Why We Need UN Security Council Reform

Last September, the US and Russia announced a significant foreign policy arrangement. Against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in Syria, two of the most important external actors – the USA and Russia – finally came to an agreement on how to address a major aspect of the conflict. While it does not solve the fundamental problem of how to end the bloodshed, the agreement serves to highlight the trouble with addressing civil wars through the UN Security Council. The impasse over Syria is indicative of a more profound problem, underlined by the Council’s inability to agree on action to halt massive civil wars and genocide in Sri Lanka or Sudan, both of which make clear that a substantial overhaul is necessary. Even Saudi Arabia has voiced concern over the Council’s paralysis.

Reform of the Security Council must be one of the central priorities if we are to create a more effective international security regime that is able to address humanitarian crises of the scale witnessed in Syria. Not only does the composition of the Council reflect a pronounced anachronism, but it is also ineffective. Given the institutionalisation of the veto for permanent members, the Council is frequently crippled by the exercise of their narrowly defined national interests. The price we often pay is humanitarian crises one after another.

Originally, the veto for permanent members of the Security Council was supposed to ensure the viability of the institution by ensuring the participation of the major powers after 1945. This directly derived from the lessons learned from the apathetic League of Nations project. Nevertheless, the founding hopes soon degenerated into the stand-off of the Cold War. However, we no longer live in the world of 1945, nor, for that matter, that of 1989. It is unfeasible that there is not a single permanent representative from either Latin America or Africa, while Britain, France and Russia still retain seats.

Given that the permanent Council members need to give their assent to reform, it is essential to employ a structure which underscores why it would ultimately benefit the Council members to agree to fundamental changes. The US needs to be made aware that an ineffective Council is anathema to its interests, since it currently has to accept Russian or Chinese veto power on any given issue. Therefore, the EU especially should come in as an important persuasive player, considering its experience with intergovernmental management. The EU should advocate a transition period in which the Council is extended to reflect a more equitable membership. France and Britain should give up their seats in favour of an EU seat, difficult as that may sound. With three fifths of current permanent members on board, pressure to rethink the Council should build up. This will not necessarily increase effectiveness in the short-term, but will initiate a process of reform, the outcome of which should comprise abolishment of the veto and a more legitimate Council membership. At the end of the day, the UN can only work if its legitimacy is unquestionable, and that has to be the ultimate goal of reform.