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Democratising the United Nations

Occasional Paper 8/2022

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by Prof William Gumede

Associate Professor, and former Convener, Political Economy, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; former Programme Director, Africa Asia Centre, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).


Russia’s war with Ukraine – and global responses to it – is not only remaking the post-Cold War world but has also shown that many global institutions established to keep the peace between countries have become redundant.

In 1945, following the end of the Second World War, the United Nations (UN) was established by 51 countries to maintain international peace and security. However, the UN, together with Belarus, of Ukraine, has been spectacularly absent during the invasion by Russia. In fact, the UN has been strikingly uninvolved in most of the recent violent conflicts between countries. This underscores the fact that the global organisation established after the Second World War to prevent conflict between countries appears to have lost its credibility, relevance, and authority.

It has been left to individual country leaders – the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), and the G20 – to desperately try to end the hostilities. The UN was also absent during Afghanistan’s descent into chaos last year, when the Taliban took over and the government and citizens fled the country en masse. In addition, the UN has been largely silent in the face of the ongoing dispute between China and Taiwan, which the Chinese dragon views as part of it (which authority Taiwan rejects) and not a sovereign country.

Unless something is done about reforming the UN into a more credible organisation, the global rule of law will collapse. The decline of the UN has raised the spectre of more copy-cat incidents of aggression by powerful countries against more vulnerable ones, making the world even more unstable, violent, and chaotic. Without a credible UN, the world will increasingly be divided between countries that have nuclear military power versus those who do not. Many countries, having seen how Russia used its military power to dominate the US, EU, and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), will desperately try to acquire or shore up nuclear military abilities.

Clearly, the UN in its current form is not fit for purpose to address current and future global challenges. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “The credibility and effectiveness of global institutions is being questioned. The reason for this is that there has been no change in these institutions despite the passage of time. These institutions reflect the mindset and realities of the world 75 years ago” (Mehta, 2020).

Even France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), has conceded that the UNSC has reached its sell-by date. French President Emmanuel Macron said recently that the UN Security Council “no longer produces useful solutions today” (French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2021). The UN’s, and other global institutions’, laws and rules will have to be collectively democratised or abolished and new more relevant, consensual ones created, or the world will plunge into more Russia–Ukraine-like conflicts and eventually a global nuclear Third World War.

New multipolar world

Many of the global multilateral organisations that anchored the post-Cold War consensus – the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Finance Corporation (IFC), and World Trade Organization (WTO) – have lost their credibility. The post-Cold War Western-led global order is facing a profound reputation crisis.

The US-led global hegemony wilted in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Global Financial Crisis; unilateral military interventions in developing countries, without seeking global consensus; and the often manipulation of multilateral organisations for self-interest, rather than for the greater good of the world.

Furthermore, during the 2007/2008 Global Financial Crisis some of the neoliberal economic thinking that underpinned the US post-Cold War ideology hegemony lost its lustre when, in order to save economies, companies and livelihoods, Western countries used decidedly un-neoliberal tools, such as state investment in private businesses.

Since the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the communist alliance led by the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR), the US–European Union-led Western alliance has dominated global political, economic power, institutions, and ideology. This has now come to an end.

The world has now changed into a multipolar one – moving away from the domination of the US-led global order, which has held sway in the post-Cold War era, and towards an order where power will become more evenly spread across regions and countries across the globe.

The world has seen the economic, political, and ideas rise of emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, amongst others, resulting in a multipolar global order that has challenged the US–EU-led Western-dominated global order. It is very likely that instead of one or two powers dominating the world – as was the case with the US in the post-Cold War period and the competition between the US and USSR during the Cold War – we will see multiple power poles emerging.

The US’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, when the Taliban took over and the government and citizens fled the country, most probably symbolised the loss of its global hegemony. Russian President Vladimir Putin, during the decline of the US–EU post-Cold War hegemony and prior to the launch of his invasion of Ukraine, tried to refashion the old USSR alliance against the US–European-dominated world, but this time between Russia, old allies of the USSR, and new emerging powers. In 2015, as part of his strategy, Putin reintegrated some of the former economies of the Soviet Union into a regional trade bloc between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, called the Eurasian Economic Union.

Developing countries are increasingly clubbing together in international fora. African countries are collaborating with each other or with others as a group more. Africa now accounts for more than a quarter of the total membership of the UN. There have been several initiatives by developing countries to build alternative global institutions. In 2003, India, Brazil and South Africa established an alliance, IBSA, which promised to align the globe’s largest developing country democracies across continents to trade with each other, to oppose the dominance by industrial countries of global trade, rules, ideas, and institutions, and share development experiences.

IBSA was established after India, Brazil, and South Africa had been invited, at the time as observers, to the 2003 G8 summit of industrial countries in France. They left feeling that their own fates, and those of the developing world, were being decided by a small group of unrepresentative developed countries.

