CANBERRA — Come October, Australia will be competing with Finland and Luxembourg for two of the elected two-year seats open on the United Nations Security Council, starting next year. Why against Finland and Luxembourg and not others also contesting for the five seats up for grabs? Well might you ask.
Most public debate on UN structural reform is focused on the council. Arguably, an even greater historical anomaly is the UN’s system of regional groupings that shapes so many of its entities and activities.
The founders of the UN system believed they were providing fair and reasonable opportunity for all members to share in the management of the system through periodic elections to key decision-making bodies, including the Security Council. So they divided the UN’s original 51 members into regional groups. The five groups of the current 193 members are: Africa (54 members), Asia (53), Latin America and the Caribbean (33), Western Europe and Others (WEO, 29) and Eastern Europe (23). Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, does not belong to any group.
One immediate anomaly is Israel. Because it is persona non grata, so to say, in its own region, it is located in the WEO group. But so, too, are Australia and New Zealand, with Canada and the United States making up the remaining “others.”
Notions of equity, national identity and geopolitics have changed dramatically since 1945. For Australia and New Zealand to be considered representatives of Europe today is bizarre. For the “others” to have to compete with Europeans, who begin with a 47-strong Council of Europe or a 27-strong European Union, is semi-disenfranchisement.
The equilibrium is inequitable but stable because it has developed entrenched interests. But the increasingly idiosyncratic and anachronistic system of regional groups has major consequences. Failure to change is damaging the UN’s capacity to be relevant and responsive to its members. The deep disenchantment and distance of member countries from important decision-making bodies not only erodes UN authority, but it also undermines its effectiveness and risks moving it to the periphery of world affairs.
The electoral groupings remain a critical pillar of UN legitimacy. The current configuration negates the UN Charter principle that all countries should be able to take part in the key UN institutions based on fair rotation. The present system does not produce such an outcome, and the result hurts the legitimacy of the system and the decisions that are made.
The unfairness arises first from the wide disparity in the size of regional groups, which range from 23 to 54. The disparity is worse in terms of population weights. The Western and Eastern European groups were also transformed substantially when the cold war ended.
Another question is, does “equitable” refer to opportunities or to outcomes? What about countries that are permanently disenfranchised, most notably Israel?
Geographical representation and distribution also applies to UN staffing arrangements. In most groups, contests for quota seats to elected positions is real and sometimes bitter and divisive, even hovering on the margins of questionable practices.
Reorganizing the number and composition of electoral groupings would enhance the representational credentials of the UN system, consolidate its legitimacy and improve its efficiency. Reflecting the quadrupling in numbers since 1945, the membership could be split into eight regional groups of 25 to 35 each, say. For example: sub-Saharan Africa; Asia; Middle East and North Africa; Western Europe; North America and the Caribbean; Eastern Europe and Central Asia; Latin America; and Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand).
The work of redoing the groupings should be separated from the debate on the reform of the Security Council composition, yet it could feed into it. Such an approach might also help revive the momentum for council reform.
There is always the fear, of course, that linking the issue of group restructuring to council reform will kill both efforts. Ironically, a consensus for change could develop from the discomforts or disappointments with the existing groupings.
Any new system must also demonstrate mutual benefits through “win-win” results. This can be achieved by increasing the number of groups and thereby shrinking the size but strengthening the homogeneity of each.
The secretary-general could begin the process by canvassing member countries’ views through a simple resolution of the General Assembly. Or a high-level panel could study the issue and make recommendations within one year.
Meanwhile, three of the five permanent members come from the Council of Europe: Britain, France and Russia. Azerbaijan, also in the Council of Europe, is on the Security Council until the end of 2013. If Australia loses in October, 6 of the 15 Security Council members will hail from Europe: a vast over-representation, given its population of 800 million in a world of 7 billion.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra and a professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was also a professor of international relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and professor and head of the Peace Research Center at the Australian National University, while also advising the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.
In addition, Thakur was a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and a senior adviser on reforms and principal writer of the UN secretary-general’s second reform report (2002). He has written or edited more than 40 books, 400 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (London: Routledge, 2011).