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Will UN Reform Happen This Year? Don’t Hold Your Breath

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US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield greets Swiss President, Ignazio Cassis and Swiss Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl at a UN Security Council meeting on January 12, 2023
In a UN Security Council session on the rule of law, from left: US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis and the country’s UN ambassador, Pascale Baeriswyl, Jan. 12, 2023. For decades, negotiations on expanding the Council have produced no results, though in the last year, voices for reform have grown more vehement. That may stem from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago and President Biden’s kick-starting the topic last fall in his General Assembly speech. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Everyone talks about reforming the United Nations Security Council but change remains elusive after decades of debates. This past year, the voices for expanding the Council became louder, yet few can agree on how to do it. And they were not expected to do so during meetings that began last week.

Called the intergovernmental negotiations, the war in Ukraine has spurred numerous countries into action, but their positions vary on the number of seats for changing the Council and its veto powers, which is held by the five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. Russia’s frequent veto on the war in Ukraine is often backed by China.

Any change is extremely difficult in the prestigious, 15-member Security Council, which also has 10 elected countries holding two-year terms. Any major change involves opening up the UN Charter and requiring an agreement of at least two-thirds of the 193 General Assembly members as well as the Council, including the veto powers.

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“To propose that the intergovernmental negotiations continue as they have over the last 14 years would be similar to asking the orchestra on the Titanic to continue playing music as the ship has started to sink,” said Brazilian envoy Ronaldo Costa at a November debate on Council reform.

One change that would be welcomed in the UN Charter is the 1945 provision against Axis nations that fought in World War II. To ensure that Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Italy and Romania could not start a war again, the Enemy State Clause was added to the Charter.

Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, or the G-4, have been vying for permanent seats for decades. Italy objects to Germany, Pakistan objects to India, Argentina objects to Brazil and African nations have yet to decide on their candidates, although they want two permanent seats. Arab nations also want a representative on the Council and Benelux countries, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, have their own position to name only a few competing interests.

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For those UN members who object to almost every proposal, Italy has organized the Uniting for Consensus group. This calls for nine long-term nonpermanent members distributed among regional groups, plus two additional nonpermanent seats with two-year terms: one for Eastern Europe and another for small island developing states and small states. On the veto, the proposal poses options, including abolition or restricting its use to major war and peace resolutions.

France and Britain have long called for enlarging the Council. In remarks to the General Assembly in 2022, President Joe Biden called for increasing both permanent and nonpermanent representatives, including seats for Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. “I also believe the time has come for this institution to become more inclusive so that it can better respond to the needs of today’s world.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, has made similar comments while stressing that the veto had to be used responsibly. She said the US itself would refrain from using the veto except in extraordinary situations. She and her office repeatedly say she is on a listening tour among African and other member states to hear their views on expanding the Council. None of the details of conversations on reform have been made public.

The president of the General Assembly, Csaba Korosi, a Hungarian, said the debate had been going on for 43 years, not just 14, since Council reform first appeared on the Assembly’s agenda. “A choice is at hand: Does the Assembly continue its annual repetition of well-known positions or, moved by these crises, does it swing into action to find common ground and achieve breakthroughs?”

A new momentum for changing the status quo took off last year, on Feb. 27, when the Council referred the situation in Ukraine to the Assembly following its own failure to adopt a draft resolution deploring Russia’s aggression. This was the Council’s first use of a Uniting for Peace resolution in 40 years, aiming to obtain Assembly condemnation of the Russian invasion.

Two months later, through an initiative led by Liechtenstein Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, the Assembly decided by consensus that it would meet whenever a veto is cast in the Council. It has now convened three times in accordance with this new procedure: after vetoes by China and Russia on North Korea in May, a Russian veto on Syria in July and a Russian veto on Ukraine in September.

Yet the war in Ukraine grinds on for nearly a year and the Council remains helpless to stop it. While the Assembly voted against the Russian invasion, some nations abstained, including 17 African states, softening Moscow’s humiliation.

This article was updated to reflect the number of times the General Assembly had met under the new veto initiative.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on changing the Security Council?

Evelyn Leopold is a veteran United Nations reporter since 1990. She was a Reuters correspondent for 40 years and now freelances for a variety of publications. She has served in Britain, Germany and Kenya and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Press Club and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. She is chair of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists, was awarded a gold medal in reporting by the UN Correspondents Association and co-authored a book on women in the former East Germany.

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John Spitzberg
John Spitzberg
1 year ago

Democracy must not mean much at the Security Council because any one of the big five can stifle progress at stopping war. If the UN does not change quickly, it will be partially responsible for any dire prediction of a WWIII and/or nuclear holocaust. But, by that time, what will it matter? We will all be dead and WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones.

James Cunliffe
James Cunliffe
1 year ago

Thanks for a useful article. UNSC reform will take years whereas further reform of UN peacekeeping and peace-building can and should be tackled now – and is being demonstrated in the early consultation phase for the new ‘Agenda for Peace’ initiative. This has the chance of making tangible improvements and to seeing better outcomes from existing PK missions.

John Guilfoyle
John Guilfoyle
1 year ago

The world needs a counterweight to the defence of national interest above all other consideration. This characterizes the most powerful nations in the world and exemplifies the behaviour of the P5. The concept of a parliamentary assembly with the mandate to protect and promote the wellbeing of all of humanity is an important aspect of UN function to consider. Such a body, elected on the basis of expertise, capacity and willingness would advise the UNGA and the SC on the best solutions to the myriad problems that beset humanity in non-partisan fashion so that the current barrier in geopolitics could be navigated in a different way. We are still behaving in a way that owes more to the Congress of Vienna than a recognition that we are one human family living on the one increasingly fragile homeland. Further development of the concept of a UNPA and its eventual implementation is a task of some urgency. In tandem, we need to consider the development of an International Defence Force and to strengthen the International Criminal Court so that accountability becomes part of a new norm. Current UN work on corruption is a key element to release resources to benefit those who are currently being denied the solutions that are so desperately needed

Billatwa
Billatwa
1 year ago

The Security Council’s “five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States”
Is it too serious to put a bit of levity into the conversation?
Get rid of Britain and France – that would make sense or perhaps they could make a group between them. Replace them with India and the European Union (ex-France). That allows for making another seven groups of countries to cover the rest of the wold to make 15 Permanent seats on the council. Those country groups (CG’s) would each have a sub-council with one member from each country in the CG and, that member might rotate on an annual or other basis. Both the Security Council and the CG’s could have a Veto but only with the minimum of three members in CG or Security Council supporting the veto.
I’m told that if I have one sense it’s a sense of humour.

Jonathan Down
1 year ago

The UN Security Council is a relic of a bygone era and ought to be abolished. Indeed the prescribed review process for the United Nations never occurred. We need global institutions for the 21st century-read Lopez-Claros et al

Dr. Roger Kotila
1 year ago

UN Reform should be a top priority for the UN General Assembly, but for success the UNGA must think “outside the box.” This means joining forces with the World Constitution; Parliament Association and Center for UN Constitutional Research to activate Article 109-3 for the legally required Review of the outdated, fatally flawed Charter.
The Charter is wrong. It must be replaced. World federalists can lead the way. The 187 nations in the UN denied meaningful voting rights should look to WCPA’s EARTH CONSTITUTION for guidance and authority to create a “new UN,” one which is more democratic, and one designed with the tools to actually end war itself.
Look for a UN World Parliament and a well designed World Judiciary System with Enforcement so that the P-5 veto powers are no longer above the Law, no longer allowed to mock the UN by routinely committing world crimes with impunity.

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