Ass. Jur. Philipp Semmelmayer, Friedrich–Alexander University Erlangen–Nürnberg

The push to bring about the long-awaited reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) also failed to materialize at this year’s 75th anniversary meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 75). Since 2009, the topic of reforming the UNSC has played a marginal role at best – and this year was no exception.

Reform of the UNSC, the UN’s most powerful organ, has been a controversial issue for decades. Powerful in this respect are first and foremost the five permanent members of the UNSC (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), each of whom – in addition to the permanent status – has the right to veto. And since the UNSC can adopt resolutions that are binding for all member states of the UN, other states want to either abolish this power construct, mitigate it, or become part of it. Fundamentally, two opposed visions continue to clash. On one side stand the countries calling for reform (reformers). They pursue different and partially even contradictory goals. Arguably the most famous reformer groups are the G4 nations, composed of Germany, India, Brazil, and Japan. Opposing them, are their regional rivals such as Italy, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, and others, who established the group Uniting for Consensus (UfC). Opposing are the P5, that are evidently seeking to maintain their privileges.

Especially the G4’s approach seems increasingly questionable. They have called primarily for new permanent seats in the UNSC, and according to them, those seats should be assigned by choosing among the economically strongest and most influential countries of the international community. Already in prior proposals, the G4 members presented themselves as the primary candidates for these seats. So far, they have been without success. However, if the G4 were to change tactics and abandon their currently hopeless pursuit of new permanent seats, this would have several key advantages.

Political and Legal Impossibility

Politically, the G4’s aspiration remains futile. UfC and their members continue to stand in their way. Their common thesis remains that the increase of permanent seats would further accentuate the disparity between the member countries and result in the extension of a series of privileges. In particular, the regional rivals of the G4 want to avoid a permanent membership of the G4. Moreover, since the G4, in their cohesion and collective endeavour, demand a permanent seat for all four of their members, they multiply the number of opponents of each individual member of the G4. Thus, the efforts of Pakistan against India or China against Japan, for example, stand in the way of Germany becoming a permanent member. A political solo effort would arguably be the best alternative, especially once the current balance of power begins to falter.

Legally, it would arguably not be feasible to amend the UN Charter in favour of the G4. Neither a procedure on the amending provision of Article 108 nor that of Article 109 UN Charter seems promising at present. According to the prevailing legal opinion, the difference between them is limited to the procedure, and in substance, there is no difference. Article 108 states that amendments to the UN Charter come into force, when they are adopted by two-thirds of the members of the UNGA and ratified per their respective constitutional processes by two-thirds of the members of the UN, including the P5. Thus, a quasi-almighty key role is ascribed to every single member of the P5 that currently makes any amendments impossible. Article 109, on the other hand, gives the P5 less power legally, stating that changes can be made by a two-thirds vote of the members of the UNGA and by a vote of any nine members of the UNSC; each member of the UN shall have one vote in the conference. However, this article has never been applied. A push could possibly be set in motion, by reviving Article 109 by putting it on the agenda of the next UNGA. This year, however, the old item “Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and other matters related to the Security Council” was put on the agenda, which is already no longer being paid attention to.

No New Permanent Members Needed

Additional permanent seats are not a solution to the current imbalance and would trigger the same discussions for new permanent seats again in a few years or decades. Moreover, the self-interest with which the P5 act in their permanent position in the UNSC is held responsible for many of the current world problems. Moreover, due to the current situation, the P5 have many more special (factual) privileges, like controlling certain high-ranking UN posts, naming the tenants in those posts, or intervening in the workings of the Secretariat. More permanent members would exacerbate these problems and furthermore lead to new feuds between the then-new permanent members. As far as the argument of regional representation (reflected in Article 23 (1) UN Charter and Rule 143 of Procedure of the UNGA) goes, Europe is already overrepresented anyway, which makes Germany’s efforts inappropriate, and other countries such as India or Brazil would only increase their power and weaken their continental counterparts.

Finally, an expansion in the number of seats does not justify the introduction of new permanent seats. The current UNSC is already past the outer limit of size-efficiency range for an executive body with such big responsibilities. Already at present, the UNSC is criticized for not being transparent and well-coordinated. These problems would intensify as the number of members increases.

India Should not Become a Permanent Member

The advantage of permanent seats is (currently) firmly linked to the second advantage of veto. At present, the G4 also seem to accept a third category of membership as permanent members without the right to veto. In light of this, India explicitly offered to forgo veto power. As a matter of fact, a waiver of the right to veto is almost indispensable to ensure the UNSC’s ability to function. History shows that the right to veto impeded the approval several measures by the Council, especially during the Cold War.

Comparatively speaking – again this year – India appeared to be the most promising candidate among the G4, presently trying to secure a permanent seat. India received tailwind from the French Minister of Defence and the Russian Foreign Minister, especially in the run-up to the UNGA 75, and also beat its regional competitor China in the race to becoming a member of the UN’s ECOSOC. At the same time, it attracts China’s anger, which makes it de facto impossible to obtain a permanent seat for this reason alone. Additionally, in the last few weeks, New Delhi attracted negative attention in the Western world, when Amnesty International decided to suspend operations in India, due to the pressure campaign from the Indian government; – once again, after the Kashmir issue and the religious conflicts, which caused sensation lately. As long as the Western world is interested in a democratic world order based on the rule of law, it should clearly oppose India’s domestic political appearance and refuse to cooperate in matters of power claims at the UNSC level. This is especially important for the upcoming years, because India will sit in the UNSC as an elected non-permanent for a two-year term beginning January 1st 2021.

Conclusion: How the G4 Members Might Proceed

In conclusion, for their own sake, the G4 should rather dissolve and act alone. This could have several key advantages: The fronts between the reformers would no longer be so hardened. Therefore, a much-needed reform of the non-permanent seats would be more likely, especially with the support of one or more of the – then dissolved – G4 states. A model based on long-term (rotating) seats with the possibility of immediate re-election currently seems the most realistic and effective way to achieve reform and redistribute power. The elected non-permanent members could thus be given an equal role to the P5 in many respects. Consideration should also be given to intensifying efforts to extend the membership of the UNSC to regional groups, because currently, Article 4 UN Charter stands in the way of such an endeavour, stating that membership in the UN is open to “all peace-loving states” and thus not to international groups or organisations. The G4 states, in particular, could support reform models like these by going in opposition to the P5, on whose goodwill they would no longer be dependent. A common approach and joint action by all reformers against the power politics of the P5 would also mean that the P5 would have to retake responsibility. A decisive means would be threatening to cut off support such as funds or troops, as Japan and Germany are the second and third largest financial contributors to the UN.