IN the midst of deep-seated divisions prevailing in the international community, the opening session of the high-level general debate of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was marked by emphatic messages from the US and Russian Federation for reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It is rare for the US and Russia to be on the same page on an issue in these polarising times.
In his statement, US President Joe Biden said he believed “the time has come for the institution to become more inclusive so that it can better respond to the needs of today’s world.” He specifically mentioned that “the US supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the council. This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported.”
In an almost similar vein, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had a long innings as Russian Permanent Representative to the UNHQ, said the UN and Security Council have to be aligned to contemporary realities. He said, “Moscow sees the prospect of making the Security Council more democratic, exclusively, through broadening the representation of countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. We note India and Brazil in particular as key international actors and worthy candidates for permanent membership within the council, whilst simultaneously unilaterally and mandatorily raising the profile of Africa.”
Every year, since February 2009, as part of the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council, diplomats from various countries, particularly from aspirant member states, ritually make statements, but nothing changes. A broad list of issues relevant to the debate around the UNSC reform include the proposed size of the expanded council, the question of veto, categories of membership, regional representation and the working methods.
Apart from the reluctance of the current members of the P-5 to dilute their influence, one cannot ignore the geopolitical rivalries. The UNSC reform requires an amendment to the Charter of the United Nations. In the first stage, the General Assembly (GA) must approve the reform by a two-thirds majority. After approval from the GA, the amended Charter must then be ratified by at least two-thirds of the member states, including the five permanent Security Council members. At a practical level, there are differences even about the procedures of the IGN as some call for an overwhelming consensus, if not unanimity.
The P-5 membership has changed twice. In 1971, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) replaced the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) in the UNSC, a move facilitated by the US-PRC détente. The second was the addition of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which came largely as a consequence to the 1991 Alma Ata decision, where the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, earlier part of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine supported the substitution of Russia as the UNSC member instead of the Soviet Union.
The UNSC reform is not an easy task. The reform will come only after the current P-5 members realise that it is in their own interest. The recent statements from the US and Russian Federation are noteworthy in this respect. Apart from what happened in Ukraine and its larger impact on the European security, where the UNSC has proved to be largely ineffectual, the ability of the P-5s to manage other crisis in the past 10 years has proven to be limited.
Secondly, in many situations, the P-5s clearly lack the access to the principal actors to influence the situation in a crisis. In the context of post-colonisation developments in the 1940s and 1950s, which birthed a wide array of peace and security issues owing to territorial and water disputes between the newly independent states, inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife within independent states, there had been early deference to the UK and France on the relevant issues because of the colonial connection and arguably institutional knowledge to the areas involved.
For instance, Myanmar is one issue on which the UK had been proactive within the UNSC and taken lead in shaping the UNSC discussions. The same can be said about France in the context of some Francophone countries in Africa. However, over the years, the US stance has been dictated by its own broader strategic interests, and the UK and France no longer enjoy the clout in the former colonies as they had, and, at times, regional powers can have greater ability to shape developments. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been outspoken in saying that “the makeup of the Security Council must reflect the current realities, not the world as it stood at the end of World War II.”
Thirdly, the traditional definition of peace and security issues, the mandate vested with the UNSC, has expanded with myriad issues such as counter-terrorism becoming part of the equation. Because of the nature of issues and scale involved, some of the non-P-5 member states, particularly in global south context, may have greater cutting-edge exposure, knowledge of cultural nuances and a more hands-on experience in terms of preventive and mitigation strategies. This is particularly true in the past one decade as this author experienced while sitting in several UNSC meetings in various formats on a wide array of thematic and regional discussions.
Unless one of the relevant E10s (10 elected members of the UNSC), with familiarity to the issue under discussion, is present, the UNSC deliberations can be bereft of the granular nuances and, above all, even lack the ability to shape the course of developments.
The UNSC has tried many different innovative approaches to enrich its understanding of the issues from outside. ‘Arria-formula’ meetings are one format initiated in March 1992, where any UNSC member, including E10, can facilitate a briefing which is given by one or more persons who are considered experts in the matter of concern to the council. But, this cannot bridge the progressively growing structural gap in terms of knowledge as well as access.
The UNSC reform may not be on the cards in the foreseeable future, but the US and Russian Federation’s UNGA statements in this respect are perhaps one of the most significant admissions in recent times from the P-5 of growing impotence of the present multilateral peace and security architecture.
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