Hard Truth with Anant Mishra: Understanding the need to reform the United Nations Security Council

February 17, 2015 OPINION/NEWS

UNSC unable to sign resolution on Syria war



Anant Mishra


“We need a reform of the Security Council. It must be perceived as truly representative of all 193 member states, to uphold the credibility and legitimacy of the UN as the main political arena” – Anna Lindh (former Foreign Minister of Sweden and former Chairman at the Council of the European Union).

Formed after World War 2, the United Nations Security Council represents nothing more than just conflicts. To tackle the complicated scenarios of the 21st century, G4 nations and international communities are asking for reform. Yet, what reform can it be? More permanent members? Removal of Veto? So many questions.


Security Council – The Role

The United Nations defines the UN Security Council as follows: “Under the Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It has 15 Members, and each Member has one vote. Under the Charter, all Member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions. The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security. The Security Council also recommends to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary General and the admission of new Members to the United Nations. And, together with the General Assembly, it elects the judges of the International Court of Justice.”


A Reform in wanting – Issues and Concerns faced by Member Nations

Since the discussion of reforming the Security Council (SC) in the 1993 General Assembly, several models have been put forward; many notions were introduced as nations explained their viability to become a permanent member in the SC. To understand the need of reforms, let us first understand the working of the Security Council.

The United Nations Security Council is not just a representative of global conflicts and geopolitical realities of the present world. The most vulnerable nations in Africa and Latin America do not have a seat among its permanent members, while Europe has dominated and Asia is meagerly represented. Problems like these are not easily battled as the five permanent members (P5) do not want their seat threatened, hence little progress has been made since 1993 in spite of numerous solutions and resolutions. The most important issues in the Security Council are membership, transparency, working methods and the veto.

The P5 nations generally oppose other member states who seek to become a permanent member, as that diminishes their power. They do however bid for member states from time to time. Since the negotiations for expanding member nations have stalled, the P5 bid for membership of some nations. Most recently, the US gave its support for India in the UNSC during Obama’s visit. France has supported Africa for the permanent seat.

However the G4 nations have proved themselves as viable candidates for permanent membership in the council. Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have proved themselves as candidates in the United Nations, but eventually they too failed to gather support as opposition member states will not accept their candidacy.

Meanwhile member nations have put in place numerous provisions and reform proposals. In the meeting of the Coffee Club in 1990, member nations opposed adding countries as permanent members, and proposed that member nations be elected on the basis of regional representation. This effort was revamped by Italy under the name “Uniting for Consensus” and has been actively working since then.

Another group, popularly known as the Small five (S-5), has on numerous occasions submitted reform proposals for the UNSC. The Small Five (Costa Rica, Jordan, Lichtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) advocates for transparency and better coordination between the United Nations Security Council along with inter agencies committees, the United Nations General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council committees. They also included guidelines mentioning the dos and don’ts of veto.

On a separate notion, the African Union has also submitted reform proposals for the SC, giving Africa and nations of Latin America equal rights and importance, followed by a seat in the P5 along with equal representation of all regional states. Their submitted reform also shows the importance of veto power.

However it is important to understand that the issue of membership has equal weight as those of transparency methods, working and veto. Currently only 5 members have the right to veto, and it is highly unlikely they will give it back. Lack of transparency means lack of effectiveness during a crisis, followed by a lack of information on the issue and lack of interagency coordination. It is also important to note that subsidiary organs of the United Nations do not include a member of the state until and unless it is an active one. As a result many nations who have already served with the UN or are not serving currently, are left out of the decision making process.




In order to understand the challenges in reforms, it is important to understand the origins and functions of the Council, along with the past reforms on membership.


Origins and Functions of the Security Council

After the end of World War II, Allies (the US, UK, France, Russia, and China) were concerned with the outbreak of war in the future. The allies then formed a group and named it the United Nations as a replacement for the League of Nations that failed to prevent World War II.

The then members of the organization agreed that the newly formed United Nations would be based on principles of sovereignty and “peace-loving” states would be eligible for membership, thus excluding the then nations Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain. They also agreed that the decision on matters of security would be taken unanimously by the member nations – the then great powers.


The Security Council came into existence under the United Nations Charter, which came into effect on 24 October 1945. According to the Charter, the UN has three purposes:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on … equal rights and self-determination of peoples;

  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights.


