Occasional Paper 7/2022
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Inclusive Society Institute
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by Daryl Swanepoel
MPA, BPA Hons, ND: Co. Admin
It is universally recognised that reform is necessary and urgent for the United Nations (UN) to reclaim its initial lustre, and that this cannot be complete without a comprehensive reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Failure to do so would feed into the current narrative of an increasingly irrelevant organisation clinging on to old-world structures and processes, which still reflect the post-1945 unipolar geopolitical and economic landscape. The UNSC is assailed by a number of disquiets about its representativity, efficiency, transparency, and accountability. But this paper argues that it is the use – or rather, misuse – of the veto power of the five permanent member countries that is at the core of credible reform. It finds that, despite all its faults, the UN will remain a relevant force in the fight for global peace, security, and sustainable development, as long as it adapts to the new multipolar world order. Rather than a wholesale overhaul, a more sensible – and probably more realistic – way to tackle reform would be to follow a piecemeal approach, with a focus on inclusive multilateralism and natural justice.
Setting the scene
The Turkish Consulate held a panel discussion in Cape Town at the Westin Hotel on 30 August 2022 regarding the Türkiye government’s UN reform initiative, which it hosted in South Africa, as it has done and is doing in other countries around the world.
This specific campaign is summed up by the catchphrase of President Erdoğan that the “world is bigger than five”. It captures the important notion that global peace, justice, and development should be in the hands of all countries at the UN, not only a few. In fact, the use – or rather misuse – of the power held by each of the five permanent UN Security Council members lies at the heart of the Turkish position on UN reform.
Türkiye believes that the aim of the reforms should not be to devise a new global structure but rather to reform the existing UN system, and that this cannot be complete without a comprehensive reform of the Security Council. The Council’s membership needs to be restructured to reflect the modern multicultural global political balance, by adopting a more equitable and just representation of member states. The emergence of new centres of power – mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – heralds the end of the hegemony of the West, and the need for a new international system to rise (Acer, 2022).
The Turkish president has proposed a rotating membership system wherein all countries would get a chance to be a member at some point, rather than increasing the number of permanent members. The criteria for membership should be reasonable and achievable, to avoid selectivity, which would wall off the majority of member states from the prospect of a seat on the Security Council (Republic of Türkiye, 2005).
Another priority identified by Türkiye, is creating greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability – the Council’s credibility is hanging in the balance. In its current state, the UN’s decision-making and interaction processes around major global disputes happen largely behind closed doors and lead only to stalemates, instead of to unlocking the solutions needed. And when those in the UN who make the rules do not themselves follow them, it brings into question the legitimacy of the organisation as a whole. Striking examples are the dozens of resolutions on Palestine the UN Security Council has made that have come to nought and the UN General Assembly resolutions on Israel, which are mostly not applied (Acer, 2022).
In addition, Türkiye points out that the relationship between the Council and other states and with the main UN bodies needs to be improved, with better cooperation and coordination. The General Assembly and ECOSOC need to be remedied and revitalised in the face of new challenges for the true success of the UN’s reform. The UN also needs an efficient Secretariat and Human Rights Council (Republic of Türkiye, 2005).
The Turkish government remains committed to the UN as the centre of global governance and remains open to discussing any proposal based on these principles. Türkiye is willing to take any action necessary to reach a solution that is inclusive of the interests of the majority of state members.
Türkiye’s adoption of the Action Plan for Opening up to Africa in the late 1990s has also been lauded. This Action Plan assigns greater priority to Africa and boosts economic cooperation. This was followed by Türkiye’s announcement in 2005, that it would be "The Year of Africa". Africa is also mindful, and thankful, that the reign of the Ottoman Empire left Africa unscathed in terms of colonial outreach and subjugation. The relationship is therefore based on a different premise to the relationship between Africa and the former colonial regimes, which still impacts Africa’s legacy and, it could be argued, persists, even within organs such as the UN.
Maybe food for thought as the path to a reformed UN is navigated.
