The one fact that all countries at the United Nations agree on is that Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States cherish their veto right in the Security Council. Yet recent debates to shake up the calcified status quo — albeit not by tomorrow and not by dumping the veto — could open up chances for change, some hopeful diplomats say. One proposal revives an idea from the 1990s, to expand the number of elected seats by a maximum of 11, to total 26, and to kill chances of another permanent seat inheriting the veto.
It’s called Uniting for Consensus and originated in the mid-1990s by an Italian ambassador to the UN, Francesco Fulci. It was nicknamed the “coffee club” after Italy’s penchant for espresso and the coterie of other countries involved, and the proposal envisions a Council more regionally representative of the UN’s 193 members, or what advocates say would be a more democratic body. One-third of all UN members have never had a seat in the Council.
Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to the UN, sees the proposal as a “win-win” solution. Speaking with PassBlue on Feb. 1 in his 49th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, Massari said that Italy wants multilateralism to work better and that such cooperation is in Italy’s DNA.
“The current structure doesn’t reflect international reality, and new elements, such as the Ukraine crisis, demonstrates how the veto power” — brandished by Russia, the aggressor in the war — makes it clear that events can’t work well any longer, he said.
“The veto,” he added, “is very difficult to sell today to the public.”
Through the veto, the Council’s five permanent members are each entitled to stop a draft resolution in its tracks. The other 10 members, all elected to two-year, overlapping terms from the UN’s five regional groups, Western Europe and Others (Weog); Africa; Asia-Pacific; Latin America and Caribbean; and Eastern Europe, push on nevertheless to not only promote their own national agendas but also collective agendas to maintaining global peace and security, despite the shadow of the veto. In the last five years or so, the E10, as they are known, have made incremental progress in consolidating their power as a group to achieve positive results, sometimes more profound than others. Their gains depend heavily on leadership among the 10 countries that happen to be sitting in the Council in a given year, surely a haphazard way of operating.
Never-ending debates on reform have forged on, year after year, with the most significant being the expansion of elected seats to 10 from 6, back in 1965. President Joe Biden said last fall that the US supports additional permanent members of the Council as well as new elected members. Conveniently, the US has not said which countries these might be other than they are backing new members coming from Africa and Latin America. Details of such conversations remain out of the public’s view. Recent meetings in the UN on “intergovernmental negotiations” about Council reform have no end date, either.
Not surprisingly, Massari thinks Italy’s Uniting for Consensus proposal is a winner. Given that the public has witnessed in the last year how Russia can invade another country and leave the Council powerless to act legally against such a huge breach of the UN Charter, Massari says it’s time to show the world that the UN can move decisively for peace beyond this obvious flaw.
The Uniting for Consensus model looks like this: Increasing the number of elected seats to a maximum of 11, with nine new longer-term seats and two additional two-year seats as well as the possibility of their immediate re-election. The concept would be built on regional representation: Africa would gain six seats; Asia-Pacific, five; Latin America and Caribbean, four; Weog, three; Eastern Europe, two. One new rotating seat would be reserved for small island nations and small countries. Ideally, it’s a miniature version of the General Assembly. Besides Italy, the 12-member consensus group consists of Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Malta, Mexico, Pakistan, San Marino, South Korea, Spain and Türkiye.
Crucially, the proposal would entail no new permanent members, so no more veto holders, which may not win over Africans, who say they want permanent seats with that power. Seventy-seven years of UN history “shows permanent members are accountable only to themselves,” Massari said. A new permanent member would only “expand the club of privilege, or oligopoly.”
What’s in the way of the proposal? Plenty, as this is the UN. A formidable one is the Group of Four, or G4: Brazil, India, Germany and Japan. They have been vying for four permanent seat for eons, and their plan offers the African continent of 54 nations two such seats as well. The G4 plan is not calling for veto powers, and four more elected seats would be allotted to Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe and Latin America-Caribbean.
A plan by the African Union envisions six additional permanent seats (including the G4) and five more elected ones: two for Africa, one each for Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe and Latin America-Caribbean. (Africa is currently entitled to three elected seats in the Council.) Competition for the two African permanent seats would be hotly contested within the African Union. The L69 Group, consisting of about 32 developing countries, proposes six more permanent seats (Japan, Brazil, Africa (two), Germany, India) and four more elected ones for Africa, Asia-Pacific, small island nations and Latin America/Caribbean. The group is named after a 2007 General Assembly resolution, on the “Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters,” and insists on veto powers for all new permanent members, pitting itself against the current veto holders, who don’t want anyone joining their club.
As New Yorkers would say, “Fuhgeddaboutit.”
Massari, who has been Italy’s ambassador to the UN since 2021, explained why he thinks Uniting for Consensus is the best deal going for Council reform. He has been a career diplomat since 1985, posted to the European Union in Brussels as well as Cairo and Moscow, among other places, and was educated at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Naples, Oriental, in his native city. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
PassBlue: Intergovernmental negotiations among UN member states on UN reform originally began in 2008, and this year’s first recurring meeting got off to a tense start. Why?
Massari: I don’t think it’s the right word; positions expressed were forceful by the different negotiating groups. The Security Council, as it is, is not representative. The International reality, the balance of power, is a system where you have new powers emerging. But you have a lot of regions still underrepresented in the Council, and that is the main thing. You had the five winners of World War II, and then it was six nonpermanent members. It was expanded only once, in 1965, to total 15 elected members. Now this structure does not reflect international reality. The second factor is that a new element emerged in the Ukrainian crisis. It has demonstrated once more that the veto power has paralyzed the Council. So something needs to be done, and everybody is aware that reform is needed. But how do you make the Council more effective? And then the question that comes up is the veto. If you extend the Council to new permanent members with veto power, you will have even more veto potential. Over the last 77 years of the Council, it shows that permanent members are mostly accountable to themselves; they alone do not represent any region in its entirety or continent, so if you individually add new permanent members, you will expand the club of ‘privileged countries,’ an oligopoly, without, however, getting regions as a whole or continents better represented. So, that’s why UfC [Uniting for Consensus] came up many years ago, but we have fine-tuned this proposal. The essence is that we recognize that we need to expand the Council to regions underrepresented. That means Africa in the first place, Asia, Latin America and Caribbean states, small island developing states and small states; expand in a way that gives a chance for everyone to sit sooner or later in the Council. One-third of the UN membership has never been in the Council. Expanding the Council will make it more accountable to the entire UN membership.
