Op-Ed: Reform of the United Nations Security Council: Problems and Proposed Solutions

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

By Nicholas Tappin
Contributing Writer 

At the end of World War II, 50 nations signed the first United Nations charter. Thus, a new international body was established with the aims to serve as a mediator between multiple warring nations, advocate for global expansion of human rights, and to oversee the end of the vices that plagued humankind ranging from extreme hunger, poverty, and national militarism. However, in the span of 70 years, it has become apparent that the United Nations Security Council —the main body that possesses truly executive and substantive power regarding decision-making — is dysfunctional in its established purpose of protecting human rights and finding reconciliatory solutions to regional conflicts. 

Among the issues constituting this dysfunctionality is the exclusive power held by the five most powerful nations in the world and the use of the legal mechanisms of the Security Council to protect their national interests. Because the five permanent members (P5) — the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China — are undoubtedly the most influential and hold the only significant power in voting on the Security Council, some critics argue that the Security Council is a playing field for the strongest nations while developing countries and other specific regions of the world are routinely unrepresented at the Security Council despite the non-consecutive two-year terms for non-permanent members.

This exclusive power held by the P5 is especially more volatile given the vulnerable relationship between the United States, Russia, and China, which often reflects a declined American involvement on the world stage. In an interview with The Economist, Secretary-General António Guterres says the relationship between the three departs from the past geopolitical environments in the last 70 years because the current triadic relationship between the major powers is far more unpredictable than when the world saw the stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union and the unchallenged American hegemony of the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Due to the unpredictability of the relations between these three powers, it is far more difficult for the Security Council to pass consequential resolutions that would alleviate current geopolitical pressures by regional conflicts (such as the Syrian Civil War or the Russia-Ukraine border skirmishes) and safeguard human rights (e.g. Rohingya Crisis, Uyghur Crisis, Press Freedom in the developing world).  This tension has manifested itself in the actions of Russia and China, who are flexing their veto power on nearly every major resolution aimed at fulfilling the United Nation’s mission of global peace. With regard to the Syrian Civil War, since 2011 when the conflict ignited , Russia has single-handedly vetoed 16 resolutions (nearly every major resolution regarding deliverance of humanitarian aid to Syria and those repudiating the actions of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad) with support from China. 

While the vetoes from the P5 members are historically met with concerns regarding their foreign interests, Russia and China have increasingly used their veto power in cases involving human rights abuses and genocide. Most members of the United Nations have called for reform ofthe P5’s veto power, asking for it to be curtailed to some undefined extent whenever there is a meeting regarding any issue pertaining to a genocide or extensive human rights abuses.  

There have been multiple proposed solutions among academics and foreign policy experts to effectively reform the United Nations Security Council. Among the solutions most often discussed is an expansion of the Security Council. As of now, only 15 members including the exclusive P5 have unhindered power over decision-making on the international level where the current P5 members have a wildly disproportionate say in those decisions. Reformist advocates have supported a new plan that would expand the Security Council to 26 members with nine permanent members seats and seven new seats for non-permanent members. This would allow for greater representation of nations in the developing world and equalize the playing field in terms of granting a higher chance for smaller nations on the periphery to have their positions and foreign interests presented on consequential issues. The geopolitical landscape has transformed significantly over the course of the last seven decades, and although this would still leave a heavy concentration of power in the hands of a few major states, it would also build greater representation of nations who have risen less prominently in the post-WWII era. Potential candidates for the new permanent member seats include Brazil, India, Australia, Japan, and Germany.

While expansion of the Security Council is a foundational prerequisite for a meaningful change of the pivotal body within the United Nations, this reform must also coincide with reform to the United Nations legal code regarding the parameters of the use of veto power. A proposal jointly presented by the United Kingdom and France would reform veto power by “voluntary restraint.” Under this plan, there would not  be a material change to the code, but rather an informal and mutual agreement among the permanent members to withhold the use of veto power in cases concerning abuses of human rights and genocide. Since China and Russia both recklessly use veto power to systematically prevent the Security Council from acting on genocide or the undermining of human rights, an informal agreement such as voluntary restraint is unrealistic. Rather, a material change must be made to the UN Charter to ensure that veto power is restricted in cases pertaining to the sabotage of the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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