How to reform the UN Security Council?

Reform of UN Security Council must look to a ‘Weak Veto’

How to reform the troubled UN Security Council? This has been a question challenging policymakers, diplomats and academics for decades.  There is widespread agreement that reforms for the Security Council (UNSC) are needed but no consensus on the best way forward.

To consider this question Matthew Gould and I analysed eleven reform proposals for the UNSC proposed by a variety of actors, including individual countries, regional blocs, and previous UN Secretary Generals.  We considered each proposal in respect of how closely they achieve democratic equity (every world citizen gets an equal say) and efficiency (how easy it is for the UNSC to make affirmative decisions).

Only one of the eleven proposals considered would improve both the democratic equity and efficiency relative to the status quo. The other ten proposals do not decisively improve on it.  We found that the best proposal is for a ‘Weak Veto’ system to be introduced under which two of the Permanent Five (P5) Security Council members would be able to vote down a motion before a veto was constituted.

The UN Security Council is unique in that it alone has the legal right to authorise the use of armed force against a nation state. But, as the Syrian conflict demonstrates, it increasingly finds itself sidelined.  The UNSC has been unable, throughout six years of conflict, to agree a co-ordinated response, leading to powers such as the United States and Russia favouring direct intervention without UNSC approval.

Part of the problem lies with the right of veto granted to the P5 (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), which results in stalemate whenever (as of often the case) these countries disagree. Another problem is that the composition of the Council still reflects the post-WW2 politics of the 1940s, despite significant geopolitical developments since that time.

Although there is broad agreement on the need for reform, nobody can agree on how. An open-ended working group on UNSC reform set up in 1993, now often dubbed the ‘never-ending working group on UNSC reform’ has entered its 23rd consecutive year of deliberations.

Under the present arrangements, the 15 UNSC members comprise the P5 who are ever-present and wield a veto on all non-procedural matters and ten other countries who are elected as Non-Permanent Members (NPMs) serving two-year terms. The ten NPM seats are divided between five regional caucusing groups: one country from Eastern Europe; two countries from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), two from the Latin America and Caribbean Group (GRULAC – el Grupo Latinoamericano y Caribeño), two from Asia; and three countries from Africa.

Nearly all reform proposals put forward include increasing the size of the Council to up to 25 members by raising the number of NPM seats. Alongside this increase in size, ‘structural reforms’ to the composition and rules of the Council are proposed.  The Weak Veto proposal is an example of such structural reforms. Among other such structural reforms we consider are:

  • Creating a new membership category that gives permanent membership of the UNSC, but not the right of veto;
  • Extending the right of veto to eleven UNSC members – as proposed by the African Union;
  • Re-shaping the existing regional groups – as proposed by Kofi Annan during his time as UN Secretary-General;
  • Creating a new category of ‘long-term’ NPM seat with a four-year term;
  • Allowing immediate re-election as a NPM – presently NPMs at the end of their term must wait at least a year before seeking re-election;
  • The EU member states voting as a single Permanent Member.

The predicted effects of each proposal were explored in a computer simulation model that replicated the rules of the UNSC election process. To do this we used techniques in game theory and probability theory to develop a so-called ‘Council Voting Game’ to formally characterise democratic equity and efficiency. The findings suggest that most of these reforms do not decisively improve both democratic equity and efficiency. Indeed, the proposal of the African Union to expand the right of veto would only worsen deadlock in the Council.Only the Weak Veto proposal improves both democratic equity and efficiency. By allowing two of the P5 to vote down a motion before a veto was constituted it would improve efficiency by making it much easier for the Council to make affirmative decisions, and would improve equity by shifting power away from the P5 (whose citizens are over-represented) towards the rest of the world (whose citizens are under-represented). The next best reform proposal would significantly improve equity, but do nothing for efficiency. It involves restructuring the regional groups by removing the ‘Others’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA) from the Western European and Others Group and placing them in their appropriate geographical region.Curiously, Brexit has had an impact on the UNSC reform debate. Spearheaded by Italy, one proposal on the table is for the EU to be represented in the Council as a single P5 member (the EU proposal). EU members are already represented collectively at the World Trade Organization, and the EU enjoys collective observer status in the UN General Assembly. In April 2011 the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that ‘a seat in an enlarged UNSC remains a central, long-term goal of the European Union’. Prior to Brexit, the EU proposal had one big advantage: it stood to greatly enhance efficiency by reducing the number of veto players from five to four, as the UK and France would have lost their separate vetoes and shared the EU veto). With the advent of Brexit, however, this reform proposal has little to offer.

In view of our research, those hoping for a step-change in the efficiency and equity of the UNSC in the current reform round are likely to be disappointed.

Does the Weak Veto proposal stand a chance of being implemented? The P5 will resist any attempt to weaken their right of veto. Moreover, their position appears impregnable due to their right of ‘double veto’: the San Francisco Declaration of 1945 ensures that a Permanent Member can exercise a veto over their right to a veto, for they exercise a veto on all non-procedural matters and also on whether a matter is to be deemed procedural or non-procedural! The Weak Veto proposal, therefore, looks off the cards. But perhaps the P5 would agree to weaker veto reforms, if the rest of the world could apply co-ordinated pressure?