To ensure that all the above points in the charter are followed, responsibility of said goals is given to the General Assembly and voting is then conducted within the few members of the Security Council. The Security Council shares the responsibility of the first goal (international peace and security) with the GA, especially the First committee (disarmament and security). The responsibility of the second goal is (equal rights and self-determination) shared between the GA and the Trusteeship Council, whereas the responsibility for the third goal (international economic and social cooperation, and human rights) is shared between GA and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). From 2006, responsibility for the human rights as mentioned in the third goal is shared between the GA and the Human Rights Council (HRC).

Talking about the roles and responsibilities, the SC, Trusteeship Council, ECOSOC, and HRC are all charged to execute one UN goal; however these councils also have additional working and functional capabilities. Especially, the SC is considerably more powerful than the others. The United Nations charter has given the powers to the SC, to decide matters that are related to security and summon nations directly and indirectly responsible. Additionally, SC regulations don’t require permission from other interagency committees. Instead other committees simply recommend the SC regulations to the General Assembly. Their resolutions do not go into effect until the GA passes them. Even then, they are simply recommendations, hence the SC is far more supreme than other UN councils and committees.


Previous Efforts to Reform the Security Council

The first SC committee of 1945 had 11 members, six independently elected plus the P-5. In 1965, both the GA and SC agreed to increase the number of temporary members to 10 and limit a total of 15 members in the SC. The increase was decided in support of African and Asian nations that had gained their independence from the colonial empires, as they were encouraged to join UN and begin their participation in the GA.

In 1992 the seriousness of a reformed SC came into the limelight. After the end of the cold war, Germany and Japan advocated their interest to become a permanent member. The two nations vigorously argued that they should be given a permanent seat in the SC as they had supported not just the US but their allies during the cold war and were “the second and third largest contributors to the regular budget of the UN.”

The elusive entrance of Germany and Japan opened a new debate and many member nations questioned the reforms and demanded elusive entry. As the debate heightened, the GA was divided between those member nations who advocated new reforms and those who found the previous reforms suitable and just.

In the GA session of September 1992, India along with 35 member nations issued a draft resolution for expanding the SC. In the summer of 1993 the GA passed a resolution, A/RES/48/26, which resulted in the formation of “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.” In 1998, the GA passed another resolution, A/RES/53/30, which stipulated that any resolution expanding the Council would need at least a 2/3 majority to pass.

The logic of this voting rule is that since Charter amendments must be ratified by 2/3 of UN member states (including all of the P-5), instead of wasting time, the same 2/3 majority will be required to pass the resolution.

Frustrated regarding the halt in membership for the SC, member nations began new ways to gain the seat. By the mid 1990’s this became clear. Reforming the SC’s working methods requires a simple majority vote on an SC resolution, as opposed to the 2/3 majority of the GA and SC (with no P-5 vetoes) needed to change the UN Charter.

Proposals also included reforming and changing the rules of procedures for new meetings. No substantial changes have passed due to strong resistance both from the P-5 and states seeking permanent membership in the Council.

In 2003, the then Secretary General Kofi Annan encouraged both the GA and Trusteeship council to implement new laws and reforms in the SC. In December 2004 he proposed two models for enlargement, both of which were designed to expand the roles of the SC and its membership to 24 members.

The proposed model A focused on adding 6 permanent member seats, along with no veto power, followed by three two term selected seats. Model B involved the creation of new seats, repeatable every four years.

However, of the two proposed models, Model B received the most support as it wasn’t aimed to increase the number of seats. The member nations that supported the proposed Model came to be known as the ‘Coffee Club’. This comprised of Italy, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Spain, Pakistan and South Korea, among others. Those member nations who supported the Model A were later known as the G4, comprising Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil.



Since the Cold war, reforming the Security Council has been a tough, recurring and contentious topic among the member nations of the GA. As little has been accomplished since then, the capability of the SC and its effectiveness of resolving security issues is a big question here.

Now it is up to the General Assembly to find a way to reform the Security Council in order to make it more effective, stabilising the UN as a central organization during International crises.






Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to United Nations. He is an Associate Member of Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi specializing in counter terrorist operations and foreign policies in Africa and Middle East.


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