United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Reforms – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) visited the United Nations (UN) for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2022. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Reform was the main agenda of Indias’ EAM. In his address to the UNGA, the EAM said that the need to reform the UN Security Council cannot be denied forever. The Minister met his counterparts from Germany, Brazil and Japan under The Group of Four (G4) banner. The group is primarily focused on UNSC reform, and permanent membership of the body for G4 members. There is a near consensus among all UN members that the UNSC need to be reformed. However, the manner of the reform has remained contentious. This has stalled the reforms for long.

About the Structure and Functioning of the UNSC

The Security Council has 15 members. 5 members are permanent, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They are collectively known as the P5. The 10 non-permanent members are elected for 2-year term by the UNGA. To be elected, a Member State must receive at least two-thirds of all votes cast. The members are chosen according to the region; African Group (3), Latin America and the Caribbean (2), Asia-Pacific (2), Western Europe and Others (2), and the Eastern Europe (1).

The 5 permanent members have the power of veto. Under Article 27 of the UN Charter, Security Council decisions on all substantive matters require the affirmative votes of three-fifths (i.e. 9) of the members. A negative vote or a “veto” by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal, even if it has received the required votes. Abstention is not regarded as a veto in most cases, though all five permanent members must vote for adopting any amendment of the UN Charter or any recommendation of the admission of a new UN member state. The decisions of the UNSC (known as resolutions) are binding on all members.

Functions of the UNSC Reforms UPSC

What is the need for UNSC Reforms?

First, the current composition of the UNSC reflects the geopolitical situation of 1945. The scenario has changed a lot since then. New economic and military powers have risen since then,

Second, the UNSC had 11 members in 1945 (5 Permanent and 6 non-permanent). The UN member states stood at 51. The UNSC was expanded to the present strength in 1965 by adding 4 new non-permanent members. Since then, the membership of the UN has expanded to 193. The membership of the UNSC has remained stagnant. The Council’s present composition is no longer representative of a world. Africa in particular does not have the representation on the Council that its current importance require.

Expansion of the Membership of UNSC Reforms UPSC

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan

Third, Alongside stipulating a geographically balanced distribution of seats, the Charter of the United Nations also expressly states that countries that make considerable contributions to the UN should be members of the Security Council.

Fourth, The issues that the Security Council deals with have diversified over the past 75 years including: peace-building, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism and protection of civilians. Hence there is a need for a more broad-based Council.

Fifth, In recent years, members’ clashing interests have frequently hampered the Council’s capacity to respond to significant conflicts and emergencies, such as Syria’s civil war, Russia’s Ukraine War, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixth, In the absence of reform, there is a danger that decision‑making processes could be shifted to other forums even though such forums do not have the binding effect and legitimacy of the Security That is not in anyone’s interest.

Reformed UNSC is effective UNSC UPSC

Source: United Nations University. A reformed UNSC that is more representative, democratic and inclusive will be a more effective UNSC.

In one of the debates on reforms, India’s representative to the UN argued that, “… an enlarged Council would address the democratic deficit, which prevents effective multilateralism, a multilateralism that is based on a democratically-evolved global consensus”.

What are the proposed plans for UNSC Reforms?

The debate for UNSC Reforms was intensified after the end of the Cold War. However, there are diverse views regarding the reforms’ measures and manner. Different groups have been formed, that are pushing for widely different reform measures like expansion of total membership, permanent vs non-permanent seats, status of veto powers etc.

Membership Reforms

UNSC Reforms Proposals by Group UPSC

Source: United Nations University. Different Groups have proposed different plans for expansion of permanent and non-permanent membership as well as the veto power. The African Bloc (AU) is also called the Ezulwini Consensus.

The creation of the ‘Open-ended Working Group on the Question of the Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters Related to the Security Council’ (the UN committee with the longest title) has formalized the debate and proposition of various reforms.

Power to Veto Reforms

The most contentious issue has been the power to veto. The Working Group has been considering a number of propositions in relation to the veto.

Abolishing the Veto: This is considered an unlikely scenario. It would require the P5 countries to relinquish it voluntarily as they have the capacity to veto any proposal that it be abolished.

Two Veto Requirement: Two vetoes be required to defeat a majority resolution.

Extension of the Veto: To create new permanent members without the veto would create two classes of permanent members within the Council. However, some Member States argue that extension of veto rights will further limit the effectiveness of the UNSC.

