Reform of the United Nations Security Council

14.01.2022 - Article

If it is not adapted to the geopolitical realities of the 21st century, that is, if it does not ensure in particular adequate representation of the global South and major contributors to the UN system, the Security Council’s legitimacy and authority are at risk.

Session of the UN Security Council
Session of the UN Security Council© picture alliance / dpa

The debate on Security Council reform gained traction in the early 90s following the end of the Cold War. In 2005 an agreement that appeared almost within grasp came to nothing. The negotiations which have been conducted in an informal plenary of the UN General Assembly (IGN - Intergovernmental Negotiations) since 2009 have yet to generate tangible results. Strong opposition persists from the opponents of new permanent seats who insist on consensus before a concrete document can be negotiated. The 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in 2020 is an important milestone and a good opportunity to take concrete steps.

G4: Germany, Japan, India, Brazil

The most active groups within the IGN are the G4 – Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, the African Group, the Uniting for Consensus Group, including for example Italy, Pakistan, Mexico, South Korea, Malta, Turkey), the L.69 Group working in particular to improve representation of developing countries in the Security Council and the ACT Group (Accountability, Coherence, Transparency) which aims in particular to improve cooperation between the Security Council and other UN organs and to reform working methods.

A vast majority of UN members favours a reform of the Security Council including its enlargement in both categories (permanent and non‑permanent seats). But there is no consensus as yet on specifics. On 14 September 2015, despite resistance from the opponents of reform, a first framework document outlining all positions on reform was unanimously adopted for consideration by the 70th session of the General Assembly (69/560). The aim remains to use the document as a basis for negotiations on a concrete text to facilitate the transition from the repetition of well‑known positions to real negotiations on a text ‑ the usual modus operandi in the UN.

The President of the 74th General Assembly appointed the ambassadors of Poland and the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations as co‑chairs of the IGN of the 74th General Assembly.

The G4 partners (Germany, Brazil, India and Japan) will meet at foreign minister level on 23 September 2020. They reiterate their resolve to continue to work together to reform the United Nations Security Council.

G4 Ministerial Joint Press Statement, 23 September 2020 PDF / 458 KB

As the fourth‑largest contributor, a leading provider of development aid and also a major player in many areas of the UN’s work (for example, human rights, climate, disarmament, peacekeeping), Germany aspires to a permanent seat on the Security Council, particularly since our international partners and the German public constantly urge us to bring our influence to bear there. We can only do so if Germany is a member of this body.

Therefore, together with its G4 partners, Germany continues to actively advocate a reform of the UN Security Council. The 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in 2020 is an important milestone and a good opportunity to take concrete steps. Under the chairmanship of the new President of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozk of Turkey, we want to make clear strides forward in the 75th General Assembly.

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:
  • India, Ireland, Kenia, Mexico and Norway and Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates.
  • The non‑permanent members are elected on a regional basis for a two‑year term by the General Assembly. It is not possible to be re‑elected immediately after holding a seat.
  • 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 peacekeeping and conflict management. 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 – such as the imposition of sanctions – that encroach on state sovereignty.
  • It is right and necessary that the Security Council should have these powers. It is the centrepiece of the international security architecture. If its resolutions are to be respected and implemented by all countries, the Council needs to have the necessary authority and legitimacy. This means it has to be representative.
  • The current composition of the Security Council reflects the geopolitical situation of 1945 and its enlargement in 1963/65 adding non‑permanent seats did not significantly 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 in particular does not have the representation on the Council that its current importance requires, and is therefore calling for the Council’s makeup to be adapted to the new realities.
  • Alongside stipulating 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 (Art. 23 VN-Charta).
  • In the absence of reform, there is a danger that decision‑making processes could be shifted to other forums even though such forums do not have the binding effect and legitimacy of the Security Council. That is not in anyone’s interest.

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. Article 23 of the UN Charter states that the members’ contributions to achieving the purposes of the United Nations also play a decisive role. The Federal Government aims for Germany to hold a permanent seat on the Security Council as part of a comprehensive reform of the United Nations. It is also working to bring about other reforms. By committing to the implementation of the reforms led by UN Secretary‑General Guterres, Germany is underscoring its dedication to supporting capable, strong institutions at the heart of the multilateral, rules‑based world order.
  • 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 it has developed into one of the staunchest advocates of multilateralism under the banner of the United Nations. This role is one of the realities of the 21st century which is why, since the start of the debate on UN reform, other UN member states have cited Germany as a candidate for a permanent Security Council seat.
  • Germany makes major contributions to the work of the United Nations. It is not only the second‑largest contributor (based on voluntary and regular contributions taken together) but also helps to achieve the United Nations’ main goals in many other ways, for instance by deploying soldiers to international peace missions such as MINUSMA in Mali or UNIFIL in Lebanon, by providing funding for development cooperation, sustainable development, stabilisation and humanitarian assistance and through its commitment to the protection of human rights.

What does the G4 proposal comprise?

  • As early as 2005, Germany drew up a draft resolution for Security Council reform together with India, Brazil and Japan (G4). The draft 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 or five non‑permanent members to the Security Council (one seat each for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, eastern Europe and one or two seats for Africa)
  • Reforming working methods.

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

  • 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 member states, is one of the strongest pillars of the United Nations. The EU member states finance more than a third of the United Nations budget and contribute more than half of funding for global development cooperation.
  • The G4 reform proposal would not increase the EU members’ relative share of seats. To date, between two and four 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 25 or 26 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?

  • As laid down in the coalition agreement, the Federal Government’s long‑term objective is an EU seat. Assuming further development of the European Union and the United Nations, the Federal Government is aiming for a permanent seat for the European Union. However, the Charter of the United Nations does not provide for membership for regional organisations. In the United Nations General Assembly, the European Union merely has observer status. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, only Security Council reform involving the addition of nation‑states is conceivable. We continue to work to ensure the member states speak with one voice on all issues of the common foreign and security policy.
  • To date, only states, not international organisations such as the EU, can become members of the United Nations. If the Charter of the United Nations were amended to permit membership of such organisations (a step which Article 108 of the UN Charter makes very difficult), it would furthermore 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:

  • In the first stage, the General Assembly, in which all 193 member states have one vote each, must approve the reform by a two‑thirds majority (that is, at least 128 states) thus amending the Charter of the United Nations as an international treaty.
  • In the second stage, 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.

This means that in the first stage, the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) do not necessarily need to agree. During the second stage, the parliaments of the P5 countries could prevent the entry into force of the amended Charter by failing to ratify it. 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, but 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 the right of veto 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 and there are initiatives whereby veto powers would not be applied in the case of mass atrocities. The G4 proposal of 2005 envisages that new members initially dispense with the right of veto and that the question be finally clarified at a review conference 15 years after the amendment of the Charter enters into force. The draft resolution sponsored by the African Union countries in 2005 provides for the same rights and obligations for all permanent members of the Security Council, including the extension of the right of veto for as long as this right exists.

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