In Hindsight: Security Council Reform
When the UN Charter was drafted in 1945, it stipulated that the Security Council would be composed of five permanent members and six elected members. By the 1960s there was a desire to expand Council membership, reflecting the increase in UN membership from the 51 founding member states to 113 by 1963. That year, the General Assembly adopted resolution 1991 A (XVIII), which added four non-permanent members to the Council. The ratification process was completed in 1965. Almost 55 years later, there has been no further change in Council membership. Those in favour of reform maintain that the Council’s membership no longer reflects geopolitical realities and point to the continuing increase in UN membership, which now stands at 193.
At the request of Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Guyana, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, “the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council” was added to the General Assembly agenda in 1979. In 1993, the General Assembly adopted resolution 48/26 establishing an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) “to consider all aspects of the question of increase in the members of the Security Council, and other matters related to the Security Council”. From that point on, the General Assembly began holding both formal and informal discussions on the topic.
In March 2005, as part of a report on wider UN reform and in preparation for a world summit planned for September, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed two models for Security Council reform. In the period leading up to the summit, three groups also put forward alternative reform models. The Group of Four (G4, composed of Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) favoured expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories, with the additional permanent members composed of the G4 members plus two African member states and foregoing the right to veto for a period of time. The 12-member Uniting for Consensus group submitted a proposal for no expansion in permanent members, but instead a doubling of non-permanent seats, with six African seats, five to Asia-Pacific, four to Latin American and Caribbean states, three to WEOG, and two to the Eastern European group. The African Group proposed to increase the body’s membership from 15 to 26 through expansion in both categories, with Africa granted two permanent seats with the right of veto and five non-permanent seats; this position stemmed from the “Ezulwini consensus”.
World leaders adopted an outcome document by consensus on 16 September 2005. On Security Council reform, it said that member states “support early reform of the Security Council…in order to make it more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus to further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions”.
After an eventful 2005, discussion on Council reform has appeared less prominent, although a number of initiatives have continued. The General Assembly has held several meetings annually to exchange views. In 2007, a group of 25 nations tabled a draft resolution calling for expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories of membership, with better representation of the developing world. The group—which was nicknamed “Group L69” after the symbol of the tabled resolution—proposed adding six new permanent members, two from Africa, two from Asia, one from Latin America and the Caribbean, and one from WEOG. Additionally, L69 advocated for a rotating non-permanent seat for “small island developing states,” or SIDS. The text was never put to a vote. The Arab Group, made up of 22 members, also continued to promote the idea of a permanent seat for one of its members.
In 2008 the General Assembly adopted Decision 62/557 “to commence intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) in informal plenary of the General Assembly”. This marked a move from oral exchanges of views to seeking a text on which discussions could be based. The first round of the IGN was held on 19 February 2009. The General Assembly has renewed its mandate annually, and it remains the principal vehicle for Council reform discussions today. The 2008 decision outlined five main issues for reform: categories of membership to the Council, the question of the veto, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council and working methods, and the relationship between the Council and the General Assembly. The question of new members and their status has long proved the thorniest.
The IGN negotiations were chaired from 2009 to mid-2014 by Afghanistan, followed by Jamaica in 2015 and Luxembourg in 2016. In 2017 it moved to a system of co-chairs. Most recently, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates served as co-chairs during the 73rd session of the General Assembly. The IGN tends to hold its meetings during the spring segment of each session, between approximately February and May.
In December 2009, 129 member states signed a letter requesting the IGN chair to present a text with options to serve as a basis for negotiations. Trying to accommodate the different views, the chair came up with a document in 2010, later revised, summarising member states’ positions. Despite holding several meetings each spring in which member states discussed topics that included categories of membership, proposals for enlargement of the Council, and the role of the chair in this process, no text obtained the support of all member states.
In 2015, Jamaica as chair of the IGN presented the “Framework Document” outlining the pillars of the proposed reform. The goals of this document were to create a foundation for further intergovernmental negotiations and to move closer to text-based negotiations. It included submissions from 120 member states on their positions and six letters from groups and member states that did not want their proposals in the text itself due to fundamental differences of approach. The president of the General Assembly at the time, Sam Kutesa, called this document “a sound basis upon which member states can engage in text-based negotiations during the next phase of the IGN”. Instead of developing and working through the positions of the Framework Document, however, new papers were created in the following years. Each of these papers found varying levels of acceptance by the members involved in the intergovernmental negotiations. Earlier this year, the co-chairs produced a revised paper, listing areas of convergence and disagreement. As members prepare to continue discussions during the Assembly’s 74th session, it seems that they will base these on the 2015 Framework Document and the 2019 co-chairs’ revised paper.
With discussions within the General Assembly entering their 26th year, some crucial questions remain unresolved. One view is that the principles of reform must be fully accepted, creating a negotiating text. Another view is that this process should follow the practice of other UN processes, in which a negotiating text is used to reach compromise on different positions.
Even how to vote on a future product may be contested. GA resolution 53/30 (1998) stipulated that no resolution on the question of Security Council reform could be adopted without the agreement of at least two-thirds of its members. Some members, however, have called for near-consensus for Security Council reform products, given the consequences of reform on the Council’s work and outcomes.
A further challenge in this lengthy informal process has been the lack of official records of the IGN meetings. Several members have suggested allowing the meetings to be webcast to create institutional memory.
Obviously, the support of the Security Council’s permanent members (P5) will ultimately be required for Security Council reform. Any change in the Charter, which would be needed to change the membership structure, must be ratified by the P5, several of whom have publicly supported some reform proposals but who have not had to take a decision because of the lack of a shared position among the wider membership.
In 1963, the way forward looked clear, and non-permanent Council seats could be added. When the IGN started ten years ago, member states were initially optimistic that compromise could be reached. But recommendations that reflect a fundamental shift in approach towards permanent Council membership may founder in the absence of greater unity among the general membership.