Following the 2003 G8 summit, India, Brazil, and South Africa felt strongly about formally clubbing together to push for a bigger say in global governance for developing countries, to diversify their trade away from industrial countries, and to share their unique lessons of the twin pursuit of development and democracy amidst multicultural societies with extreme poverty and inequalities.

BRICS was established in 2009 by China, Russia, India and Brazil, with South Africa joining in 2010. For its members, the BRICS partnership offers geopolitical allies for these countries to press for the restructuring of the global trade, economic, and political architecture, to give Africa and developing countries a fairer say – and therefore a better chance to compete – in relation to their Western counterparts.

The potential protective barrier of BRICS membership may provide individual members the policy space to make independent development, trade, and political policy decisions – which may not otherwise be the case, yet is so crucial for the sustainable economic development of individual countries. The BRICS partnership also offers participating countries the space to resolve disputes, whether trade, political, or diplomatic, constructively. The new multipolar world demands a new kind of UN, or a different organisation entirely.

Post-Cold War multilateral global institutions seen as marginalising developing countries

The post-Cold War multilateral global institutions have in the past been dominated by the US–EU, often for purely self-interest, rather than for the global good – which has undermined their authority, effectiveness, and credibility amongst the majority of countries around the world. This has fostered a global climate where it appears dominant countries can get away with breaking global political, economic, legal, market, and trade rules for self-interest – while developing countries cannot.

Developing countries have less say within global institutions that set the rules of the global market, whether that is the UN, World Bank, IMF, IFC, or the WTO. Some scholars have referred to the phenomenon as global apartheid: industrial powers have more power than developing countries, particularly African countries (Bond, 2004).

For example, since the Second World War, the US has always chosen the president of the World Bank, “using the appointment as a vehicle to advance American economic interests, power, and development priorities around the globe” (Zumbrun, 2019). Similarly, Europeans have traditionally selected the head of the International Monetary Fund.

The World Bank is owned by 189 member countries. The members elect a board of executive directors. However, industrial countries have in the main larger voting shares than developing countries and have more power in decision-making. The US has the largest voting share, at around 16%. This is above the 15% share threshold that gives a country veto power on key decisions – the US is the only country with veto power at the World Bank.

Many developing countries were critical of the US favourite, Jim Yong Kim, for World Bank president in 2012 (Zumbrun, 2019). Following Kim’s early retirement in 2019, three years before his term ended, divisions sharpened between industrial and developing countries over who should replace him.

Industrial countries often punish other countries or multilateral organisations if these adopt policies that go against the domestic policies of industrial countries. Developing countries do not have the global power to react similarly. In 2017, the administration of then US President Donald Trump withdrew the US membership of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (Beauchamp, 2017; John, 2017).

UNESCO, in 2011, had admitted the Palestinian territories to the organisation as an independent member state called Palestine. In the UNESCO decision to admit Palestine, 104 countries voted in favour of allowing Palestine, while 14 opposed it, with 52 states abstaining. A US law stipulated that US funding will be cut from an organisation recognising an independent Palestine.

Global development institutions have been criticised for being biased towards Western countries at the expense of African and developing countries, which have little say in the control, policies, and ideas of these institutions.

In the current global economic system, developing economies do not have the policy independence to use monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate their own economies – lest they face a market, investor, and Western media backlash. Many unilateral monetary policies adopted by industrial countries to deal with their domestic crises often destabilise African and developing countries.

Global capital markets are also against many African and developing countries. So unfavourable is the current global political, financial architecture and cultural systems, that policies, decisions and events which are triggered in industrial countries, over which developing countries have little say, often undermine well-being of developing countries.

When in financial crisis, Western countries often come up with unilateral monetary policies that are destabilising for African and developing countries. For example, these governments often manipulate the value of their currencies to improve their export competitiveness. Again, African and developing countries do not have the same power to come up with unilateral monetary policies to protect their economies, strengthen their currencies, and boost employment, so they will face backlash from Western governments, global financial institutions, and markets (Panitchpakdi, 2011).

In fact, when in financial crisis, African and developing countries are often force-fed economic, political, and trade policies – from global financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank – that are often astonishingly inappropriate, in return for funding by these multilateral organisations.

If African and developing countries do not follow the prescripts, they are often punished by the markets, withdrawal of investment by the private sector, diplomatic isolation, and negative global media reporting.

Following the past global financial crisis, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Japanese Central Bank introduced quantitative easing in 2015. However, these quantitative easing policies eroded the competitiveness of emerging market economies (Rajan, 2014; Sablik, 2019; Powell, 2018). The former Reserve Bank of India, Governor Raghuram Rajan (2014) has rightly warned that the US Federal Reserve’s monetary policy was causing spillovers in emerging markets, with seesawing capital flows, volatility, and the destabilising of financial markets.

Global trade rules and laws are stacked against African and developing countries. High tariff and non-tariff barriers in industrial countries block African countries from exporting value-added products, which create more jobs and more wealth to more people, to industrial countries (Africa Progress Panel, 2012). African free trade agreements with Western countries, such as the Partnership Agreements with the European Union and the African Growth and Opportunity Act with the US, are mostly disadvantaging African and developing countries.