PassBlue: Can you go further into your proposal for expanding the number of elected seats and how it would be, as you say, more “democratic”?
Massari: If you become a permanent member, you don’t need to go through regular elections [an elected member must be voted on by the General Assembly], and you will become an independent entity, accountable only to yourself. That’s why we came up with the idea of expanding to a maximum of 26 seats — the exact number can be negotiated — creating up to 11 new elected seats. Most of them would not just be simple two-year terms but would have the possibility of being immediately re-elected for another term. We are discussing in our group how many more years it could be — three or four — by possibly being re-elected once. This is something that needs to be detailed when we get to a more mature stage of negotiations. In theory, an elected member could stay continuously for four, six or eight years but go through elections [in the Assembly]. So if you are a medium-sized power with significant responsibilities in peace and security, as Article 23 of the UN Charter stipulates, you could in theory stay longer in the Council. In fact, our proposal attributes up to 11 extra seats to regions. We don’t name a specific country. It must be seen how the different regional groups will elect the countries. The main thing is that we talk about regions, not individual claims.
PassBlue: The African Union wants six additional permanent seats with veto power: Brazil, India, Japan and Germany, plus two for the continent. How would this proposal compete with Uniting for Consensus?
Massari: The main competing idea is the default because these (G4) are claims by countries that think they are individually entitled to get a permanent seat. The African Union is not competing [with our proposal]. There are synergies and common points between the African Union proposition and ours. First, we say that the region, more than any other, has legitimate claim to be better represented. With our proposal, Africa would double its presence. The African method of regional selection is interesting and could be applied to other regions. We differ on the question of the veto and the permanent membership because of the reasons I have said: the veto is very difficult to sell today to the public. Once you become permanent, you no longer need to be elected. You are no longer accountable to the broad membership of the United Nations. Uniting for Consensus is interested in having reform soon. Sometimes we are accused of wanting to slow down reform, that we are for the status quo; not at all. What we are proposing is a realistic way to reform the Council that could be done rapidly, if there is willingness among other member states to negotiate concretely.
PassBlue: How soon are you talking about moving from negotiations to holding a vote in the General Assembly on your proposal?
Massari: It’s difficult to quantify the time but if we agree on a model, the win-win model, we can proceed realistically in not too long of a period. What is important is convergence on the model.
PassBlue: How do you think the permanent members will react? Obviously, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is doing her own canvassing based on what President Biden proposed in September 2022.
Massari: The P5 tend not to keep a high profile on this issue. But I can only say that it’s important that they are well engaged with the membership and some of them are doing that. But the US engagement is superimportant.
PassBlue: How do you envision your proposal playing out it in terms of members voting on a draft resolution, say, in the Council? It seems like the more numbers the more complicated things could get in approving a resolution through 26 members. Plus think of the long meetings of speeches!
Massari: You would need a simple majority, so 16 votes with no vetoes, if the total is 26. You can envisage it in the Council working methods enhancing the voice and the role of the elected members.
PassBlue: Let’s use the African Union as a model of how this would roll out. The regional seats would be decided on within the regions, as they are done now, more or less, before they are put to a final vote in the General Assembly. How would this unfold when African nations take their seats in the expanded Council?
Massari: Our proposal would assign the majority of new seats to Africa and Asia-Pacific; extra seats also to Latin America and SIDS [small island developing states]; only one more seat to the Western European and Others Group because we think that Western countries are already overrepresented; and one more for the Eastern European group. So we don’t indicate any name of country that must come from Africa. We don’t say Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt. The same is for Latin America, for Asia. This is important because it gives regional ownership.
PassBlue: Let’s say in the heat of the moment, in light of the anniversary of Russia’s full assault on Ukraine, on Feb. 24, you put this in a draft resolution and submit it to the General Assembly. Would you get the two-thirds vote for approval?
Massari: We are not there yet for even negotiating a text. We first need to create a consensus on the end game of reform. Tomorrow is not a realistic perspective, and we need to be patient in these negotiations. Everybody is important. The P5 are very important, and the emerging powers are important, the middle-size powers are important, as well as the small states.
PassBlue: While you have negotiations, which could go on for an eternity, what are you going to do to address the inequality of the Council and the veto abuse that’s obvious in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Massari: The question of bridging the divide, particularly the global North and global South, is on the top of our agenda. The key issues are how to help the implementation of the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. So is the issue of food security, which is absolutely central, which pre-existed the war against Ukraine. We are pretty much engaged in trying to find solutions to the concrete problems in the global South and low-income countries. Certainly, the Rome-based UN agencies, such as FAO and WFP, are playing a crucial role, and we are working on this too.
PassBlue: Italy originated Uniting for Consensus in the 1990s. What does Italy get out of this now?
Massari: We have to see how this negotiation will develop. As I said, we are not asking for seats for ourselves; we are trying to do this because multilateralism is in our DNA. We want the UN system of multilateralism to work well, properly, and to give a voice to everyone. We belong to the global North, but by traditions, history, geography, we feel that we are a bridge between the global North and global South. I will put it this way: We are the Southern face of the global North.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on UN reform proposed by Italy?
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.