Tradition, Regional Tensions Stymie Reform of U.N. Security Council Membership

Tradition, Regional Tensions Stymie Reform of U.N. Security Council Membership


A chorus of voices, for nearly two decades, has called for a 21st century U.N. Security Council. Most recently, at a July 18 conference on Security Council reform, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss encouraged U.N. member counties to enter genuine negotiations on reforming the size and membership of the council.

The 15-member Security Council comprises five permanent members with veto power – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States – and 10 non-permanent rotating members with no veto, elected for two-year terms.

Almost everyone agrees that the Security Council’s permanent core is a relic of the post-World War II era, when many nations were under colonial rule and the Cold War divided the globe into two competing camps. Critics contend that the absence of contemporary economic powers and important regional voices among the five permanent members diminishes the Security Council’s legitimacy.

There are a few perennial candidates for permanent membership — India, Brazil, Germany and Japan — whenever this discussion arises. Additionally, many call for regional and cultural diversity, such as a permanent member from Africa and the Muslim world.

In a statement at an Assembly discussion on council reform in 2009, U.S. Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice said the United States believes that the Security Council must reflect the contemporary world to ensure its “long-term legitimacy and viability.”

But expansion must be done “in a way that will not diminish its effectiveness or its efficiency,” she stressed. In saying that, Rice pointed to a dilemma among those who support enlargement of the permanent membership: The Security Council needs to be large enough to be representative but small enough to get things done.

This ongoing debate over Security Council reform has dragged on since the end of the Cold War. A significant hurdle is the need for consensus among the 193-member General Assembly and unanimous approval of the five permanent Security Council members with veto power.

An example of the challenge is the response to President Barack Obama’s statement last November while in New Delhi. He announced his support for India’s gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council. With more than 1.2 billion people, India is the world’s largest democracy and has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Furthermore, India consistently provides troops for international peacekeeping missions and is a nuclear power — a logical candidate.

But Obama’s statement drew objections from Pakistan, America’s partner in the global war on terror. Pakistan, also a nuclear power, has been in a long-running, violent territorial dispute with India over Jammu and Kashmir that has escalated over the years into an arms race. At the same time, China — one of the permanent members — also signaled disapproval. India and China have a longstanding regional rivalry.

There are other hurdles that hamper the Security Council’s restructure. Some question Britain and France’s continued permanent membership. The two nations, once colonial powers, have declined significantly in global influence.

Further, which African country should represent the entire continent: Nigeria, the most populous but also politically unstable? And which country speaks for the Muslim world — secular Turkey?

Although most see a need for reform, rivalries — political, cultural and economic — make it seem unlikely that the Security Council will soon enter the 21st century and gain much needed legitimacy when it speaks.