If African and developing countries object to global rules stacked against them, they are often threatened with retaliation, from blocking their products, withdrawal of trade, and development aid sanctions, to the political isolation of specific countries (Gumede, 2012). African and developing countries have few recourses for trade, economic, and political disputes with developed countries – they are marginalised in the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism (Africa Progress Panel, 2012).

How the world should respond to global crises, reform of international organisations, laws and rules, and appointments of heads of UN agencies and multilateral institutions now increasingly divides the world into Western countries versus developing countries.

Increasingly, developing countries have tried to circumvent global multilateral organisations or establish alternative global institutions to the existing ones, where they can. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping have established a series of alternative global institutions, such as the BRICS Development Bank, rivalling existing ones (Gumede, 2012).

Appointments of UN general secretaries and heads of agencies

The Security Council members have also dominated the election of UN General Secretaries – which means that general secretaries increasingly are often not getting wider legitimacy amongst countries. The five permanent members (P5) have often forced their own choices of UN general secretaries.

As the world gets more uncertain, dangerous, and complex, UN heads forced on other countries by the Security Council’s P5, have recently often been bland figures, almost invisible, who lack global country support. In the past, UN general secretaries were larger-than-life figures – with global personal or country authority, credibility, and reputations – many of whom could through their own personal appeal persuade country leaders.

The P5 also dominate the appointments of heads of UN agencies, such as UNESCO, UNDP, and the World Health Organisation. And at times when non-permanent members prevail in the appointments of heads of UN agencies, these appointees are often undermined by permanent members.

A case in point was the appointment of the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in 2017, and his reappointment in 2022 (Africa Progress Panel, 2012). Developing countries successfully pushed for the appointment of Tedros, who was endorsed by the African Union, as the World Health Organisation Director General, in 2017. His criticisms of Western countries for hoarding Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic caused outrage amongst these countries.

Tedros waged a fierce campaign to get poorer countries a fair share of Covid-19 vaccines. Support for or against Tedros became a proxy battle between Western and developing countries. Developing countries came to his support and he was re-elected unopposed in 2022. At his re-election as head of the WHO in August 2022, Tedros (2022) said: “The global community cannot properly address the mountain of health emergencies and challenges we face, including the Covid-19 crisis and emerging pandemic threats, ‘in a divided world’”.

Inequality between countries in global affairs and law

Developing countries are also unequal in international law. For instance, the US, China, and key industrial countries have not signed up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and their leaders and citizens are not subject to its jurisdictions.

Industrial countries’ security, intelligence, and police forces often operate across the borders in African and developing countries, something which developing and African countries cannot do.

US-led coalitions, for example, have frequently used their power in the UN to push through invasions in developing countries’ regimes perceived to be anti-Western – in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere – under the guise of defending human rights. Ironically, these countries support equally evil regimes in other developing countries as long as they are pro-Western. Such decisions, many developing countries say, are often based purely on protecting industrial countries’ commercial interests.

Developed countries have increasingly manipulated global political, economic institutions and laws for purely self-interest, rather than for the global good. This has fostered a global climate where it appears dominant developed countries can get away with breaking global political, economic, legal, and trade rules for self-interest, at the expense of developing countries.

Developing countries appear to have less power in global relations than industrial countries, especially former colonial powers. The voices of developing countries often appear to have less weight than those of industrial countries, although new emerging powers – such as China, India, and Brazil – with large economies are increasingly pushing back.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was also critical of Western nations abusing their domination of global and multilateral organisations for their own selfish ends, rather than for the global good. In his farewell speech to South Africa’s parliament, Mandela said: “We see how the powerful countries, all of them so-called democracies, manipulate multilateral bodies to the great disadvantage and suffering of the poorer developing nations.”

The French economist Jean Dresch in 1948 described the economic, political and trade relations between African colonies and colonial powers at independence as: “In essence, it consists of taking money out of a country its export products and selling imported products to the native population which has received money for the exports. It is a very elementary circle in which the market, in so far as is possible, is in the hands of the mother country, and the colony is condemned to produce only raw goods without manufacturing them at home” (Dresch, 1948). Very little appears to have changed, since Dresch’s description of the power relations between former colonies – whether in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, and former colonial powers, the industrial countries.

Global racism

Racism against black or darker-skinned people in industrial countries, global multilateral institutions, and multinational companies is systemic. It undermines the much-vaunted idea of globalisation; the tighter integration of countries, resulting from increased global financial, trade, and services flows; widespread penetration of new technologies; and advances in transport.

Global racism against black and darker-skinned people prevents them from freedom of movement across borders, specially from African and developing countries to industrial countries, whether for work, trade or living. They are more likely to be stopped at customs entry to industrial countries.

The Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, in its 2022 annual report, said: “Racism in policing (in the European Union countries) continued to be an issue in a number of countries, including in the context of enforcing pandemic-related restrictions. The ECRI report refers in particular to racial profiling in stop-and-search activities, the use of racist language and excessive use of force against individuals, which not only targeted individual victims, but stigmatised communities as a whole. Victims of such practices have often felt insufficiently supported by the authorities”.

The idea of globalisation makes no sense when dark-skinned people cannot move freely from developing to industrial countries; and products, especially value-added ones that foster wealth, jobs and economic growth, from predominantly dark-skinned developing countries, face higher tariff barriers in industrial countries.

“Critics of the way globalisation is organised refer to people as the ignored side of globalisation … (T)he freedom of movement of people has not enjoyed any easing of conditions” (COE, 2012: 18).

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many industrial countries were accused of placing stricter entry conditions on citizens from black and darker-skinned countries. During the Covid-19 Omicron variant restrictions in late 2021, the Canadian government was accused of racism after only restricting entry from African countries, while many European countries had higher Omicron loads, but their citizens did not face the same travel restrictions into Canada.

The UN, World Bank, IMF, IFC, and WTO set the rules for the global politics, economy, and trade. All of these global institutions are dominated by Western countries and have been criticised for being biased against African and developing countries, which have little say in the control, policies, and ideas of these institutions.

Western countries and global agencies often appear to act with more urgency in disasters, human rights violations, and environmental neglect when the victims are white. Global interventions often appear to take place only when Western business interests and citizens’ lives are threatened in African and developing countries.

The organisational cultures of multilateral organisations, such as the Western-dominated IMF, World Bank, IFC, WTO, and the UN, have often also exhibited unconscious bias towards developing countries in their decision-making, lending practices, and appointments.

The World Bank’s shareholding is dominated by the US (23.66%), Japan (5.87%), Germany (5.36%), France (5.04%), and the United Kingdom (5.04%). A 2009 report by the US Government Accountability Project (GAP) reported that “only four black Americans held professional positions out of more than 1,000 US nationals. This figure represents a significant proportional decline even from the abysmal levels reported thirty years ago” (GAP, 2009; Chiles, 2012).

The World Bank’s own internal survey during that time showed that Sub-Saharan African, Caribbean, and black American staff do not appear to have the same opportunities to advance as others (GAP, 2009; Chiles, 2012). Africa accounted for over 50% of the World Bank’s development assistance, but only 2.5% of the professional staff in the development economics section responsible for ideas on poverty alleviation were African (Chiles 2012).

The decline of the UN

The UN in its current form has lost its credibility, relevance, and authority. The UN has in many cases failed to maintain global peace, security, and intervene timeously in humanitarian crises. In more recent times it “failed to effectively respond to international crises such as the genocide in Rwanda, the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, the second Iraq War, the Syrian civil war, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and mass atrocities in the Sudanese region of Darfur and Myanmar’s Rakhine State” (Friedman, 2022).

In 2020, the then President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, said “competing interests among its members and frequent use of the veto have limited the Council’s effectiveness”, and that even in the most urgent humanitarian crises, the organisation has “failed to provide a timely and adequate response” (UN, 2020).

The mistrust in the UN has caused many countries not to cooperate with UN-led attempts to mobilise international cooperation in global crises, such as wars, the health pandemics, and disasters. During the Covid-19 pandemic the UN Security Council was spectacularly absent in providing leadership. The Covid-19 pandemic has “laid bare the United Nations Security Council’s incapability to produce quick solutions to contain the spread of the virus. The UNSC held very few meetings even as the pandemic was spreading death and destruction” (Mehta, 2020).

A dispute between the US and China that lasted for three months after the global outbreak of Covid-19, delayed a resolution proposed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling for greater international collaboration to combat the disease, support for poorer countries, and requesting countries in wars to call ceasefires to prioritise combating the disease (Mehta, 2020).

The UN released a report in September 2021, “Our Common Agenda”, on the future of multilateralism. The report highlighted the failure of countries to cooperate under the UN banner to tackle global crises and to coordinate efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following the UN “Our Common Agenda” report, the UN Secretariat was tasked with developing policy responses to these criticisms of the organisation’s failures. A global gathering, called a Summit for the Future, is planned for September 2023, when the recommendations from the UN report will be discussed and a “New Agenda for Peace” for global peace and security agreed upon (Gowan, 2022).

Alongside the planned Summit for the Future, the UN has also appointed a “High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism” convened by Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the former Liberian President, and Stefan Löfven, the former Swedish Prime Minister, to come up with proposals for a change in global governance structures (Gowan, 2022).

The perception that the UN is biased against developing countries has led many developing countries to unite behind calls to reform the organisation. For another, many developing countries, on principle, vote against or abstain on issues in the UN pushed by industrial countries. In the last couple of years, developing countries have increasingly formed blocs opposing industrial countries – turning the UN into an “us (developing countries) versus them (industrial countries)”. This has further undermined the authority, focus, and workings of the UN.

