Need to reform the UN Security Council

Published : 06 Jun 2023 07:25 PM

The need to reform the existing paradigm of the United Nations Security Council re-emerged once again through remarks made by the current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a press meeting towards the end of the Summit meeting of the G 7 which had been convened recently in Hiroshima, Japan.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has suggested that it was "time to reform" the global body.  Guterres, while speaking to reporters drew their attention to -the crushing economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, unsustainable levels of debt, rising interest rates and spiraling inflation, factors that are devastating developing and emerging economies. He also stressed that among the reasons for problems being faced by developing countries are power-related dimensions.

He also noted that "The Bretton Woods (BW) system and the Security Council reflect the power relations of 1945 and many things have changed since then. He observed that the global financial architecture had become “outdated, dysfunctional and unfair." He also indicated that in the face of the economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian incursion of Ukraine, these systems and institutions in place have "failed to fulfill its core function as a global safety net. It is time to reform both the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions”.

He raised the issue as it has become significant in the contemporary world which is being unable to take the necessary steps required to meet different dimensions in the international arena resulting from conflict, lack of good governance, abuse of human rights and also health issues. In this context many countries have accused the United Nations of having failed to live up to required expectations. It has been pointed out by many member States that veto powers were being exercised by the permanent members of the UNSC based more on national priorities.  

In this regard, this time in Hiroshima, many analysts also recalled the observation that had been made by Ban Ki Moon many years ago. The elder statesman had said- “U.N. Security Council reform, being debated for two decades, is too long overdue and the necessary expansion must be made considering how much the world has changed”.

In this context analysts have suggested that reform of the UNSC should encompass five key issues: categories of membership, the question of veto power held by the five permanent members of the UNSC, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council and its working methods, and the Security Council-General Assembly relationship. However one needs to understand that according to existing regulations any reform of the Security Council would require the agreement of at least two-thirds of UN member states in a vote in the General Assembly and must be ratified by two-thirds of Member States. All of the permanent members of the UNSC which have veto rights must also agree.

It needs to be observed that for quite some time there have been moves to undermine the anachronistic and controversial veto powers that are enjoyed in the United Nations Security Council by its five permanent members- China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States- all nuclear-weapon States.

The veto power originated from Article 27 of the Charter of the United Nations. It states that – (a) each member of the Security Council shall have a vote, (b) decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members and (c) decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.

Although the "power of veto" is not mentioned by name in the UN Charter, Article 27 requires concurring votes from the permanent members. Nevertheless, A negative vote from any of the permanent members will block the adoption of a draft resolution. However, a permanent member that abstains or is absent from the vote will not block a resolution from being passed.

Over the past three decades the veto power has become more controversial. Supporters regard it as a promoter of international stability, a check against military interventions, and a critical safeguard against United States domination. 

Critics however point out that the veto is the most undemocratic element of the United Nations. It is also considered as the main cause of UN inaction pertaining to certain significant developments related to crimes committed against humanity or action that may be classified under international law as war crimes. 

The use of the veto has gone through several distinct phases, reflecting the shifting political balance on the Security Council.

From 1946 to 1969, a majority of the Security Council was aligned with the United States, which cast no vetoes because it won every vote. To block resolutions from the Western majority, the Soviet Union cast 93% of all the vetoes. France and the United Kingdom occasionally used the veto to protect their colonial interests and the Republic of China only used the veto once.

The Western majority eroded after the 1960s as there was expansion of decolonization and consequent expansion in the membership of the United Nations. The evolving scenario also saw the newly independent countries from the Third World voting quite often against the Western countries – and this resulted in the United States resorting quite often in the use of the veto. 

From 1970 to 1991, The United States cast 56% of the vetoes, sometimes joined by French and British vetoes. The Soviet Union cast fewer vetoes than any of the Western powers, and the People's Republic of China used the veto only once. It would be fitting in this context to recall that in 1971, the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations, and the Chinese seat was transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Interestingly, the PRC first used the veto on 25 August 1972 to block the admission of Bangladesh to the United Nations.

However, after the end of the era known as the Cold War, there was a brief period of harmony in the Security Council. The period from 31 May 1990 to 11 May 1993 was the longest period in the history of the UN without the use of the veto. The number of resolutions passed each year also increased. Usage of the veto has nevertheless picked up since the early 21st century, most notably because of the Civil War in Syria and the evolving situation related to Palestine and Israel.

Some critics see veto power exclusive to the permanent five as being anachronistic, unjust and counterproductive. Strategic analyst Peter Nadin has observed that “the veto is an anachronism” and needs to be “seen as a disproportionate power and an impediment to credible international action to crises."  In this regard, some have also pointed out that with the adoption of the resolution by the General Assembly known as “Uniting for Peace”, and given the interpretations of the Assembly's powers this has become customary international law.  As a result, the Security Council "power of veto" problem can be overridden. 

By adopting A/RES/377 A, on 3 November 1950, over two-thirds of UN Member states declared that, according to the UN Charter, the permanent members cannot and should not prevent the General Assembly from taking any and all action necessary to restore international peace and security in cases where the Security Council has failed to exercise its "primary responsibility" for maintaining peace.

Such an interpretation sees the General Assembly as being awarded "final responsibility"—rather than "secondary responsibility"—for matters of international peace and security, by the UN Charter. This is viewed by many observers as the Uniting for Peace Resolution being able to provide a mechanism for the General Assembly to overrule any Security Council vetoes, thus rendering them little more than delays in UN action, should two-thirds of the Assembly subsequently agree that action is necessary.

Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, has in this regard recalled that the General Assembly Resolution 377 enabled the General Assembly to invoke this Resolution on four occasions- with regard to the Korean War, regarding Namibia and Resolutions concerning Palestine.

 This interesting evolving situation emerged once again towards the end of April last year. Liechtenstein initiated the idea of a Resolution at the United Nations that would mandate a meeting of the General Assembly whenever a veto was cast in the Security Council.  The new Resolution proposed before the UN General Assembly (UNGA)– was entitled “Standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council”. The proposed Resolution suggested “that the President of the General Assembly shall convene a formal meeting of the Assembly within ten working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast, provided that the General Assembly does not meet in an Emergency Special Session on the same situation.”

This was an interesting effort but does not appear to have met full success.

Nevertheless, the UN’s declining role in geo-politics has been compensated for by its increasingly significant performance as a massive humanitarian relief organization. These efforts have been led by multiple UN agencies such as the World Food Program, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN children’s fund UNICEF, the Office of the UN High Commi­ssioner for Refugees (UNHCR) , the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), among others.

This leads many analysts and strategists to hope for a better future. This is also probably why UN Secretary General Guterres raised once again the ramifications of the issue of using veto in the UN Security Council at the time of the G 7 Summit in Hiroshima. Japan in May, 2023.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance