June 24, 2024

Can the UN Security Council be Reformed?

As Putin’s rhetoric and violence continues to increase, and accusations of war crimes mount against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many around the world are wondering why Russia can’t simply be dismissed from the UN Security Council or at least blocked from voting.

Image Credit: Sipa/AP

As Putin’s rhetoric and violence continues to increase, and accusations of war crimes mount against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many around the world are wondering why Russia can’t simply be dismissed from the UN Security Council or at least blocked from voting. In February 2022 Russia Vetoed several Security Council decisions regarding the invasion. Since then, there has been discussion of UN Security Council reform as it has been well established that Putin’s military operation violates the UN Charter on many levels. 

Amid discontent with the global community’s ability to respond swiftly to the Russian invasion, the UN Security Council has come under renewed scrutiny. As the leading opposition to Russia has mainly relied on ineffective sanctions, Putin has received by some reports, over $400bn since 2021 due to the inflation of global energy prices, and many are left wondering why the UN’s most powerful body is mired in political gridlock and unable to take more decisive actions. 

Security Council reform is not a new idea, it has been debated within the UN almost since the organization’s inception in 1945. The Security Council and the power of the veto were in response to the ineffectiveness and bureaucracy of the Council at the League of Nations. The Security Council was meant to be a body capable of taking swift, decisive actions and empowered with the means to enforce decisions. That power was mostly derived from the five permanent council members who were selected at the time based on their global influence and status, the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia. 

Of course, the world in 1945 reflected a much different world order than the one we live in today, which has been the main point of contention for security council reformers in the UN throughout the years. Reformers have correctly argued for decades that without proper reform, the council risks becoming outdated and ineffective, unable to contend with current issues. 

Official de jure reform of the council has historically been hard to achieve given the design of the council voting process. However, it is not impossible as, with the work of Afro-Asian countries who unified to demand reform to the UN Charter, the council was modified in 1963 to include a total of 15 seats up from the previous 11. All of the additional seats were added to the rotating non-permanent members of the council who serve elected two-year terms, increasing their number from 6 to 10. They also reformed the selection process to include an election in the general assembly. Unfortunately, that was the last time that the charter was amended, but that was not the end of the security council reform movement. In 1993 the UN established an Official 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.” By 1997, which is widely considered the most productive year for reform in modern times, another proposal called the Razali Proposal (a 3-part plan that included veto reforms) made it to the General Assembly. However, the plan failed and discussion has been for the most part, at a halt since then. 

While many have lost hope in the process of official reform, for the time being, movements to reform the council without modifying the Charter have gained steam. Unofficial reform has historically been effective in improving the Council’s efficiency. Beginning in 1946 with a gentleman’s agreement between the P5 on how the non-permanent members were to be selected, unofficial reform is legitimized in history. Unofficial reform again took place in 1992 when the Security Council held a summit “The Responsibility of the Security Council in the Maintenance of International Peace and Security.” This summit represented a de facto reform to the council when Russia succeeded the USSR’s seat after the republic’s dissolution in 1991. These cases show that unofficial reform is possible but also requires the cooperation of the P5. 

The French proposal put forward in 2013 to create a “gentleman’s agreement” of sorts around the use of the Veto is another recent proposal to unofficially reform the council. The Franco-Mexican Initiative to curtail the use of the Veto in events of mass atrocity has gained support from 105 countries out of the goal set for 129 countries or 2/3 of the UN general assembly. The proposal attempts to give the security council more flexibility to act on mass atrocities. The agreement would be non-binding and the main motivation for members to adhere to it would be the increased efficiency of council workings. France and the UK have already curtailed their use of the veto and neither country has used it since 1989. Russia has used it the most frequently in recent years followed by the US and then China. Many have argued that the US has been able to successfully use the Veto to defend allies like Israel from otherwise damaging resolutions and that it is a critical tool for national security. This is true; however, the use of the veto is also associated with polarization and was used most frequently by both the US and the USSR during the Cold War when the council was on many accounts the least effective. The US has recently spoken in terms suggesting they are considering an idea similar to the French proposal. A key component of the Razali plan also included a phasing out of the Veto which was a highly controversial point in the plan. However, any successful council reform must happen in stages and the French proposal, while it may not seem like much on its own, could be a key first step in phased reform. It would also alleviate the need for Veto reform to be included in any official reform. While it is not possible to know the future, perhaps the idea of pursuing unofficial reform could be the key to unlocking the gridlock in the ongoing debate about official UN Charter amendments. 

Unfortunately, Russia is highly unlikely to agree to any such proposals anytime soon. Russian foreign policy has traditionally placed special importance on the use of the Veto and their role at the security council following the collapse of the USSR; it allows them to maintain a privileged position and influence in global affairs. The Security Council was also highly productive during Yeltsin’s rule in Russia as increased cooperation and decreased use of the Veto allowed the council to transform its work to meet modern peacekeeping needs in places like the middle east. The work of diplomats in the UN today, especially members of the P5, is to remind Russia of the benefits and influence it enjoyed as a cooperating member of the council. 

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