Nevertheless, the rising calls from developing countries for reform of the UN has up to now been ignored by industrial countries. For another, the collapse in credibility of the UN has given countries such as Russia and China the opportunity to act unilaterally. The decline of the UN raised the spectre of more copy-cat Russian-like incidents of aggression by powerful countries against more vulnerable ones, making the world even more unstable. Unless something is done about reforming the UN, the rule of law at global level will collapse.

Furthermore, unless the UN and other multilateral organisations are made more representative, inclusive, and equal, countries who feel excluded may form alternative global organisations. Many developing countries are increasingly turning their back on the UN – because they have no voice.

During the first few weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Russia as a permanent member of the Council blocked UN action, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2022) called for new, more democratic global institutions. Zelensky proposed a new “union of responsible countries” to replace the UN. Zelensky explained that such a new UN would intervene within twenty-four hours of a country experiencing an attack by another country, a natural disaster, or a health crisis, saying that it would be “a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflicts immediately”.

And many other countries are reluctant to contribute to UN activities, such as peacekeeping. On the ground, because of the perceived bias of the UN, many UN peacekeeping forces have often been wrongly attacked in Africa by locals.

UN Security Council – central shortcomings

The central weakness of the UN is the Security Council, which is limited to five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – with outsized powers. The five have veto power on key UN decisions.

The UN Security Council as it is, is simply not relevant to the changing world anymore. The only substantial reform of the UN Security Council introduced since the establishment of the UN in 1945 was in 1965, when the number of elected, non-permanent seats, but without the veto, was increased from six to ten. The UN Charter was amended to make this possible.

There have been two broad reform focuses, one to expand the UN Security Council beyond the P5 and the other to reform the Council’s processes, meeting procedures, and administration – the working methods (Kugel, 2009; Swart, 2013; Lehman, 2013). In 1992, an Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters Related to the Security Council was established to spearhead reforms. The group’s workings were on the basis of consensus. However, the reform group collapsed because of disagreements (Lehman, 2013; Swart, 2013).

By 2005, a number of different developing country groups had emerged split along the lines of the type of reforms they wanted. The Africa Group and the Group of Four (G4), consisting of Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India, called for the expansion of permanent seats. Another country grouping, the Uniting for Consensus group, formed by countries including Italy, South Korea, and Argentina, limited their proposals to only an extension of non-permanent seats.

Because of the impasse, the UN members in 2008 proposed to conduct what is called intergovernmental negotiations at the General Assembly of the UN. In such negotiations decisions can be resolved by a two-third majority of the General Assembly. However, by 2013, after eight rounds of negotiations, the process collapsed. It has not moved since.

Jerry Matjila (2020), South Africa’s UN representative, blamed the UN’s failure to maintain global peace and security as “largely due to its current outdated configuration”, which makes it impossible for the organisation to make decisions. Instead, decisions are made on the self-interests of permanent members and lead to non-permanent members rejecting what appear to be biased decisions by the P5.

These members have often abused their power for their own national interests, rather than in the common interests of humankind. This has destroyed the UN’s credibility, forcing other countries to turn their back on the organisation as a place where they have a voice.

These abuses, including the invasion of Iraq, for questionable reasons, with many countries outside the P5 opposing it, and the invasion of Libya, which was also opposed by many countries, have undermined the UN. The Security Council members have also dominated the election of UN General Secretaries – which means that general secretaries often do not get wider legitimacy amongst countries. Appointments of heads of UN organisations such as UNESCO, UNDP, and UNCTAD are often also heavily influenced by the P5.

The veto power of the five permanent members is particularly anachronistic. The legitimacy of five countries having a veto over decisions at the UN Security Council has been bitterly questioned (UN, 2020). Critics of the veto have rightly said that it has often been arbitrarily used, or used to protect the five countries’ self-interests, rather than the interests of humankind broadly, and that it has undermined the functioning, effectiveness, and legitimacy of the UN.

Challenges of reforming the UN administration

Some countries have also rightly called for an overhaul in the way that the UN conducts its business, its processes, and meeting formats, called its working methods (Nadin, 2014).

Article 30 of the UN Charter (1945) says that the Security Council must adopt rules of procedure, or operating procedures, for its administration. The Security Council adopted its Provisional Rules of Procedure (S/96) in 1946, which have remained provisional ever since. Security Council permanent members have been unenthusiastic about making the changes, beyond the most superficial. The rules of procedure remain untransparent, and lacking in participation and accountability. How decisions on sanctions are made, where peacekeeping forces should be deployed, and how to hold decision-makers accountable are veiled in secrecy.

In 2005, the UN World Summit Outcome document proposed that the Council’s way of operating should become more accountable. It recommended the Council improve its working methods, by becoming more transparent and inclusive in its decision-making processes. However, the permanent five members of the Security Council have consistently blocked proposals to make the working methods, procedures, and decisions of the Council accountable.

Some non-permanent members have been wanting reform of the Council to simultaneously address the composition of the Council and the working methods of the organ. Others have tried to separate the working methods reforms from those of calls to change the composition of the Council.

In 2005, five countries – Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland – formed a group, the S-5, to mobilise for reform of the working methods of the Council. The S-5 group stayed clear of proposing Council composition reforms, and instead, remained within the confines of proposing reforms that will be passed by a simple majority in the UN General Assembly (Lehmann, 2013).

In 2012, the S-5 proposed a draft resolution (A/66/L.42/Rev.2) calling for administrative transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability in the workings of the Security Council. It called for greater inclusion of non-permanent members in decision-making on peace-building initiatives, in preparing, monitoring, and ending mission mandates. The S-5 group called for the Security Council to provide information about its activities, decisions, and planned actions, including holding monthly briefings to UN members about these.

The S-5 resolution called for the permanent members not only to be transparent in the use of the veto, but to limit the use of the veto. They proposed the permanent members must explain why a veto is used. The group suggested the veto not be used to block UN action against mass atrocities.

The S-5 proposals also called for greater participation, inclusion, and transparency in the appointment of the General Secretary of the UN. The appointment of the UN General Secretary has been dominated by the P5. In addition, the S-5 group called for greater participation in the workings on and for the end of domination by permanent members of subsidiary bodies of the UN.

The S-5 group proposed a change in the relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly, away from the current one, where the permanent members can override General Assembly resolutions or ignore them. They argued for greater accountability of the Security Council to the General Assembly.

The permanent members rejected the reform proposals from the S-5 group, insisting only they, the P5, can decide on the appropriate reforms of the working methods of the Council. The permanent members put sufficient pressure on the UN administration to make it obligatory for the S-5 group proposals to be adopted by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly – something not easy to achieve.

The P5, despite their political differences, were united in their opposition to the proposed transparency, accountability, and inclusivity reforms. At the time, Russia and China were pitted against the US, France, and the UK over the Security Council’s handling of the Syrian civil war. The opposition by the five permanent members was particularly riling for many non-permanent members, as they put pressure, inducements, and even coerced poor developing countries to support them (Lehmann, 2013). China was accused of pressuring African countries in which it had large investments, loans, and projects, to not support the reforms of the working methods of the Council proposed by the S-5 group (Lehmann, 2013).

Furthermore, the Uniting for Consensus group, after initially supporting the S-5 proposals, withdrew their support at the last minute before the vote was to take place. This lobby – the Uniting for Consensus group, nicknamed the “Coffee Club” – which was founded by Italy, Mexico, Egypt, and Pakistan in 1995, has since been joined by others including Argentina, Spain, and Canada. They did so because the G4 group of countries – Brazil, Japan, Germany, and India – which compete over UN reform direction with the Uniting for Consensus group, had supported the S-5 proposals.

Following the opposition by the five permanent members and the Uniting for Consensus group, the S-5 withdrew their UN working methods reform resolution. They also withdrew it for tactical reasons, to prevent a precedent being set that at the insistence of the permanent members, critical reforms, such as the working methods reform, would need a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly (Lehmann, 2013). By 2012 the S-5 group’s attempts to reform the working methods of the UN had collapsed.

“The failure of the S-5 was first and foremost a show of force on the part of a P5 determined to maintain their control over the representation of member states’ interests and the reform agenda at the UN” (Lehmann, 2013: 3).

In 2013, following the failure of the S-5 reform proposals, 27 small and mid-sized members of the UN launched a fresh effort to reform the UN Security Council’s internal workings and its relationship with the broader UN membership, calling themselves Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT).

The group included Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland, and Chile. The ACT group stated their objectives as: “[T]he UN Security Council (UNSC), in its present composition, shall work in a more transparent, efficient, inclusive, coherent, legitimate and accountable way, both within its own structure, but also in relationship with the wider membership” (FDFA, 2014). It argued that a Security Council that is accountable was “more legitimate, coherent and efficient” (FDFA, 2014).

The ACT group stayed clear of proposing reforms on democratising the Security Council. The group included some of the reform proposals of the S-5 group – four of the S-5 members were ACT members. The ACT group repeated the S-5 group proposal that the Security Council should not use their veto when a decision involves mass human rights abuses. In 2015, the ACT group proposed a Code of Conduct to guide Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, “which calls upon all members of the Council (permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities” (FDFA, 2014). The group asked for more due process when the Council decides on sanctions against errant countries.

The group called for fairer allocation of penholdership – the role of initiating and negotiating Council draft resolutions, which has in the past been heavily skewed towards allies of the permanent members. Furthermore, it called for more inclusive and transparent processes for the distribution of the Chairs of the Council’s subsidiary bodies. They also want troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping operations to participate in Council decisions on when and where to send peacekeepers.

The ACT group also wants more transparency in the relationship between the Security Council and the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The ACT group proposed more open meetings of the Council, regular briefings, and wider consultation before resolutions are prepared by the Council to the Assembly. The ACT group wants more meetings between the UN Security Council and civil society organisations.

The UN reform debate so far

In 2009, the UN established the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) framework to look at Security Council reforms. The discussions within the forum are considered “informal”, and therefore the UN General Assembly rules of procedure do not apply. Many countries have called for the “urgent need for transparency and application of General Assembly’s rules of procedure to the intergovernmental negotiations” (Naidu, 2020).

