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  • Writer's pictureBill Paton


Council Reform is Still Going Nowhere

A map of the world with countries divided into the West and the Rest, or global North and global South.

by William Paton, Beijing 20 September 2023

Will we wake up on September 27th to read the front-page headline: “World Fails Again to Agree! No Progress Made on Peace and Security?” No, as usual, we will wake up to read stories about the war between Russia and Ukraine, a war involving, directly or indirectly, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5). Perhaps we will also read about one of the many other wars, or another coup-d’état.

So, what will happen on September 26th? Or rather, what won’t? That day, the General Assembly will conclude six days of annual High-Level Debate, begun September 19th. One hundred and forty-five Heads of State or Government are expected to attend this, the most important meeting in the world. The agenda includes a High-level Political Forum on our slow progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. The Secretary-General will convene a Climate Ambition Summit, to discuss how badly we are off track reducing emissions. There will also be a High-level Meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, where leaders can reflect on their dismal lack of international cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic. There will be no special discussion of Security Council reform, but many will repeat calls for it in their speeches during the General Debate. After 30 years of fruitless negotiations on Council reform, their statements will carry all the weight of wishes for “world peace” by contestants in a beauty-contest.

In the latest session of the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council reform (IGN), March 2023, four of the P5 didn’t bother to make a statement and the one that did, the UK, barely addressed the topic. All 193 UN Member States have agreed that Security Council reform is badly needed, yet the international community remains stuck. The joke is that ‘IGN’ stands for “It’s Going Nowhere.” Well, it’s going there again.

Humanity faces grave security threats. The threat of nuclear annihilation swings more wildly again over our heads. Colossal damage to our environment is bringing the planet nearer and nearer to its sixth mass extinction (remember, the last one wiped out the dinosaurs.) We fear we may fail to control new technologies such as AI and quantum computing, likely combined. And there are endless, ‘conventional’ wars, killing millions, leaving us constantly at risk of starting World War III. While many Western countries will condemn the invasion of Ukraine, the representatives of 193 member states are about to spend a week doing nothing meaningful about the elephant in the room – our poorly functioning UN Security Council.

The prevention and resolution of war is the job of the Security Council. After more than three-quarters of a century, the original P5, with their vetoes, remain dominant. Since 1965, there are 10 rotating seats, for a total of 15 members. However, any country that applies to fill a rotating seat can be vetoed by a member of the P5. At the heart of global governance, we do not have a democracy. We have a dysfunctional oligarchy.

The UN Charter itself was negotiated, agreed and signed in just 10 months

In 1944-45, in two long meetings totalling 14 weeks in length, half a year apart, five major powers and 45 other countries agreed on the United Nations Charter. In the space of ten months, Roosevelt followed by Truman, reached agreement with Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle, Chiang Kai-shek and then 45 others. They proposed and counter-proposed, jostling for leverage for a time, but then at the second meeting, in Los Angeles, they compromised and cajoled the others to agree (making it clear, either they got vetoes or there would be no UN). The matter was settled by the eighth week, when all 50 countries’ representatives signed the Charter in a single day, a major milestone in humanity’s history.

Unfortunately, it was a flawed formula. The veto has been used nearly 300 times, mostly by the former Soviet Union or the United States. The P5 also choose the chairpersons of the various subcommittees of the Council, and almost always reserve for themselves the role of ‘penholder,’ the lead drafter of proposed resolutions. They also control the choice of Secretary General, must approve any changes to the UN Charter, can veto other countries from being on the Council, and exercise considerable ‘hidden veto power’ by snuffing out initiatives before they gain momentum.

Despite these disfigurements, the Security Council still inspires. I several times witnessed it in action, including in the back room where the 15 representatives hold a less formal, surprisingly frank pre-meeting. The Council is better than anything the world has ever had, which is why we must improve it. We need only agree on how to tweak this one aspect of the Charter, on the Council’s membership. Yet, after 30 years of talks, we are still failing to find the courage to compromise.

A total of 100 countries today are fighting or fueling a war, or experiencing an armed conflict

A total of 39 countries are currently experiencing or fighting in wars (a ‘war’ is a conflict which directly killed at least 1,000 persons in the current year or last.)[i] This does not include countries indirectly involved, for instance by supplying arms to, or backing militias on one side. There are many such countries, bringing the total to at least 60 countries either fighting or fueling wars.

Adding major conflicts (those that killed less than 1,000 persons this year or last, but more than 100), gives us 15 other countries,[ii] for a total of 75. North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war, after 73 years, giving us 77 countries either at war, fueling a war, or experiencing a major armed conflict. At least 11 more as-yet-uncounted countries are backing one side (or both!), in one or more of these conflicts, for a total of 88. ‘Minor conflicts’ (killing less than 100 persons per year, officially), are occurring in a further 12 countries,[iii] for a grand total of at least 100 different countries fighting or fueling wars or armed conflicts, today.

