as it has done with the G-20. This is an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate true leadership and remain an influential power in multilateral diplomacy.

The intergovernmental negotiations will continue in 2016. We are likely to witness the repetition of the same positions by different groups and countries. The chances of compromise are therefore not great. The Presidential election in the United States in 2016 will dampen any moves for a breakthrough in the reform debate. We will have to wait who emerges to lead the United States before ascertaining the US position on Security Council reform. Japan may not be keen on the two-stage solution, as it may be concerned about its own declining power relative to others in the near future. Japan may be feeling that this is the last chance to give a push for attaining permanent status in the Security Council. However, should the intergovernmental negotiations reach a deadlock again, it should go for the next best solution rather than going after a goal that may keep eluding us.

1. In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, UN document A/59/2005.
2. I first advocated the two-stage solution in my opinion piece which appeared in The Asahi Shimbun on March 22, 2007. For more details, see Yasuhiro Ueki, Kokuren Kohokan ni Manabu Mondai Kaiketsuryoku no Migakikata, Tokyo: Shodensha Shinsho, 2015.
3. Jeffrey N. Gell, “Japan Deserves Seat on U.N. Security Council, Official Says” in The Harvard Crimson, October 23, 1993.

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