Some countries have accused the permanent members of deliberately stalling, turning the consolidated text of the “informal” Intergovernmental Negotiations framework into formal negotiations, which will apply the General Assembly’s rules of procedure (Naidu, 2020).

At a UN Assembly debate in 2020 on Security Council reforms, Assembly President Volkan Bozkir, from Turkey, said reform is “an unavoidable imperative, both challenging and essential” (UN, 2020). Bozkir warned: “This process can and should be an opportunity to correct the problems of structure and functioning of the Council. It should not create new privileges” (UN, 2020). UN Security Council reform to bring into it more equitable representation, has been on the UN General Assembly programme since 1979, with very little progress. Ronaldo Costa Filho, Brazil’s representative at the UN Assembly, said inclusive representation at the Council is a precondition for restoring the legitimacy of the organisation (UN, 2020).

Recent reform proposals argue for the expansion of the 15-member Council beyond the five permanent seats held by the US, UK, Russia, China, and France and the remaining non-permanent membership. The proposals all push for greater regional representation and greater participation in the Council’s affairs, to increase its legitimacy. Changing the Council’s composition and substantial decisions need a two-thirds majority of member states in the UN’s General Assembly.

Most of the UN reform debate has focused on reforming the Security Council, specifically to reduce the dominance of the five permanent members. There are essentially three broad overarching reform proposals or lobbies. Some countries, such as Brazil, Japan, Germany, and India – the G4 – have proposed enlarging the Council (Nadin, 2014) by adding at least six new permanent members, which would include Brazil, Japan, Germany, India, two African countries, and introducing an additional three elected seats on the Council.

Another proposal is to create “new permanent seats in each region, leaving it to the members of each regional group to decide which member states should sit in those seats, and for how long” (Nadin, 2014). This lobby, the Uniting for Consensus group, proposed a 26-member Council, with nine permanent seats amongst regions, and the remainder of the seats would be held for two-year terms, with the option to get re-elected for another term (UN, 2020).

The Uniting for Consensus group rejects an increase in the number of permanent seats in the UN Security Council but argue for the increase in non-permanent seats. They believe that increasing permanent seats will increase the power inequality, whereas increasing non-permanent seats would mean more countries will have access to Council power. The group’s membership now includes 50 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

African countries as a group, have proposed two permanent seats and two additional elected seats for Africa on the Council (Nadin, 2014; UN, 2020). All the different proposals for reform include Africa in one form or the other on a transformed Council. African countries cobbled together their common position under the ambit of the 2005 Ezulwini Consensus and the Sirte Declaration. At the 2020 UN Assembly debate, the Chinese representative said: “Reform must focus on equality between big and small States, strong and weak, rich and poor” (UN, 2020).

South Africa has advocated for a 26-seat Council with an increase in permanent and non-permanent seats and for giving representation to all five regions of Africa in some form on the Council (Matjila, 2020). The US supports “modest” expansion of the Council “as long as it does not diminish the effectiveness of the Council or impact veto power” (UN, 2020).

There have been compromise reform proposals suggested by individuals outside the formal UN reform negotiations process. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (2022), the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Jordan Ambassador to the UN, has proposed that a super-majority in the UN General Assembly should override any veto of a permanent member. Such a super-majority of member countries could be based on three-quarters or seven-eighths of the membership vote.

Former Colombian Finance Minister, José Antonio Ocampo and former Turkish Economy Minister, Kemal Derviş have similarly proposed a majority veto be introduced. They called it a “large double majority – representing, for example, at least two-thirds of member countries and two-thirds of the world’s population – to override a veto”. Clearly, given that permanent members appear resolutely opposed to relinquishing their veto, such majority vote proposals to override the veto of permanent members should be considered.

UN reform opposition, and lack of consensus

Currently, any change to the UN Charter – which involves reform of the composition of the UN Security Council – needs a two-thirds majority and must be supported by all permanent members of the UN Security Council. A veto from any of the five permanent members of the Council stops any decision to be taken by the Council.

In the past, China has used its veto power to stop efforts to discuss criticisms of its role in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Mehta, 2020). For example, China used its veto power to block sanctions against Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed Masood Azhar, which has been accused of terrorism for over a decade, until it budged in 2019 (Mehta 2020).

Some developing country analysts have accused China of “using a variety of excuses to delay the intergovernmental negotiations process, which has been going on for over 10 years” (Mehta, 2020). The intergovernmental negotiations process refers to country discussions at the UN on reforming the Security Council. India has accused China of dragging its feet on reform, because it did not want India to become a permanent member of the Council (Mehta, 2020; Gupta, 2020).

China “supports reasonable and necessary reform” of the Council. The Chinese dragon does not want to abolish the Council or the idea of permanent membership, neither the veto. However, China wants to increase the representation of developing countries on the Security Council (CGTN, 2022).