Limitation of the use of the veto: The use of veto powers should be limited only to Chapter VII enforcement decisions. Chapter VII of the UN Charter deals with the ‘Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression‘. The P5 want to retain this power especially for important matters like the appointment of the Secretary General. A further suggestion is that veto should be limited to international purposes, not national interests.

Justification of the use of the veto: It has been suggested that any use of the veto should require an explanation to the General Assembly.

Procedural Reforms

Many Member States call for a greater level of transparency, responsibility and accountability in all the procedures of the Security Council. It has been proposed that the decisions by the Security Council to intervene should also be scrutinised and monitored by the General Assembly and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It believed that proper accountability for great executive powers, such as deciding on war or peace, required the oversight of a judicial body capable of determining whether an action was within relevant international law.

What are the challenges to UNSC Reforms?

There is an overwhelming international consensus that the UNSC needs to be reformed. However, there are considerable challenges in effecting these reforms.

First, The biggest obstacle to achieving comprehensive Security Council reform is that it will require an amendment to the UN Charter. Any enlargement of the Council, removal of permanent membership or official change in voting procedures by removal of the veto, would require an amendment to the Charter. In order to amend the Charter, there needs to be agreement of two-thirds of the General Assembly and two-thirds of the Security Council, including the Permanent Members.

Second, the P5 members are not ready to relinquish their power to veto. Nor they are enthusiastic about sharing the power with ‘new’ members.

Third, each permanent seat contender is opposed by some other member e.g., permanent membership of India is opposed by China and Pakistan, Japan is opposed by China, Brazil is opposed by Argentina and Germany is opposed by Italy. In fact, the United for Consensus (Coffee Club) has been instrumental in holding back reforms to the United Nations Security Council. The prime movers of the club include Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Argentina and Pakistan.

Thus the biggest challenge to UNSC reforms is the lack of consensus on the reform measures.

What are the arguments in favor of Permanent Membership of India?

First, India is soon going to become the most populous nation in the world. India is home to ~18% of the world’s population with 1.4 billion people. Such a large population needs permanent representation at the world stage.

Second, India recently became the 5th largest economy in terms of GDP (Nominal). India is already the 3rd largest economy in terms of GDP (PPP).

Third, India is also a rising military power. India has been ranked 4th in the Global Firepower Index, behind the US, Russia and China, and ahead of the P5 nations, the UK and France. India’s capabilities are rapidly expanding in multiple fields like space exploration.

Fourth, India has always taken principled stands on international affairs. India led the Non-aligned Movement and supported a multi-polar world. India gace the principle of Panchsheel (Mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference, equality and peaceful coexistence) whose relevance is timeless. Panchsheel principles can be highly significant to UN Charter to work towards peace and security in cooperation. Moreover, India has been a champion of Disarmament and elimination of WMDs including Nuclear weapons.

Fifth, India has also regularly contributed to the UN-Peacekeeping Missions. As of September 2021, India had ~5500 peacekeepers, though the number has come down from ~8,000 in the 2000s.

What should be the approach going ahead?

First, the Security Council should better reflect on the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives. It must demonstrate flexibility and willingness to compromise in the name of greater credibility and legitimacy.

Second, Developing countries vision of development for the South and the role on the UN in promoting and achieving such vision needs to be strongly and consistently articulated.

Third, The UN’s role as the core global governance institution should not be undermined by the UN reform Rather, such process should result in a strengthened mandate for the UN as the primary global governance institution to be able to exercise coordinative functions over the work of the major multilateral economic policymaking institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.

Fourth, India should continue to push hard for UNSC reforms. Foreign Policy experts suggest that a pragmatic approach should be to accept a permanent status without the power to veto.

Conclusion

The road of UNSC reform is not easy. Despite the consensus on the need reforms, Member States have failed to agree on a number of issues. The role of P5 nations is going to be vital in this regard. If they agree to expansion of the UNSC, including permanent membership, rest of the Member States will follow suit in support. The P5 members should realise that a more democratic and representative Security Council would be better-equipped to address global challenges, and that there are more pressing issues to be tackled at the global level than merely preserving their prerogatives. The reformers—India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil, or the G4—should maintain their multilateral diplomacy in order to build a democratically evolved global consensus on restructuring the UN Security Council.

Syllabus: GS II, Important International institutions, agencies and fora their structure, mandate; Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests; Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

Source: The Hindu, The Hindu, The Times of India, United Nations University

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