Obstacles to UN Security Council Reform

There has been a talk about United Nations reform since the very first days of its inception in 1945. The primary objective of the UN is to maintain international peace and security, but it has often failed to prevent armed conflicts. Thus, the organ assigned with this mission, the Security Council, is the oldest and most sought-after part of UN reform. The two areas of reform effort have been in the following areas: the inclusion of more member states in the Security Council and the veto-limitation type of reforms. Despite the reform movements and effort, there has been very limited success in radically reforming the UN Security Council as the five original permanent members haven’t changed nor their veto holding power. In terms of membership, the only ‘success’ achieved was the increase from 11 to 15 members of the SC. But in light of the increase of total members to 193, the figure appears much worse now and even less members are represented.

The lack of radical reform can be attributed to a number of different reasons. One of them could be related to the fact that UN reform effort has not been conducted in a united fashion and has been rather fragmented. Sometimes there have been parallel efforts lasting for years if not decades but none directly challenging the P5’s unequal privileges constitutively. There have been different blocs of countries pursuing their interests in targeted reforms. For example, the Group 4-states: Germany, Japan, India and Brazil have proposed becoming additional permanent members. Furthermore, there have been efforts in veto-limitation by the Small Five (S5) states who were appealing to the P5’s moral obligations and their “responsibility not to veto” Council decisions involving humanitarian situations. However, none of them have so far fully succeeded.

The main reason could be of course attributed to the five permanent members unrelenting effort in maintaining their exclusive power at the UN. Initially all five permanent member states except for the Soviet Union were supporting some form of Council reform. In the US, from 1946 to 1955, both popular and governmental opinion and attempts were in fact in favor of strengthening the UN. However, due to Soviet Union’s strong opposition to hold a review conference as well as the difficulty of muster the two-thirds support to hold a review conference, reforms were postponed and funneled towards 1955. Different committees looking at reform were set up in order to seek reform. However, no major reform is possible without a Charter change which can only be achieved via a review conference which requires two-thirds majority.

Since the late 1960s, there have not been any further formal attempts, under either Article 108 or 109, to amend the Charter. A couple of reasons could be attributed to this freezing of reform. First and foremost is the intransigence of some of the P5, if not all, regarding Council-related changes that might jeopardize their privileges. And the second main reason is the requirement of a two-thirds majority and concurrence of all the P5 (non-application of the veto) for bringing an amendment into force.

Since the Nixon administration in the US, the official policy has been of supporting reform but not one of the Charter. With the US, as the main potential change agent in the UN, joining Russia in wanting to maintain the status quo, and being the main force in putting the adopted Article 109(3) Charter review process into hibernation in 1967, it would appear that achieving the reformed UN that seemingly everybody wants has become a frustrating experience and an elusive goal. However, not all hope should be lost because there are still a lot of different options and tools for UN SC reform which will be further explored.

Author: Ekaterina Dimitrova

Director of Eastern and Central Europe, Ekaterina Dimitrova is from Bulgaria but was educated in the UK and resides in London. She got involved in political campaigning since her early teenage years when she actively participated in campaigns for Bulgaria to join the EU and for the wider inclusion of minorities in Bulgarian post-communist society. Ekaterina worked on campaigns to protect the status and rights of EU citizens after the 2016 Brexit referendum and is actively involved in climate advocacy. She has written articles that range from geopolitical and business to technology, and recently found her own website geopolitics made simple.

Ekaterina has advised think tanks such as CUNCR with her analysis. She is fluent in four languages and holds a joint bachelors degree in political science and linguistics and masters in marketing.

November 6, 2020