“At present, the makeup of the Security Council is out of balance between the North and the South, and reform should correct the over-representation of developed countries, earnestly improve the representation of developing countries, correct the historical injustice suffered by Africa, and give more opportunities to small and medium-sized countries that come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Arab countries and small island countries to serve in the Council and play their important role” (Zhang, 2021).

Russia has also used its veto power to block UN action against it (UN, 2022). In February 2022, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have demanded the country stop its invasion of Ukraine and withdraw its troops (UN, 2022).

Some countries, such as Pakistan and Colombia, oppose Security Council expansion. In the UN Assembly 2020 debate, the Pakistan representative said since the five current permanent members cannot agree on policies, adding additional ones will increase decision paralysis. Columbia’s representative said that expanding the Council will not automatically increase transparency of the structure.

There have been a number of proposals not to eliminate, but to limit the veto. Mexico, for example, has argued for limiting, rather than eliminating the veto that permanent members have (UN, 2020). Mexico and France have proposed to retain, but to restrict the instances in which the veto could be used. They propose that the veto be restricted in cases where the UN must urgently intervene when mass atrocities are committed – to prevent paralysing inaction.

The UK does not support the elimination of the veto but advocates its responsible use. UK representatives emphasise that the “UK has not used its veto since 1989 and will never use it on any credible draft resolution to prevent or end a mass atrocity” (Allen, 2020).

The US and the UK are not enthusiastic about large-scale reforms of the UN Security Council. The UK supports “modest expansion of the Security Council in both permanent and non-permanent categories”, which includes the “creation of new permanent seats for India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil, as well as permanent African representation on the Council”, to bring “the Security Council’s total membership to somewhere in the mid-twenties” (Roscoe, 2021).

The US is “open to a modest expansion of the Council in permanent and non-permanent categories as long as it does not diminish the effectiveness of the Council or impact veto power”. The US is opposed to taking away the veto power of permanent members. The US insists that any alteration in the Council structure must be “made by consensus” (UN, 2020).

Historic feuds between individual countries are often also played out in the debate over UN Security Council reform and undermines building developing country consensus on reforms. China got Taiwan expelled from the UN and Security Council membership in 1971. China then took Taiwan’s place on the Security Council, after it became vacant (UN, 1971). South Korea, for example, opposes Japan securing a permanent Security Council seat because of Japan’s former colonisation of South Korea.

China has consistently opposed Japan’s admission to the UN Security Council (AFP, 2005). China has insisted that Japan should not be granted permanent status on the Security Council until it atones for its wartime history (AFP, 2005). In 2009, Japan’s public bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat unleashed two days of violent protests in China (Fincher, 2009). Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, at the time said: “I think the core issue in the China-Japan relationship is that Japan needs to face up squarely to history” before China will support its Security Council seat bid (Fincher, 2009).

India claims China is blocking its ambition to secure a permanent Council seat because of frosty relations between the two countries (Mehta, 2020). In 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed China has stood in India’s way to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council and into associated UN international fora such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Modi claimed China deliberately tagged India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group to Pakistan’s acceptance, although India, according to Modi, had an “impeccable non-proliferation record”, which he said was not the case with Pakistan (Gupta, 2020).

Conclusion: A new UN democratisation agenda

New global institutions are needed, or current ones need to be remade to be more relevant to the new, more complex, uncertain, and unpredictable post-Cold War world, where the ideologies of the past, old institutions, and old ways of looking at the world are increasingly becoming largely irrelevant.

If the UN is to be retained, it must not only be reformed, but it must also be democratised to ensure equitable representation, participation, and decision-making to ensure the credibility, legitimacy, and embrace of the organisation. The UN’s administration must be democratised to “increase transparency and enable greater engagement of the Council members, especially with small and medium-sized countries in the Council’s work” (PRC, 2022). In fact, the working methods of the UN must be democratised in such a way to allow all members to have equal participation.

The idea of a UN Security Council with permanent members is clearly outdated. Yet, permanent members appear resolutely opposed to relinquish their veto. So far, proposals for reform have been mostly about increasing the number of countries on the UN Security Council. Proposals that call for majority votes in the General Assembly – if permanent members refuse to let go of their veto power – to override the veto of permanent members, should be considered.

Ultimately, the idea of a limited number of countries having veto power should also be abolished entirely. The veto is not only unfair, makes countries unequal, and is open to abuse, but it has also paralysed the function of the Council.

The UN should be democratised in such a way that a few countries – or regional blocs – do not dominate the organisation’s decision-making or are not enabled to manipulate or block action. Importantly, democratisation of UN decision-making must be based on every country having equal power.

There is a need for a global alliance of all developing countries – in alliance with progressive industrial countries that believe in the principle of equality – to press for the democratisation of the UN. The pillars of the democratisation of the UN must include dissolving the feature of the UN Security Council that advocates for permanent members. It should be either fully dissolved or every country should through a rotation system become a member of the council over time. Finally, the UN reforms must be on the basis that every country has equal power, that regional blocs should not dominate, and that voting should be one vote per country – with each country having equal votes.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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