Why Changing the Security Council Threatens Broader UN Reform

Why Changing the Security Council Threatens Broader UN Reform

Theme: On 11 July the General Assembly of the United Nations opened the debate on reform of the UN Security Council.

Summary: After a decade of informal discussion, debate has now started in earnest over what could lead to a radical change to the prestigious UN Security Council, the world body’s principal policy-making panel. Nearly all the 191 UN member states agree that the 15-nation council in its current form is an anachronism of the post-World War II era and no longer accurately reflects the world’s landscape of power. The Security Council, which consists of five permanent members with a veto, and 10 who are elected to two-year terms, has not been expanded in 40 years. But so far there has been no agreement on how to change it. Indeed, the rancorous debate in the General Assembly has revealed deep divisions among member states, which threatens to wreck plans for broader UN reform.

AnalysisThree Competing Proposals Cloud Prospects for Reform
In what represents perhaps the most important initiative for UN reform ever, in March 2005 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented a report titled ‘In Larger Freedom: Development, Security and Human Rights for All’. The report, which outlines an ambitious plan for UN reform to meet the threats and international challenges of the 21st century, makes clear that no overhaul of the UN would be complete without reform of the Security Council.

Indeed, Annan said that he wants the issue of Security Council expansion settled before world leaders gather in New York for the 14-16 September UN Summit of Heads of State to act on his broader reform agenda. As a result, the UN General Assembly has launched a formal debate over the question of how to update the Security Council, the most powerful UN body. But three competing proposals now threaten to derail the entire reform process.

On 11 July, Brazil formally introduced a draft resolution on Security Council enlargement sponsored by four countries, Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, the so-called G-4. The G-4 plan calls for increasing the number of council seats from 15 to 25. The G-4 want four of the new permanent seats for themselves, two permanent seats for Africa and another four non-permanent seats. The G-4 dropped the demand for veto rights due to lack of support. Instead, the G-4 say that a decision on the veto should be considered in 15 years.

But by combining forces, the G-4 has instead multiplied the forces of opposition. The G-4 measure, which once had the most traction of any proposal, now faces enough opposition to put into question its chances of winning the required two-thirds or 128 votes in the 191-member General Assembly needed for adoption. Only 23 countries are co-sponsoring the G-4 resolution. Even if the measure were passed by the General Assembly, the Security Council must vote to amend the UN Charter to allow the changes to take place, and any of the current five permanent (P-5) members of the Security Council could veto that. Indeed, China, Russia and the US oppose the G-4 proposal, while the UK and France, the two other permanent members, support it.

US Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said on 16 June that the G-4 proposal was ‘not easily digestible’. And addressing the General Assembly on 12 July, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, a senior advisor to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the G-4 measure would damage the Security Council. ‘I ask all countries to very carefully consider the resolution before us and to ask the critical question: does this resolution serve to strengthen the United Nations? We believe it does not. We urge you, therefore, to oppose this resolution’, Tahir-Kheli said. She continued by stressing that the US does not want the Security Council to grow so large that it becomes ineffective. ‘Efficiency is essential. The Security Council has been an effective body, and is more relevant today than ever. One of the first principles of reform should be to do no harm.’

Although a US ‘no’ vote at this stage is not necessarily a deal breaker, Tahir-Kheli also reminded the General Assembly that the US Senate would have to ratify any change in the UN Charter expanding the Security Council, which she said was unlikely. She said a vote now on the G-4 proposal to ‘lock in a particular mode of Security Council expansion at this stage would interfere with our ability to shape a proposal later that would stand a reasonable chance’ of Senate ratification.

The US statement added to opposition to the G-4 proposal that grew as the African Union and a coalition of a dozen countries called Uniting for Consensus circulated rival proposals. The 53-member African Union, the largest regional group in the UN, is seeking to expand the Security Council to 26 seats, including six new permanent seats that, unlike the G-4 proposal, would have veto power. Africa would get two new permanent and two new elected seats.

Meanwhile, the draft resolution circulated –but not introduced– by Uniting for Consensus, a group of about 20 countries led by Italy, Mexico and Pakistan, would add 10 non-permanent seats and no new permanent seats. All new seats would face re-election for two or three-year terms. Under their proposal, six seats would be allotted to Africa, five to Asia, four to Latin America and the Caribbean, three to Western Europe and other states, and two to Eastern Europe.