Undoubtedly, the world is safer today than at the UN’s founding in 1945, notwithstanding the belligerence in Ukraine, Yemen, Sahel, Ethiopia, and the other hotspots around the globe. The UN that emerged from post-WWII had an aspiration of a world free from conflict, hunger, inequality, etc, where nations can solve problems collectively and for the global common good. And it has achieved some major feats since then.
Probably its most notable contribution to world peace was the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a response to the atrocities that occurred during World War II. The UN also deployed the first fully-fledged peacekeeping unit, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), to oversee the end of hostilities in the Suez Crisis, leading to the withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli forces (Pruitt, 2018).
An achievement which is particularly relevant today, is the UN’s landmark Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Although this pact has not stopped nuclear proliferation, it has set a major precedent for international cooperation on the arms control issue. Another pressing current issue the UN should be commended for is its lead in taking on the climate crisis.
In the global health arena, the WHO led the fight to eradicate smallpox, and won. UNAIDS still leads in the fight against HIV/AIDS, with the lowest levels of new HIV infections and deaths reported this century. In addition, the UN has been at the centre of combatting a number of emergency health situations – including the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the recent unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic (Pruitt, 2018).
The General Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child was the first global consensus on the matter of children’s rights. Women’s rights are also built into the United Nations Charter. UN Women continues to champion women’s rights, engendered by the 2014 ground-breaking HeForShe campaign (Pruitt, 2018). And the UN’s agencies take care of approximately 60 million refugees and other vulnerable people across the world (Santamaria, 2020).
The UN has also won the Nobel Peace Prize numerous times, with the latest recipient being the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been responding to the urgent need for food supplies during global crises for over 60 years. The WFP assisted over 128 million people in 2021 and provides school meals to more than 15 million children. Each day the WFP has up to 5,600 trucks, 100 planes, and 30 ships on the move, delivering food and other assistance (WFP, 2022).
The UN and its other multilateral entities, at its founding, reflected the geopolitical and economic power and influence dynamics of the time. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States found itself transformed from a midlevel global power to the leader of the “free world”, alongside the Soviet Union, which had experienced a similarly unexpected rise to power, while there was a sharp decline in the power and economic influence of the European colonial empires (The National WWII Museum, 2020).
The Global South was essentially absent from the UN’s establishment process, as they were undergoing processes of independence. Africa, for example, was almost totally absent, with only Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and South Africa present.
Today, the UN’s functioning and governance mechanisms still reflect the post-1945 geopolitical and economic landscape. This despite the world undergoing tremendous changes and developments since then. The new reality needs to be reflected in the UN architecture. It is not.
Need to transform
This august body cannot remain untransformed and largely unaffected by these momentous geopolitical and economic shifts that have occurred over the last 77 years, if it wants to remain relevant, credible, and responsive. If it truly wants to be inclusive, not only in terms of geographic inclusion, which it does by way of membership, but also in terms of geopolitical orientation, influence, and the realpolitik, it will need to adapt and become fit for purpose for the new world order that has emerged since 1945.
The spectacular rise of China over the past two decades and the relative decline of the US marks the end of the dominance of the West. A massive 35% of world growth pre-pandemic came from China, with 18% from the US, 9% from India, and 8% from Europe. By 2050, the top five largest global economies are most likely to be China, India, US, Brazil, and Indonesia. To survive this global geopolitical transition, the first step is to accept the new multipolar world order, with the US and China at its centre (WEF, 2018).
Democratic South Africa has been a proud member of the UN family for a mere 28 years. While it recognises the importance of being part of the global community, it is not blind to the inherent deficiencies, even a measure of unfairness, that is built into the current architecture, which has been of concern over the years, but which has become more pronounced as time goes by.
It is universally recognised that reform is necessary and urgent for the UN to reclaim its initial lustre. The UN is assailed by a number of disquiets about its efficacy, effectiveness, representivity, governance mechanisms, mode of operation and functioning across a number of fronts.
Despite its many successes, the UN has also had several failures, largely due to ineffective leadership and a limited range of actions at hand. In some instances, it has been the all-encompassing power imbued upon the permanent members of the Security Council that has stalled operations and nullified resolutions. Simply put, while the UN has the power to pass resolutions, it often lacks the punch to enforce them. As a result, the UN presents with unfair decision-making processes, lack of inclusion of new and emerging global powers, and few accountability mechanisms in place (Gardiner, 2007).
Critics of the UN also point to the overly bureaucratic and slow way in which it deals with development issues. Former UN officials have criticised its lack of coherent strategic planning, outdated structure and business practices, and staggering personnel costs. In fact, as the UN has expanded more and more over the years, many of its bodies now have overlapping mandates, and it has become a rather unwieldy organisation (The Guardian, 2015).
Analysts have over the years identified a number of problems and obstacles causing the need to improve the UN. This includes, amongst others:
In the broader context, it needs to move from a state-centric model of international governance towards a citizen-orientated model.
The domination of the Security Council, its exclusive power, self-interest of Council members, and lack of checks and balances
The veto power
Non-participation of UN members in Security Council decisions
Lack of transparency of Security Council meetings
Procedures to amend the Charter
Financial and political realities.
But principally, it is the veto power of the P5 countries that has remained intact, despite numerous attempts at reform over the years, that has seized the minds of those arguing for reform. The Security Council’s veto power is granted solely to its five permanent members – the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia – and allows them to block any substantive resolution, rendering it invalid. The UN is shackled, watching on as these powerhouses decide on matters to suit their own interests, rather than the interests of the international community or those of justified sides. Ostensibly, the P5 hold the whip hand through vetoes and the 10 temporary members of the Security Council are simply window dressing (The Guardian, 2015).
Attempts at reform have been further impacted by labyrinthine bureaucratic processes and budget constraints. This is especially evident to us in Africa with reference to peacekeeping missions, humanitarian assistance, etcetera, given our challenging economic levels. The UN’s failure to prevent the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, and its slow response to the Sudan genocide are shameful episodes that will haunt the UN for generations (Gardiner, 2007).
The UN, despite its best efforts to live up to its Charter and noble aims, suffers from a lack of legitimacy and a crisis of confidence in its abilities to effect the requisite changes. The Charter is asymmetrical in its outlook and functioning. There are also many flashpoints in the world and the UN is often criticised for not doing enough to quell or address such conflicts. In a number of instances, it has not intervened in these conflicts, because it was paralysed by competing self-interest, principally of the P5 nations. Since 1982, the US has used its veto power to block 35 resolutions critical of Israel. Other permanent members have put a stop to 27 resolutions over the same time period. And recently, UN intervention in Syria has been blocked by Russia and China (The Guardian, 2015).
Africa’s UN position and ambition
Since 1963, members of the African group have been represented in the UN as a region, with the creation of the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU), now the African Union. It is Africa’s firm contention that the UN must work more closely with the AU to address and resolve Africa’s myriad challenges.
In 2018, for example, over 50% of UNSC meetings, 60% of its outcome documents, and 70% of its resolutions with Chapter VII mandates – that is, action in respect of threats to peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression – concerned African peace and security issues; the majority by far. Currently, there are 12 peacekeeping operations being led by the UN Department of Peace, with six of those in Africa alone – in Western Sahara, Central African Republic, Mali, Congo, Abyei, and South Sudan (UN Peacekeeping, 2022). Yet, no African country is yet a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
The 2005 Ezulwini Consensus represents the AU’s unified position regarding UN reform. The main elements relate to UNSC reform; the question of equal representation, in numerical and geographical aspects; the question of effectiveness of UNSC actions, linked to equality and transparency; and the question related to improving working methods through the implementation of new procedures for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and UNSC.
The Sirte declaration at the 5th African Union (AU) Assembly re-affirmed the strong commitment to the Ezulwini declaration. It is acknowledged that there was no agreement on categories of membership, eligibility, number of seats, system of rotation and the so-called veto power (deadlock result) and that further work needs to be done, but there seems to be agreement as to the areas that need to be reformed. There are of course some contentious internal issues, but it is believed that these can be overcome (ISI, 2020).
South Africa is committed to the Ezulwini Consensus.
What is the essence of the Ezulwini Consensus?
In the consensus document, the AU expressed the need for the UN General Assembly to be strengthened. While it should retain its intergovernmental character and remain essentially as a forum for intergovernmental dialogue, measures should be taken to improve its effectiveness, including its ability to ensure that its decisions are implemented (ISI, 2020).
Furthermore, the relationship between the General Assembly and UNSC needs to reflect a more balanced distribution of competence (AU, 2005). Once again, keep in mind that in 1945, when the UN was formed, most of Africa lacked representation. And in 1963, when the first UNSC reform took place, the continent was still not properly represented.
Now that Africa is fully represented in the UN, it is, however, better placed to influence reforms. The AU’s goal, therefore, is for Africa to be fully represented in all the decision-making organs of the UN, particularly in the UNSC, which is considered the principal decision-making organ in matters relating to peace and security (AU, 2005).
In the AU’s opinion, Africa should be allocated at least two permanent seats on the UNSC. These appointments should be accompanied with all the prerogatives and privileges of permanent members, including the right of veto, should the principle of veto rights be maintained. Although opposed to the principle of a veto, the continent’s leadership argues that, as long as it exists, it should be made available to all permanent members of the UNSC as a matter of common justice. Furthermore, Africa should be allocated a further five non-permanent seats on an expanded UNSC (AU, 2005).
The selection of Africa’s representatives on the UNSC should be the AU’s responsibility. Criteria should include continent-wide representation, and the chosen member states’ capacity to represent the continent and to effectively execute its responsibilities within the UNSC (AU, 2005). Although the Ezulwini Consensus stipulates that the AU reserves the right to elect the two permanent members to the UNSC, a number of African states have already pronounced themselves ready to assume such a seat (Anon., 2020).
A range of reform initiatives
The Ezulwini position is one of a number of other initiatives, whilst different in detail, similar in principle.
The G4 proposal
The G4 (Germany, India, Brazil, and Japan) believe the UN Security Council structure is out of date. There is an imbalance of influence in the Council that cannot be righted with only non-permanent members joining the UN. Their position is that expansion in both categories is crucial to demonstrating the balance of current global realities. And that it is unacceptable that entire continents, such as Africa, are excluded from permanent seats on the Council (The Economic Times, 2021).
The G4 proposal suggests adding six new permanent members to the Security Council (two seats each for Asia and Africa and one seat for the Western European and Others Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Group respectively). They would also like to see four or five non‑permanent members added to the Security Council (one seat each for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and one or two seats for Africa).
They have also proposed several reforms to the working methods, including that new members initially give up the right of veto and that the issue be resolved at a review conference 15 years after the amendment of the Charter kicks in (Federal Foreign Office, 2022).
The L.69 Group is a cross-regional grouping of developing countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific pushing for lasting and comprehensive reform of the UNSC. The L.69 Group is “bound by the firm conviction that expansion in both the permanent and non-permanent categories of UNSC membership is imperative to better reflect contemporary world realities” and achieve a more accountable, representative, transparent, and relevant UNSC (IAS Parliament, 2022).
The L.69 Group supports the Ezulwini Consensus, including that the veto should either be abolished or extended to all permanent members. The group proposes adding six new permanent members, two from Africa, two from Asia, one from Latin America and the Caribbean, and one from WEOG. Additionally, L.69 advocated for a rotating non-permanent seat for small island developing states (SIDS) (ISI, 2020).
The Arab Group
The Arab Group, which is made up of 22 members, supports a real and comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council. The group believes the Council needs to be made more representative, transparent, neutral, and credible. It continues to promote its position of gaining a permanent seat for one of its members and calls for a fairer Arab representation in non-permanent UN Security Council seats.
The group points to objective criteria – the Arab population density, and the number of Arab countries in the UN and Arab-related conflicts often found on the Council’s agenda – as compelling factors in this decision (Hatim, 2021).
Uniting for Consensus
The Uniting for Consensus group of 12 countries, nicknamed the Coffee Club, wants the proposed UNSC non-permanent membership expanded from 10 to 20 members, serving for a two-year term, in addition to the five permanent members.
The 20 non-permanent members would be elected as follows: six from Africa; five from Asia; four from Latin America and the Caribbean; three from Western Europe and Other States; and two from Eastern Europe. Each geographical group would decide on arrangements for re-election or rotation of its members, including a fair subregional representation.
The group also calls for more transparent, inclusive, and accountable working methods in the Council. For instance, restraint on the use of the veto; improved decision-making and performance processes; greater access to information; adequate consultation and cooperation between the main UN bodies (UN, 2005).
Lack of reform holds danger for proliferation
There is a concern with regard to no movement, the non-ability of the UN to reform itself.
The lack of UN representivity and its inability to solve global issues, and the sense that it is the P5 that drive the process, has resulted in the proliferation of alternative regional and transnational blocs. There are additional expansions in the pipeline. A lack of reform will aid the formation of alternative multilateral fora, which holds the danger that it may well feed into narrow regionalism that has the potential to result in polarisation. We have witnessed the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, the formation (and now on the cards, proposed expansion) of BRICS, the Belt and Road Initiative, etc. We have seen how the BRICS bank and other initiatives have come to augment the Bretton Woods Institutions.
The development of these blocs in itself should not be unduly criticised, they are good initiatives and overlap in some ways with the work of the UN. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a forum of 120 countries not aligned with or against any major power bloc, has ceaselessly battled alongside the UN against oppressive foreign occupation and domination to ensure those vulnerable to these attacks have their inalienable right to self-determination and independence preserved (GoI, 2012).
BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is important in bringing together the major emerging economies of the world. Although primarily their focus has been on inter-BRICS financial, trade and economic cooperation, they have become synonymous with defending global governance, economic globalisation, free trade, and climate action. They are also well positioned to stand side by side with the UN in efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty (UN News, 2017).
There is also considerable overlap in the goals and strategies of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many of the UN agencies are in fact involved in the BRI, which is integral to the SDGs as a primary vehicle for sustainable projects, sources of green finance, and poverty alleviation initiatives across Europe, Asia, and Africa (Lewis et al., 2021).
However, the fear is that, should these countries continue to feel excluded, overridden and marginalised from the decision-making processes of the UNSC, they could morph into alternative geopolitical multilateral institutions competing against the UN processes. Failure by the UN to reform would feed into the narrative of an increasingly irrelevant organisation clinging on to old-world structures and processes, with a growing sense of disenfranchisement amongst many of its members. This would obviously not bode well for global coordination against worldwide threats, such as, for example, climate change.
It is the author’s considered view that inclusive multilateralism and natural justice should be the focus. These are, after all, the noble values enshrined in the UN Charter that inspired the world in 1945. But multilateralism should be built on the principles of equality, inclusiveness, and fairness. And the current UN system, it is argued, is not.
Concerns relating to non-reform have lingered for too long
Concerns about the effectiveness of the Security Council have festered for decades. In 1993, then Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, called for “radical reform” of the UN system, acknowledging that the United Nations no longer meets the needs of its members. Annan stated: “We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded.” He added, “I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them.”
Annan criticised the US' pre-emptive strike doctrine, which he called a challenge to the UN's founding principles. But he said the organisation must show it can act effectively when member states have security concerns. The secretary general formed a high-level panel to advise on how the UN could better respond to new threats to security posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (McMahon, 2003).
Former UNSG, Ban Ki-moon said at the 70th UN General Assembly, “Reaching our sustainable development goals means organising ourselves better. Let there be no more walls or boxes; no more ministries or agencies working at cross-purposes. Let us move from silos to synergy, supported by data, long-term planning, and a will to do things differently” (Ban, 2015).
In the corridors of the UN, they are aware of the problems at the heart of the institution and what needs to change. And they are mindful that there are different modes of reform (far-reaching versus modest). This applies to both structural and working methods reform.
The UNSC must be enlarged, ideally with more permanent members possessing a veto. Alternatively, it should do away with the veto entirely and develop mediation and effective decision-making processes. These need to align with the principles of equity, representativeness, efficiency, equality, democracy, and geopolitical and economic realities of the world today.
But reform stubbornly stagnates.
On 28 June 2022, Loraine Sievers, Director of Security Council Procedure, told the Council that “its outdated working methods needed improvement in order to create a transparent, nimble 15-nation organ capable of tackling contemporary global challenges”. She said that fragmentation within the Council due to geopolitical troubles has placed it under serious scrutiny, exposing the truth about the powers the Council actually holds.
Transparency with regards the Council’s proceedings is also an issue, she said. “It is you, the present Council members, who have full control over how to strike this balance between the public and private.” She believes the opacity encircling the workings of the Council has the potential to reduce a sense of trust and legitimacy. But if the Council, in good faith, remains open about its working methods, this could warm up the relationship with the wider membership, nurturing cooperation (UNSC, 2022).
Sievers presented wide-ranging proposals that included the use of the veto, the system of drafting resolutions, and reforming the sanctions regime. Yet the Sievers proposals show that the concerns of SG Kofi Annan have not been acted upon since 2003. The question is: Will reforms be enacted now, and if not, what will propel the P5 to act in the wider interest of humanity, rather than in their national (self) interest?
The reform priorities
We know what is necessary. The UNSC needs to be reformed. It needs to be expanded in a manner that promotes greater regional inclusion. Most of the literature points to this aspect as the most focussed-on element of the reform discussion.
Currently, entire regions continue to be excluded – notably Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean – from the permanent membership category. The 15‑member Council must be expanded beyond the current five permanent seats and its non-permanent membership to include nations from the north and south; big and small states; strong and weak; rich and poor.
But it can be argued that as important as regional inclusion is – in that it ensures enriched discussion, more inclusive decision-making, and holistic consultation – the most important, is to tackle P5 veto rights.
Often, competing self-interest between P5 members results in paralysis of UN processes, meaning that the endgame is zero action. For years, Russia’s veto power has stymied resolutions against its military terrorising of Ukraine and Syria (Falk, 2022). The UNSC could not even pass a resolution on the all-important topic of Covid-19 because of the United States’ insistence that there be no reference to the WHO. Similarly, when discussing the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, no substantive discussion was possible due to opposing resolutions by Russia and the US (Roth, 2019).
The contention is that the principle of recusal should apply if a veto power is the subject of discussion; it is not the case currently. The principle of recusal says that any party who has a self-interest in, or is biased or prejudiced against, a matter on the table for discussion should voluntarily refrain from participating for the purpose of avoiding a conflict of interest.
It cannot be right – it goes against all principles of natural justice – for a P5 country to exercise its veto right on a resolution in which it is the topic of discussion. It cannot be player and referee at the same time. In any judicial system around the world, where there is a conflict of interest, the conflicted party needs to recuse themselves from the discussion and decision. Not so in the UNSC.
It is this single issue that is causing the greatest harm to the credibility of the UN, and which is the prime driver of the perceived and real credibility and trust deficit.
And an appeal mechanism needs to be found, at least as relates to UNSC decisions that are not supported by the majority in the General Assembly.
It could be that UNSC decisions not supported by a motion in the General Assembly, may be reviewed by the General Assembly, or some other body, and amended or sent back by means of a super-majority decision. It could be an alternative mediation mechanism. It could be something else. But history has taught us – and the South African story is a prime example – when a minority continues to inflict its views on the majority without a credible means of mediation, trouble looms.