UN Peacekeeping, Peacebuilding and Mediation

In response, the United Nations Security Council currently has 12 peacekeeping missions, several of which, such as Cyprus or Western Sahara, are ancient. For a total cost of just $5.5bn dollars for the current budget year (1/20th of New York City’s budget), 76,000 troops and 10,000 police and other civilians currently serve in these missions. Peace-keeping doesn’t always work well, but on average, it does work. Cambodia, Mozambique and East Timor are some successful examples. Despite this, one P5 member repeatedly falls up to a billion dollars in arrears on its contributions to missions, missions which it has voted to approve. Only one P5 member, China, now contributes troops to these missions.

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund is the UN Secretariat’s leading mechanism to help prevent conflict or re-build the socio-economic foundations needed for a long-term peace, in addition to some of the UN agencies. The Fund averages just $164m in voluntary contributions per year for the world. The UN Secretary-General proposed in 2022 to give the Fund a regular budget of $100m per year (about the price of one advanced fighter jet, of which there are thousands), but that was rejected by several P5 members. The resolution adopted instead, suggested, inter alia, that the Secretary-General raise money for peace building from the private sector.

During wars, or when they are imminent, the UN’s capacity for mediation is also limited, usually sending a single, talented envoy, together with a few colleagues, to try to stop a war – even a major war. Former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, served as such an envoy as the war in Syria broke out, and resigned in frustration, in good part due to the P5’s failure to get behind him. Announcing his resignation at a press conference in Geneva, he complained about “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”[iv] As for the current war between Ukraine and Russia, there was no UN attempt at mediation before Russia’s invasion. The Council did not mandate one, paralyzed by Russia’s veto just as it was paralyzed by the US veto when the USA illegally invaded Iraq the second time. Most P5 members frequently fight or fuel wars themselves. Only China has not fought a war for over four decades.

It is a Collective Failure

It would be wrong to pin all the blame for lack of Security Council reform on the P5. Other blocks of countries have also proven intransigent, fearing that a once-in-a-century opportunity for improvement will pass them by. India, Brazil, Japan and Germany have formed the ‘G4’ to support each other’s claim to a permanent seat (plus, they add, two African nations). The African Union does want at least two permanent seats, but ones which its member countries will fill themselves on a rotating basis (and not, as at present, first subject to P5 veto and then elected by the entire General Assembly). The Uniting for Consensus group, which attracted 120 Member States to a meeting in Rome back in 2011, wants decision-making by consensus of most member states, and not just a 2/3 majority in the General Assembly. They propose maintaining the P5 but with 20 more non-permanent seats allocated regionally. This is a reasonable proposal, made by a clear majority, yet the P5 do not agree to begin drafting a resolution, that could focus negotiations going forward.

There are also sometimes glimmers of progress. Last year, a proposal by Copenhagen was adopted unanimously (Bravo!), in the General Assembly, that after a P5 member uses a veto, a special debate will be held within 10 days, compelling the veto-er to explain themselves. The UK and France also deserve great credit for refraining from using the veto since 1989. France and Mexico co-sponsored a proposal that the P5 voluntarily refrain from using the veto in matters of mass atrocities. That was further endorsed in a Code of Conduct supported by 104 countries in 2015, which also called for more democratic selection of the Secretary General. Neither initiative took hold.

Humanity’s Alarming Bellwether

This pathetic state of our world affairs bodes ill for our future. Each time we do not rise to this straightforward challenge, to agree on allocating some additional seats to make the Council more democratic, we reveal ourselves to be childishly incapable of working together. The endless stalling is an ominous bellwether of things to come, perhaps dooming humanity to a future in which we will tragically fail to solve our common problems and, ultimately, fail as a species.

What we do not need is more arbitrarily-selected members, picked by P5 bargaining in the back room. Instead of plutocracy, our world needs more democratic, regional representation. Let the P5 cling to their ‘legacy’ seats and vetoes. They will never give them up. However, beyond this, let them show some leadership. Their seats are a responsibility, not just powerful perches.

A reasonable proposal is to give the five regions,[v] five seats each (much as the 120 suggested in Rome), with the tally to include their P5 members, for a total of 25. A 60% majority still, or 15 votes, would be required to pass a resolution. The revised Charter, while maintaining the five legacy permanent seats/vetoes, should call on the P5 ‘to voluntarily refrain from casting their vetoes,’ and enshrine in the Charter the obligatory General Assembly debate within 10 days of a veto being cast.

Regions themselves should choose their own representatives, and their choices should not be subject to veto. Should they want a permanent member, they can repeatedly re-elect them, reinforcing the accountability of that state.

If only we could lock the entire General Assembly in conclave, including those 145 Heads of State or Government. Just bar the doors, supplying them with food and water, beds and telephones, but no booze. I suspect it would not be 30 days, much less 30 years, before the white smoke appeared.


[i] Afghanistan, Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cameroon, Chad, Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Togo, Tunisia, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen. The ICRC takes the lead in counting but Wikipedia has an up-to-date list. [ii] Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Chad, El Salvador, India, Iran, Israel, Jamaica, Palestine, Philippines, Turkey, Mozambique and Tanzania. [iii] Angola, Egypt, Brazil, Georgia, Indonesia, Morocco, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, Thailand and Western Sahara. [iv] Statement by former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, United Nations, Geneva, 2 August 2012. [v] African States, Asia-Pacific States, Eastern European States, Latin American and Caribbean States, Western European and other States. Arab states representation is shared between regions.


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