High-Stakes Diplomacy at the UN
It should come as no surprise that the Uniting for Consensus coalition would try to derail the G-4 proposal. After all, Italy has repeatedly voiced its opposition to Germany’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. At the same time, Mexico and Pakistan oppose the bids of Brazil and India, respectively. Argentina, which also belongs to the group, said the G-4 proposal would create ‘discrimination and artificial hegemonies throughout the regions, which will be detrimental for the work of the Security Council’.

And in unusually heated comments that reflect the heightened tensions, on 11 July, Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram accused a small group of nations of seeking new and unequal privileges for themselves by portraying self-interest as altruism: ‘the seekers of special privileges and power masquerade as the champions of the weak and disadvantaged’, he said. Akram added that the G-4 proposal would leave six winners but 180 losers. ‘we will not choose to anoint six states with special privileges and stamp ourselves as second-class members in this organisation’, he said.

Indeed, opposition to the G-4 proposal underscores just how divided the UN remains. It also reflects the continuing primacy of the nation state in the perennial quest for prestige and status on the global stage, as well as the staying power of regional rivalries. For example, China strongly opposes a permanent seat for Japan, its Asian rival, but says it does not object to one for India. Moreover, Beijing has been non-committal on Brazil and Germany. Washington, on the other hand, supports the bids of Japan and India, but is lukewarm about Brazil and opposes Germany. Russia, for its part, has erected a diplomatic smoke-screen to conceal its true position by cryptically saying that it individually backs the candidacies of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, although not necessarily supporting their comprehensive formula. But the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a group largely encompassing Central Asian states and dominated by Russia and China, has warned the G-4 against attempts to ‘set a deadline for UN reform or to impose voting on draft proposals on which major differences exist’.

So far the G-4 has resisted attempts to divide them, but this may not last. India, for example, is widely expected to receive the backing of the UK, China, France and Russia. Indeed, the only real question remains whether India will be prepared to pay what could be a very high price to secure crucial support from the US. Washington is likely to extract painful concessions from New Delhi, especially in the area of defence and security. Issues related to a quid pro quo will be discussed on 18 July, when Indian Prime Minister Mahmohan Singh meets US President George W. Bush at the White House. Paradoxically, India, which has a long tradition of independence in foreign affairs, may find that becoming a permanent member of the Security Council might limit rather than expand its scope for autonomy in foreign policy.

Germany, too, will pay a high price for its bid, although it is unlikely to succeed. Indeed, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in a one-day trip to meet with Bush in Washington, failed to overcome US opposition to Germany’s bid. The issue is unlikely to be resolved before Germany’s election scheduled for 18 September, when Schroeder is expected to be swept out of power by a conservative landslide. The opposition Christian Democratic Union has said it would not pursue the goal of a permanent seat, and the Free Democracy Party, which would be a partner in a new centre-right coalition, said Germany would revert to its traditional policy of advocating a pooled seat representing Europe.

Indeed, German critics of the Schroeder government have questioned whether its aggressive campaign for a seat on the Security Council is really in the German interest because failure to win will result in a dramatic loss of global prestige. Moreover, they accuse Schroeder of jeopardising a vital national interest (European unity) in pursuit of a secondary interest (the Security Council seat). Finally, they fear that it will lead to a further parting of ways between Germany and the US.

Although the US has not put forward its own proposal for reforming the Security Council in the form of a resolution, on 16 June Burns called for the addition of ‘two or so’ new permanent members, and ‘two or three’ new non-permanent seats. On 22 June the US presented the UN General Assembly with a seven-point plan for UN reform, which calls for a limited, criteria-based enlargement of the Security Council. It says potential members must be ‘supremely well qualified, based on factors such as: economic size, population, military capacity, commitment to democracy and human rights, financial contributions to the UN, contributions to UN peacekeeping, and record on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation’.