So, it is clear from the decades-old debate, that the UNSC and the P5 veto rights need to be tackled to address the credibility and trust deficit. Further research and consultations are not necessary to figure out what needs to be reformed, nor what the reforms should look like. We all know what needs to be done.
The prospects for reform
The question arises as to what is feasible given the prevailing power dynamics?
The P5 will be reluctant to cede power. Truthfully, they are not about to. So, does it even help to waste time and resources on the topic?
It seems that it is the P5 themselves who have to come to the conclusion that it is necessary. There is no other overriding mechanism. We have to appeal to their sense of justice. We need to get them to understand the danger of polarisation and what it holds for world peace and development. Only when the P5 come to this insight, will reform advance. Countries need to heighten their diplomatic efforts in this regard.
In light of the above, perhaps rather than a wholesale overhaul, a more sensible – and probably more realistic – way to tackle reform would be to follow a piecemeal approach. Given the current political situation, demands for far-reaching reforms targeting changes to the UN Charter, however well they may sound, are unlikely to provoke solidarity or movement amongst UN member states. But partial measures taken over a period of time, such as reforming the working methods to increase their effectiveness and efficiency, may just be the ticket to change.
It is proposed that the P5 be directly engaged about the veto power, with careful consideration of the political will and interests of these member states. The options need to be seen as cost-saving or, at least, cost-neutral. Two main proposals vis-à-vis the veto power stand out. The first is not to eliminate, but to limit the veto. Mexico and France have proposed to retain the veto power, but argue that the veto should be restricted in cases where urgent intervention by the UN is required – for instance, when mass atrocities are committed – to prevent the prevailing paralysing inaction (UN, 2022).
The second option is the idea that a super-majority in the UN General Assembly should have the authority to override any veto of a P5 member. This super-majority of member countries could be based on three-quarters or seven-eighths of the membership vote.
In a similar vein, former Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo and former Turkish Economy Minister Kemal Derviş have proposed “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” (Friedman, 2022). Considering the resolute reluctance of the P5 to relinquish their veto power, such a proposal may be a tall order.
Another angle to use in trying to convince the member states of this piecemeal approach, is to bring their attention to the real threat of increased proliferation of competing regional and international organisations. If the P5 members continue to wield their power in selfish ways, they may end up losing it altogether, as other states withdraw their support.
A partial measure – an olive branch, if you will – should be offered to appease aggrieved states, in the form of either modest expansion of the Security Council in both permanent and non-permanent categories, or a rotational format. The UK supports the “creation of new permanent seats for India, Germany, Japan and Brazil, as well as permanent African representation on the Council”, which would bring total membership into the mid-twenties (ISS, 2022). And may keep the wolves at bay, for us all.
As difficult and as near impossible as it seems, this should not inhibit our ambition for meaningful change and reform at the UN. Reform is the right thing to do and will assist with peace, security, and sustainable development. And the UN is worth saving. Despite all its faults, the UN remains a relevant force.
It has helped ward off hunger, poverty, and violence for hundreds of millions of people. It leads the fight against climate change. Its agencies take care of approximately 60 million refugees and other vulnerable people across the world. UN observers help ensure free and fair elections worldwide. Its peacekeepers have intervened in conflicts where few countries would consider doing so alone. The Non-Proliferation Treaty has ensured the limitation of nuclear weapons. It also remains relevant in terms of providing an enormous range of basic services that people take for granted. And while there are a growing number of alternative platforms where world leaders can engage in multilateral cooperation, there is no entity that can equal the established capacity of the UN and its agencies across the globe (ISI, 2020).
It seems we need to find the sweet spot between structures and processes within the UN, where power can be shared fairly for the benefit of all humankind. And we need to find it soon. The geopolitical world is shifting rapidly, and we are faced with ever-increasing global threats, creating enormous uncertainty within the international system. The danger of a major collapse is real. Climate change, specifically, the great equaliser, will not wait for us to come to a consensus on who is more worthy of holding the power.
It is our UN. We must persist. The global challenges are too urgent and too great for us to give up. We must make it work. Humanity is relying on us to get it right.
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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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