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Challenges to Reforming the Security Council

June 19th, 2015

By Michelle McKenna – Senior Fellow

Whilst there may be overwhelming international consensus that the UN Security Council needs to be reformed, achieving reform is not easy. Reforming the Security Council requires state consensus and there are a number of challenges to this, hence why there has been little progress to date.

The biggest obstacle to achieving comprehensive Security Council reform is that it may require an amendment to the UN Charter. Any enlargement of the Council, removal of permanent members 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. This latter requirement in particular is causing a problem as the five PMs, with the exception of the UK and France, are opposed to any substantial changes to the Council and would thus potentially use their veto to defeat any proposals tabled.

To date, however, there has also been a lack of consensus among the remainder of the UN member states which means that if proposals for reform were tabled – which none have been to date – it would be highly unlikely to pass the two-thirds in favour threshold. The first phrase of reform proposals began over twenty years ago when the General Assembly invited Member States to submit written comments on potential review of the Council.[1] From that point onwards, reform negotiations proceeded with a series of ad-hoc meetings that failed to achieve any consensus. In 2005 following the High Level Panel report, Secretary General Kofi Annan launched an open ended working group to oversee formal negotiations, but this lacked a structure and a coherent timeframe to achieve proposals. The current strategy for achieving reform is formal intergovernmental negotiations launched by the General Assembly in 2008.[2] Several rounds of negotiations later, this IGN has still not achieved any consensus on proposals, but in December 2013 issued a ‘non-paper’ which outlined a range of issues that negotiations would focus on.[3] This is the most comprehensive approach to reform we have seen to date, but with a series of small intergovernmental groups which have different views on reform, such as the G4 and uniting for consensus, there is no guarantee that this process will be any more successful than before. Instead of a non-paper, it may prove to be more effective to draft a comprehensive document outlining proposals, which would allow states to negotiate on the specific aspects. This could be done by a High-Level panel created by the Secretary General, as discussed below.

Strategies for Future Reform

2015 marks the 70th anniversary for the UN, 50 years since the last enlargement of the Security Council and 10 years since the World Summit. The time has never been riper to push forward plans for reforming the Council and, indeed, the wider UN. However, intergovernmental negotiations have continually failed to achieve comprehensive proposals therefore new strategies have to be looked at for reaching consensus.

The current approach looks at achieving a series of comprehensive reforms all at once. This may not be the best way to achieve reform, however. Kofi Annan referred to Security Council reform being a ‘process, not an event’,[4] which gives a different way of approaching reform. Instead of looking to completely overhaul the Council, which is a big task as it requires consensus on all aspects of the reform, a series of smaller reforms on working methods, for example, could be achieved which are more favourable to the Permanent Members and will result in the legitimacy of the Council gradually improving. The current ‘all or nothing approach’ is causing negotiations to fail continuously, which is further undermining the legitimacy of the UN as a whole. It would be better for members to reach consensus on one aspect of reform and reduce that aspect of the Council’s legitimacy deficit than allow proposals that could pass fail because the PMs don’t like one aspect to them. If the UN members were to reach overwhelming consensus on reform proposals, it would then prove very hard politically for the PMs to block them. It is thus important that member states work together rather than in a series of groups constantly vying against one another. Member states could also work together to force the PMs to look at comprehensive reform by wide-scale refusing to vote on new non-permanent members for the Council, which would cause a crisis within it.[5] However, this is a controversial proposal and could make the problems facing the Security even worse so would not be recommended.

In order to achieve reform there are several strategies that could be adopted to move the process along and garner consensus amongst states.[6] As has been done in the past, the Secretary General could appoint a High Level Panel to research proposals and outline what they believe would be best way to reform the Council. This Panel would operate independently of states therefore would be free of the political constraints of states, but would work closely with states to come up a plan that is most likely to be accepted. This report of the Panel would be followed up with a high level meeting of the PMs and other members of the Security Council which would give the states the opportunity to negotiate on text-based specific proposals.

States must be willing to compromise in order to move the reform process forward, which means they may need an incentive to change their policy towards reform. They must work closely with NGOs and other intergovernmental organisations to reach a solution for reform which best addresses the deficiencies in the current Council. The EU and African Union make up a large percentage of the vote in the General Assembly so these groups of states in particular should ensure that they have a coherent approach to the reforms they want to achieve.

[1] GA Res 47/62. See http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=scjilb

[2] Decision 62/557 http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/65/issues/screform.shtml


[4] http://www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk/articles-and-analysis/reforming-the-united-nations-security-council-problems-and-solutions


[6] http://cic.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/pathways_sc_reform_final.pdf

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.