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With UN Security Council Reform, Bigger Is Not Better


Lise Gregoire Van Haaren, the deputy permanent representative for the Netherlands, center, chairing a UN Security Council meeting on March 18, 2018, on nonproliferation in North Korea. More attention needs to be paid, the author says in this essay, on how well candidates for elected seats of the Council contribute to peace and security worldwide. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Much ado — during 25 years of fruitless negotiations — has been made about the need for the United Nations General Assembly to achieve more equitable geographical representation in the UN Security Council. Article 23(1) of the UN Charter, however, also requires the Assembly, in electing the nonpermanent members of the Council, to pay due regard in the first instance to the contribution of UN member states in maintaining international peace and security and the other purposes of the organization.

With tragic consequences measured in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the focus on the composition of the Council has, for more than two decades, distracted UN member states from the far more critical question of the performance of the Council. The continuing negotiations to increase the five permanent and/or the 10 elected seats on the Council have only divided UN member states — not only in the Assembly’s efforts to reform the Council but also in the Council itself, where elected members often work against one another rather than together while they serve their two-year terms.

Moreover, to the extent that any increase in the number of Council seats — whether permanent or nonpermanent– requires amendment of the UN Charter, the Assembly is ultimately hostage to the will of the five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, whose ratification would be required before any amendment could enter into force.

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Both inside and outside the Council, member states are more often inclined to curry favor with the permanent members than to work together to put checks and balances on them. In their effort to get and keep a comfortable, albeit consequentially useless Council seat, they become too complacent to demand that the Council fulfill its Article 24(1) obligation to take prompt, effective action; too divided to collectively veto unjust or insufficient Council resolutions by denying nine affirmative votes under Article 27(3); and too weak to invoke the Uniting for Peace resolution against any permanent member’s use or threat to use the veto.

The General Assembly can take three steps to make the Security Council more representative and more effective, without amending the UN Charter.

• First, in the Council elections for five seats in June 2018, the Assembly can more meaningfully consider the contribution that each candidate has made or is making to peace and security and to other UN objectives and purposes. For too long, the Assembly has seemingly delegated this authority to the regional groups, whose endorsed slates are automatically elected without the consideration required by Article 23 of the UN Charter.

While regional endorsements are an important aspect of electing Council members, they should not be the sole deciding factor as they appear to be now. On the positive side, the Assembly could consider a candidate’s contribution to peacemaking (including hosting or convening peace processes, inclusive peace dialogues or other such initiatives); peacekeeping or peace enforcement (through military or police contributions or through financial, logistical or training support); transitional justice (by hosting or funding international criminal courts or other ad hoc mechanisms); and other initiatives to uphold the UN Charter, human rights and the rule of international law.

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On the negative side, the Assembly should consider any credible allegations or proven record of violations of international humanitarian, human rights or refugee law; consistent disregard for or violation of Council resolutions or sanctions, binding International Court of Justice judgments or customary international law; as well as any International Criminal Court indictments.

• Second, the Assembly should continue to support and empower the 10 nonpermanent members after their election to ensure checks and balances on the five permanent members and to ensure that the Council, as a whole, fulfills its responsibility promptly.

• Third, the Assembly can redistribute the 10 seats to enhance the Council’s representativeness and responsiveness to the new global order. The current composition is based on a 1963 Assembly resolution, wherein the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG), with 1/7 of the world’s population, holds five of the 15 seats, including three of the five permanent seats; Africa and Asia, which together make up 5/7 of the world’s population, hold six seats, including one permanent seat; and Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean hold four seats, including one permanent seat. One of the two WEOG seats could be easily reallocated to Africa and/or Asia.

More action, not more actors

The good news is that redistribution of the 10 current seats can be achieved by General Assembly resolution and without a Charter amendment.

The added value of efforts to reform the Council can be measured only by whether it improves its ability to prevent and resolve conflicts; to sustain peace; to defend the security and territorial integrity of countries; to protect the sanctity of civilian life; to achieve the self-determination of people; to stop aggression and mass atrocities and to hold those responsible accountable, according to the rule of law.

The General Assembly can improve the representativeness and effectiveness of the Council not by amending the UN Charter but by upholding it; not by expanding the Council but by holding it accountable for fulfilling its primary responsibility to maintaining international peace and security.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 25 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and in the IAEA, with expertise in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, disarmament and counterterrorism. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from Harvard University and a master’s in foreign service and a J.D. from Georgetown University. She is an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. She is the founder and director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL, an advisory and strategic consulting service assisting governments and intergovernmental organizations in the service of “We the Peoples.”



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