According to the US, one of the permanent seats should go to Japan and another to a country from the developing world. Japan, which hosts the largest concentration of American troops in Asia, is the main US ally in the region, and Washington views Tokyo as a crucial geo-political counter-weight to Beijing. On 12 July Rice explicitly reiterated US support for Japan’s bid. After holding talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura in Tokyo, Rice said: ‘I reaffirmed to the foreign minister our support for a Japanese seat on the United Nations Security Council’.

But despite US support, Japan’s decade-old drive for a permanent seat is likely to end in failure. Tokyo is still viewed with suspicion and hostility by its Cold War adversaries China and Russia, as well as by allies like South Korea and the Philippines. Japan continues to be haunted by border disputes and its World War II-era occupation of China and South Korea. A recent spate of violent anti-Japanese protests in China and a naval stand-off with South Korea have further heightened tensions. It comes as no surprise, then, that South Korea has joined the Unity for Consensus group that opposes Tokyo’s ambitions at the UN. And in what was widely viewed as a diplomatic cover to finesse its opposition to Japan, China released a position paper on 8 June, which for the first time clarifies its stance on UN Security Council reform: the paper says China opposes a ‘rushed’ vote on UN reform.

But why does the White House support Japan’s bid and oppose that of Germany? Both Germany and Japan are pillars of the global economy, both are bigger than the UK and France, and both are more economically powerful than any member of the Security Council except for the US. And in the area of cheque-book diplomacy, Germany contributes 8.6% of the UN budget, surpassed only by Japan (19.4%) and the US (22.0%). Four permanent members of the Security Council pay less: the UK (6.1%), France (6.0%), China (2.0%) and Russia (1.1%).

Not surprisingly, some view the US opposition to Germany’s bid as payback for Berlin’s opposition to the Iraq war. More likely, however, it reflects increasing US anxiety about whether greater European influence on the world stage might be exerted in a way that harms US interests. The Washington Post reported on 18 May that Rice opposed Germany’s bid during a meeting with leaders of the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations, according to a confidential memorandum of the private meeting. Rice ‘thought that there was a very poor rationale for giving another member of the European Union a permanent seat’, the memo said. ‘In many respects, Europe already had a common foreign policy, and that needed to be taken into account in the Security Council’.

In an article titled ‘Think Again: The United Nations’ published in the September/October 2003 edition of Foreign Policy, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes: ‘no UN issue has been studied more with less to show for the effort than Security Council enlargement’. The failure to reform the Security Council, however, has more to do with defending national interests than it has with conducting further studies.

US Has Other Reform Priorities
UN reform is only feasible with sustained US leadership. But all indications suggest that the US (as well as China and Russia) would be happy to preserve the status quo on the Security Council. Indeed, the White House now says its priorities are on the broader issue of overall UN reform, and argues that expansion of the Security Council should follow action on other proposed changes in the UN such as improved management oversight and replacement of the Human Rights Commission with a council of nations with strong rights records.

Supporting this view, a group of former foreign ministers from Asia, Europe and North America issued on 8 July an open letter titled ‘A New UN’ urging reform of the UN in four key areas. Among them are restructuring the discredited UN human rights commission, establishing a peace-building commission, requiring universal acceptance of the principle that all states must protect their citizens, and creating a permanent caucus of democratic nations to break the stranglehold of regional groupings that in the past have blocked proposals on human rights and democracy. But the letter, published in the Wall Street Journal, makes no mention of reforming the Security Council.

In the US, political pressure for comprehensive UN reform is mounting. In a sign of growing discontent among American voters with the UN, the US House of Representatives voted on 17 June to withhold half of its dues from the UN unless it dramatically changes its bureaucracy, peacekeeping missions and the rules for its human rights organisations. The bill, which is one of the most extensive and specific congressional edicts to the UN, lists 46 specific steps the UN must take, including: establishing an independent oversight board that can review all operations, prohibiting nations the UN has condemned for human rights abuses from serving on human rights bodies and demanding major bureaucratic reforms. The bill would withhold half of US dues starting in 2007 if the UN does not meet the 46 requirements.

The Bush Administration has strenuously opposed the measure, which is popular among many conservative legislators. The White House issued a statement on 16 June that said it ‘strongly supports reform of the United Nations, including greater accountability, oversight and results-based budgeting’, but it specifically objected to ‘the bill’s certification requirements which could result in a 50% reduction in the United States assessed contributions to the UN’.

