Reform of the United Nations Security Council – questions and answers

How many members does the Security Council have?

  • The Security Council of the United Nations currently consists of 15 members, of which five are permanent members (China, France, the UK, the United States and Russia) and ten non‑permanent members (at present Angola, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain, Chad and Venezuela). These non‑permanent members are elected by the General Assembly on a regional basis for a two‑year mandate. It is not possible to be re‑elected immediately after holding a seat in the Security Council. Germany was a non‑permanent member of the Security Council for 2011/2012 and is once again applying for a term in 2019/2020. 
  • When the Charter of the United Nations was adopted in 1945, the Security Council had only five permanent and six non‑permanent members, a total of eleven in all. In 1963, the General Assembly decided to expand the Security Council by creating four additional non‑permanent seats; this reform came into force in 1965. The Security Council has existed in its present format since 1966.

Why does the Security Council need to be reformed? 

  • The United Nations Security Council is the international community’s principal organ for conflict management and peacekeeping. Unlike the decisions of the General Assembly, its decisions (known as resolutions) are binding on all member states. That means it has wide‑ranging powers and can, if necessary, take actions – e.g. the imposition of sanctions – that encroach on state sovereignty.
  • It is right and necessary that the Security Council should have these powers. But if its resolutions are to be respected and implemented by all states, the Council needs to have the required authority and legitimacy, which means that it has to be representative.
  • However, the Security Council’s current format reflects the geopolitical situation as it was in 1945. The expansion of 1963/65 basically did nothing to change this. The Council’s present composition is no longer representative of a world that has seen 142 new countries join the United Nations since 1945. Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in particular do not have the representation on the Council that their current standing demands, and are therefore calling for the Council’s makeup to be adapted to the new realities.
  • Alongside the call for a geographically balanced distribution of seats, the Charter of the United Nations also expressly states that countries that make considerable contributions to the UN should be members of the Security Council. This is why Germany and Japan are considered to be candidates for new permanent seats.
  • In the absence of Security Council reform, there is a danger that decision‑making processes could be shifted to other forums. This kind of competition is in no‑one’s interests.

Why does Germany want a permanent seat?

  • The Federal Government wants to see a reform of the Security Council that reflects a changed geopolitical environment since 1945. Alongside equitable geographical distribution, Article 23 of the UN Charter states that the members’ contributions to achieving the purposes of the United Nations are the most important consideration. For this reason, the Federal Government wants Germany to have a permanent seat on the security council as part of a root‑and‑branch reform of the UN. The Federal Government is also committed to other reforms. For example, it played a major role in creating the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission.
  • Since 1945, Germany’s role in the wider world has changed radically. The country is no longer the “enemy state” of 1945 or the accession state of 1973 and, especially since unification, it has developed into one of the staunchest advocates of multilateralism under the banner of the United Nations. This prominent role is one of the realities of the world in the early 21st century, which is why, since the start of the debate on UN reform, other UN members have repeatedly expressed the view that Germany is a natural candidate for a permanent Security Council seat.
  • Germany makes major contributions to the work of the United Nations. It is not only the third‑largest contributor to UN funds, but does an immense amount to further the UN’s fundamental goals by, for example, providing troops for international peace missions, funding international development cooperation, sustainable development and humanitarian relief work and promoting human rights protection in all parts of the world.

What does the G4 proposal comprise?

In 2005, Germany drafted a resolution for Security Council reform together with India, Brazil, and Japan (the G4). The proposal included the following elements: 

  • Adding six new permanent members to the Security Council (two seats each for Asia and Africa and one seat for the Western European and Others Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Group respectively)
  • Adding four non‑permanent members to the Security Council (one seat each for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Eastern Europe)
  • Reforms to working methods
  • Review of the reform 15 years after the amendment to the Charter has entered into force

With an additional Security Council seat, would Europe not be overrepresented on the Council?

  • Article 23 of the Charter of the United Nations states that the prime criterion for Security Council membership is the contribution countries make to the UN’s work. The issue of equitable geographical distribution is only a secondary consideration.
  • Europe – particularly the EU – is one of the largest contributors to the United Nations. EU member states fund nearly 39% of the UN budget and contribute more than half of the financial support for development cooperation around the world (60.5% in 2011).
  • The G4 reform proposal would, however, not even increase the EU members’ relative share of seats: up to now, three to five EU members can have Security Council seats at the same time – the two permanent members France and the UK and one to three non‑permanent members representing the Western European and Others Group and/or Eastern European Group in the Council. Following the reform, the EU would probably have up to six or seven of the then 24 or 25 seats. Rather than an increase, that would in fact mean a slight proportional decline to less than a third of the seats on the Security Council.

Why does the Federal Government not call for a permanent seat for the EU?

  • The Federal Government’s long‑term objective is an EU seat. Currently, however, the EU is still not ready to serve on the Council. Firstly, because the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has not yet developed to the point that its member states can speak with one voice on all issues. And, secondly, because the EU member states that are permanent Council members – the UK and France – are not yet prepared to give up their seats in favour of a permanent seat for the EU.
  • Furthermore, only states, not international organisations such as the EU, can currently become members of the United Nations. If the Charter of the United Nations were amended to permit membership of such organisations, it would be virtually impossible to decide which of the numerous other international organisations should also be allowed to join and have seats on the Council.

Can Security Council reform be prevented by a veto?

Security Council reform requires an amendment to the Charter of the United Nations. The relevant procedure as set out in Article 108 involves a two‑stage process:

  • First stage: The General Assembly, in which all 193 member states have one vote each, must approve the reform by a two‑thirds majority (i.e. at least 128 states).
  • Second stage: Once approved, the Charter of the United Nations, an international treaty, is amended. The amended Charter must then be ratified by at least two‑thirds of the member states, including the five permanent Council members, in accordance with national procedures. When the Security Council was enlarged for the first and, to date, only time in 1963, this process took around one and half years. Most importantly, all five permanent members must also ratify the amendment.

This means that, during the first stage, there is no right of veto as specified in Article 27 of the Charter. During the second stage, however, the parliaments of the five permanent Council members could prevent the entry into force of the amended Charter by failing to ratify it.

Another important point is that, even if permanent members voted against a proposed amendment in the General Assembly, this does not automatically mean that they cannot go ahead and ratify the amended Charter. For example, in the vote on enlarging the Security Council in 1963, only one permanent member voted in favour. However, by 1965, just eighteen months later, all five permanent members had ratified the amended Charter after all.

Should new permanent members also have the right of veto?

Numerous member states regard veto power as an anachronism. Many of them have therefore spoken out against giving any new permanent members the right of veto as part of a reform. The G4 proposal of 2005 envisages not giving new members the right of veto at first, and finally clarifying the issue at a review conference 15 years after the amendment to the Charter enters into force. The draft resolution sponsored by the African Union countries in 2005, on the other hand, calls for the power of veto to be extended immediately to include new permanent members.

Last updated 02.03.2015

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