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Benefits of reforming the UNSC

June 16th, 2015

By Michelle McKenna – Senior Fellow

Since its inception in 1945 the Council has been plagued with problems, but never have these been more prevalent than in the current state of global affairs. The idea of Security Council reform has been batted about for years and, indeed, several attempts to table coherent proposals for it have failed. However, it is imperative that the Council reforms in order for it to continue effectively protecting international peace and security.

There is one major issue that faces the Security Council: legitimacy. Nearly 70 years on from its creation, it is no longer seen to be legitimate to concentrate power in the hands of a few states premised on their winning of the Second World War. The veto power is the most controversial aspect of the Council, which has been exemplified by the ongoing atrocities in Syria where the Council has been unable to act due to opposition from some permanent members. Whilst it is unlikely that we will ever see the veto power completely eradicated, it is vital that limits are placed on its use and the international system will benefit from this. There are several options for restricting the use of the veto, including a voluntary restriction from the PMs that they will not use their veto when jus cogens crimes are involved, primarily genocide and crimes against humanity. By agreeing to this, the Security Council would once again be able to exercise its Chapter VII powers effectively. If this restriction were in place now, the Council would have been able to intervene militarily in Syria with legitimacy and halt the atrocities long before now. Instead we are left with a situation where the Security Council has taken no action and other states are afraid to do so as well for fear of reprisal, which is not what we want to see going forward. By limiting the power of the veto, the appeal of the Security Council could be expanded and states will be more likely to go to it for help.[1] This would also help to make the Council’s decisions more reliable and consistent, as it would be expected that it would act the same in a similar situation and reduce the power of the Permanent Members to take arbitrary decisions.[2] By building up a body of jurisprudence, there will no longer be the requirement for states or organisations to intervene in situations without Council authorisation, which will strengthen international law and the United Nations and stabilise international relations.

The Security Council also faces a legitimacy and accountability issue through its lack of representativeness, particularly of the Global South. Increasing the number of members of the Council could eradicate this problem as a more representative body would give it more authority to deal with situations and would remove the perception that the Council is a means for the West to impose its views on the rest of the world. As above, this would help enhance the Council’s appeal, to African states in particular, and make it stronger going forward. If the Council doesn’t reform and continues to be inactive, states will instead turn to their regional organisations for assistance,[3] which has already been seen in the past in the case of Kosovo. If this continues to happen going forward, then these organisations will get stronger[4] and the Security Council will become marginalised. This is not a situation that anyone would want to see happen as a return to a piecemeal approach to security is likely to heighten tensions rather than unite the world.

The Security Council has flaws – that is undeniable – but no one wants to see it abolished[5] or become completely ineffective. It has already taken steps to improve its transparency through becoming more open through publicising its decision-making and including more states in the process. However, that is not enough to increase its effectiveness going forward. A radical overhaul is needed to prevent it becoming stagnant once again. The Council’s enforcement power needs to be increased through strengthening the world’s perception of the body and reducing its dependence on America’s military power, which will be very difficult to do.[6] If the Council achieves this, not only will it bolster its own enforcement powers and capabilities going forward, but it will contribute to strengthening the UN as a whole, where wider reforms have been held back as a result of the Security Council dilemma.[7] This will ensure that the Council and UN continue to be the leading body for upholding peace and security for the future and will not suffer the same fate as its predecessor.

[1] https://globalsolutions.org/files/public/documents/ManagingChange-1.pdf

[2] Fassbender, B. The Security Council: Progress is Possible But Unlikely, in Cassese, A. Realizing Utopia, pg 52

[3] http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/sonia-rothwell/security-council-reform-why-it-matters-and-why-its-not-happening

[4] ibid

[5] Fassbender, B. The Security Council: Progress is Possible But Unlikely, in Cassese, A. Realizing Utopia, pg 57

[6] Weiss, T. The Illusion of Security Council Reform

[7] Alston, P. The United Nations: No Hope For Reform? In Cassese, A. Realizing Utopia

About Michelle McKenna

Michelle is a Senior Fellow at the HSC. Her research interests include military interventions in the Middle East and Africa, international development and the plight of small island states against climate change. She completed her final year thesis on the Responsibility to Protect in the context of the Libya conflict.