Reforming the Security Council: the question that won’t go away

Last week Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of turning down the offer of a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, accusing the body of having failed in its “duties and … responsibilities in keeping world peace.” Saudi Arabia may have had the deadlock over Syria in mind, but it had the “work mechanisms and double standards” of the Security Council (UNSC) very firmly in its sights.

Saudi Arabia seems like a paradoxical place to be calling for reform of the Security Council. It has been the clarion call more recently of global justice campaigners and poorer, politically disenfranchised nations. But Turkey and France have also now added their voice to the controversy, France in particular expressing “frustration” over the Security Council’s non-response to the Syrian imbroglio.

Between them these countries have opened up a wider debate – wider than perhaps they realize, since the pertinence of the Syria issue is not simply about the inability of the UNSC to take action (to send in the peacekeepers). It is about the barrier that the Security Council has long presented to democratic international decision-making tout court.

Calls for reform of the UNSC and the much-maligned veto powers held by its five permanent members, the so-called P-5 countries of Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France, have a long history. Such calls were there at the Security Council’s inception, in fact, when Australia led a last ditch effort to limit the veto powers that Stalin had most strongly advocated. The UN General Assembly has its own open-ended Working Group looking at Security Council reform today – although the fact that this was first set up back in 1993 gives fair indication of the amount of headway it has achieved.

But for all that reform of the UNSC is an uphill struggle, the question keeps on being raised, primarily because what is done there goes right to the heart of the world’s major powers claim to the status of being ‘benign hegemons’ – or the purveyors of “partnership and cooperation” as Blair would have put it. Such claims have never stacked up well against the historical record. Which is why a little historical perspective is actually useful here, beginning with the rather unusual angle – literally – that Norway offers onto the workings of the Council.

Party to every decision taken behind the notoriously closed doors of the Security Council are the figures looking down on them from the mural that hangs over the Security Council Chamber. The mural depicts a phoenix arising from the ashes and was painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh. “The world we see in the foreground is collapsing, while the new world based on clarity and harmony can be built up,” Krogh said of his work in 1950.

In some senses he was at least five years too late with this vision that he had so carefully painted for the world, since the terms of the real new world order had largely been set in 1944: at Dumbarton Oaks and at Bretton Woods. In others he was at least half a century too early, since both clarity and harmony are still notable at the Security Council primarily by their absence. 

But Krogh’s mural has always been the perfect emblem for how we tend to think about the United Nations and the Security Council in particular – as the institutional backbone of a new world of civility as it arose from the ashes of the old in 1945. On this score at least the UN, no less than its member nations, has a founding mythology. And the claim that this particular body was the only conceivable institutional settlement for the post-1945 world order, the product of such greater common sense as had finally been beaten out of the world’s primary powers at the bloody end of the age of empire, flows naturally from it.

The reality of the founding of the UN, however which was at least as much about preserving the remnants of the imperial balance of powers, or at least the global pecking order that it bequeathed us, has always been rather different. And at the heart of that ‘actually existing’ UN is the way that the Security Council itself has gone about its task of promoting “peace and security” these past seven decades.

Inevitably, given the make up of the permanent members (Russia, China, United States, Britain, France) the veto was used frequently during the Cold War. But even in the post-Cold War era the veto has been a key weapon in the arsenal of the strong. Actual use of the veto by the US has helped prevent international sanctions against Israel’s settlements policy, while threat of veto has led to non-action or delayed action in Kosovo in 1999 and Darfur in 2005. Last year both Russia and China vetoed resolutions calling for sanctions against Syria. And Russia, not surprisingly, has been the most outspoken against Saudi Arabia latest stand last week.

Saudi Arabia is most concerned the impact of the Security Council and the power wielded by the veto power locally in relation to the regional concert of the Middle East. But calls for reform have been issued many times in recent years: be it by South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, the UN’s own Kofi Annan, or the United by Consensus group of countries agitating for expansion of the number of Council members.

But excluding the most immediately determining factor of national self-interest, what are the actual arguments for Security Council reform?

Very briefly summarized, they are the following. First, the fact that the current system is unrepresentative of the world’s peoples (though the Security Council is hardly the only part of the UN hit by this critique). All too often, the problems that come up for discussion in the Security Council tend to be problems in which the P5 have a direct interest.

Second, the Security Council is undemocratic in the way that it functions: the Council’s decisions are taken behind closed doors, the figures in Per Krogh’s painting notwithstanding, and as to process, the five permanent members are, on their own, able to stop a substantive Security Council resolution even when that is supported by all other members. The veto power can also be used to secure non-reciprocated privileges (the US has used it to obtain immunity from the ICC, for example). And the P5 retain a further veto right over any proposals for change.

A more basic criticism, however, is that it has effectively set in concrete a ‘great power’ and ‘grand alliance’ system of rule that was developed in the pre-WWII era even. The result is a rather serious anachronism at the heart of world politics. We are confronted by post-Cold War realities yet the single most powerful global body retains the preference for political horse-trading beloved of the diplomats and statesmen of 1815 and 1918.

Arguments for retaining the Security Council appeal to largely the same values: and herein lies a part of the problem in reforming it. They merely put those values to different tasks. To wit, the permanent members argue that to scrap the veto would be, in effect, to open up the most powerful part of the UN to mob rule (which is a pejorative way of saying it would be to democratize it). They argue, as George Bush did in 2002 that it’s purpose is not to be democratic but to put ‘words into action’: democracy runs counter to efficiency being the argument here.

International conservatives also point out that there are institutional safeguards already built into the system: the P5 are to use their powers only in accordance with wider objectives of “peace and security,” for example. This again is a largely rhetorical claim and conveniently ignores the fact that a good deal of reform could be carried out short of actually abolishing it. A more sophisticated defense is that it is better to include the post-WWII Great Powers in such a system. This is the ‘lesson’ of the League of Nations we are reminded over and again – or, when more imaginatively phrased, we are told that it is at least a good to bind their feet to the same fire every now and then, rather than leaving them free to pursue their interests on their own account outside any system. But if that is your argument then bring in Iran as a permanent member too. Bring in India and Pakistan. Bring in Israel and Palestine.

So what, then, are the chances of reform? Optimists will say that reform has happened before, as in 1963, when the number of non-permanent seats was increased from six to ten. But this was more concession, more tweak in fact, than actual reform. Pessimists point to the fact that any change requires the agreement of all five permanent members, who having recently banded together to affirm their belief in their own fitness to rule on behalf of others are unlikely in the extreme to permit any serious change at all.

But events like that taking place in Syria and responses like that of Saudi Arabia’s can shift the status quo in ways that are impossible to predict – precisely by putting words into action, albeit in ways that Bush Jr. never imagined. Should that prove to be the case – and to be sure the current opening of debate merely hints at the possibility – then one hopes it will be in ways that are beneficial albeit hard to imagine at present (which is just the shot in the arm the international system needs), rather than in ways that are unpleasant yet all too easy to imagine.