Check out this week’s blog post from our Get Educated, One Topic At A Time blog series. This week, learn about the modernization of international relations through history and reform of the UN Security Council in preparation for a MUN simulation coming up on UN Day . Also, check out our last five blog posts from the series: “Creating A Road To Democracy”, “A Historical Moment For Genocide”, “Two Sides To Invest”, “An Undefined Grasp Of Failure” and “A Necessary Priority”.
If there is one thing that international relations experts agree on unanimously, it is that the modern international system has changed drastically since its origins in the aftermath of World War II. The shadow of fascism no longer hangs over Europe and Asia; the “Iron Curtain” has been pulled back; and, perhaps most importantly, large developing countries are beginning to emerge on the “world stage”. Despite these major shifts in world politics in the past half-century, much of the international system’s critical infrastructure remains exactly as it has always been. Recently, calls for reform have grown louder as rising powers are eager to take to the helm of the international system. In particular, many nations are calling for reform of the UN Security Council to better reflect the current dynamics of world politics.
The Charter of the United Nations charges the Security Council – the most powerful and important organ of the UN – with “the maintenance of international peace and security”. The founders of the UN gave five victors of World War II – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China – permanent seats on the Council with the power to veto any of the Council’s resolutions. The General Assembly (GA) of the UN elects the remaining 10 non-permanent members on the Council (none of whom holds veto power) for two-year terms. Although frequently criticized, this structure has barely changed since the founding of the UN, with the notable exception of an expansion of the Council from 11 to 15 members in 1965.
The most controversial characteristic of the Security Council is the “veto power” afforded to the five “permanent members” (aka. the “P-5”). Initially developed as an incentive to develop consensus and to maintain the absolute sovereignty of the world’s leading powers, the veto is sometimes criticized as a relic of a bygone era and an impediment to the Council’s effectiveness. Notably, the veto power effectively prevents the Security Council from resolving conflicts between its permanent members. For example, during the Cold War, the Security Council held a much less important role in maintaining international peace and security than it does today due to the competing vetoes of the United States and the Soviet Union. More recently, the veto power prevented the Security Council from addressing the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Some also argue that countries abuse their veto power for political gain. For example, China sometimes vetoes resolutions that send aid to nations that recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. While criticism of the veto power is widespread, it is unlikely to disappear any time soon, as its elimination would require the approval of the very nations that possess it.
A more likely scenario for Security Council reform would be further expansion of its membership. Many criticize the fact that the Council has two permanent European members (UK & France), yet no permanent members from Africa, Latin America, or South Asia/Middle East. While most nations agree that a larger Council would be more representative of the international community, there is little consensus on how to expand or who would receive the new seats. One proposal would expand the number of permanent members but not the veto power. New permanent seats could go to resurgent and/or emergent world powers such as Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria or Mexico. Other proposals involve expanding the number of non-permanent seats, or some combination of the two. However, as the current permanent members must approve any reforms, there are many roadblocks to these proposals. Today, we know more about which nations the “P-5” would refuse to allow permanent seats than we do about which nations they could support. For example, China fiercely opposes a permanent seat for rival Japan and all permanent members fear diluting their significant clout on the Council. However, US President Barack Obama has notably endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the Council. Although potential expansion of the Council appears to be gaining steam, it remains to be seen if the international community can overcome the necessary challenges.
Reform of the Security Council appears necessary and inevitable in order for the international system to retain its legitimacy and successfully prevent conflict. However, many critics argue that reform would make the Council more representative, but not more effective. For now, the dominant viewpoint is that emerging and resurgent powers must mature before they can take to the helm of maintaining international peace and security.
However reform unfolds, this issue is clearly among the most complex debates taking place at the UN today! We invite you to debate the issue with us at this year’s United Nations Day celebrations on October 24, 2011!
– Nicholas Blake, Education Intern