Moreover, Rice argues that the White House should have leeway to conduct foreign affairs, and adds that cutting off dues would jeopardise its chances of winning changes like streamlining the budget, improving accountability to avoid a repeat of scandals like the one involving the oil-for-food programme for Iraq, and preventing human rights abusers from sitting on the UN Human Rights Commission. Other critics of the bill say that some of the reform goals simply are not achievable by the deadline.

The House bill marks a revival of the wrangling between Congress and the UN which started in the 1990s, when congressional Republicans held up more than US$1 billion in US funding for the UN. The most recent major legislation concerning the UN was the Helms-Biden agreement of 1998, which cut the US share of the UN budget. The US contributed US$438 million, or about 22%, of the UN annual US$1.8 billion budget in 2005. This is roughly equivalent to what the Pentagon spends every 12 hours. In addition, in 2005 the US will contribute about US$2.5 billion to voluntary efforts like peacekeeping and popular programmes with independent budgets, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Those would not be affected by the bill.

The House measure faces an uncertain future because the companion bill introduced in the Senate on 13 July gives the US the right, but not the requirement, to withhold dues if the UN does not enact wide-ranging reforms. The next step will be a conference between House and Senate leaders to come up with compromise legislation. If the Senate passes a companion bill, it would mean that a mandate to the UN would go to Bush for his signature during this two-year Congress.

The Senate measure borrows heavily from a report issued on 15 June by the congressionally-mandated Task Force on the United Nations. The 175-page report titled ‘American Interests and UN Reform’ and coordinated by the United States Institute of Peace says the UN suffers from poor management, dismal staff morale and lack of accountability and professional ethics. Among its recommendations, the panel says the UN should put in place corporate-style oversight bodies, personal standards to improve performance and accounting reforms. The 12-member bi-partisan task force, which was set up by Congress in December 2004 and led by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and George Mitchell, a former Senate Democratic leader, takes no position on expansion of the Security Council.

Overall, the panel strikes a surprisingly conciliatory tone. In its only reference to Annan, who is now in the penultimate year of his administration, the report says that a ‘fundamental criterion’ in selecting his successor when his term is completed at the end of 2006 should be ‘management capability’. It also stresses that the UN’s top leadership understands the need to make fundamental changes. ‘Real change may now be possible without resorting to the stick of US financial withholding’, the report says.

Meanwhile, the White House says it backs most of the recommendations of the report. Indeed, the Bush Administration has recently shifted to a more conciliatory approach towards the UN, saying it supports many of the reform proposals set forth by Annan in his report titled ‘In Larger Freedom’. And instead of playing the usual diplomatic hardball, Rice and other US officials have been meeting with Annan and other UN diplomats to discuss a compromise reform package that could win approval at the UN Summit in September.

Why this new spirit of compromise? Despite the decades-old US-UN love-hate relationship, the Bush Administration seems to have decided that the US has a big stake in the UN’s future. The White House wants a reformed UN to take on tasks such as helping to rebuild Iraq, supervising possible sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and maintaining peace in Kosovo. Indeed, in a comment that would have been unthinkable during the Bush’s first term, Under-Secretary of State Burns said on 16 June: ‘The UN system is critical to stability in the world’.

For those who advocate sweeping changes at the UN, therefore, the pressing challenge now will be to ensure that the dispute over expanding the Security Council does not derail the broader agenda for reform. If key UN member states can achieve that –perhaps by delaying a final decision on the future of the Security Council– the UN may succeed in implementing the most important revamp since it was founded 60 years ago.

Conclusion: Expansion of the UN Security Council has been discussed for many years and there is widespread support for adding new members to make it more representative. However, UN members are deeply divided over the best method for doing this. Indeed, heated disagreements over changing the Security Council have overshadowed other discussions on UN reform. Unless a compromise is reached, growing animosity may derail an historic opportunity to achieve a broader administrative and bureaucratic restructuring of the UN.

Soeren Kern
Senior Analyst, United States-Transatlantic Dialogue, Elcano Royal Institute