The independent resource on global security

Oct. 11: The UN Security Council: relevance without reform?

Dr Ian Anthony

On the occasion of United Nations Day, 24 October, it seems only fair to counter some of the more pessimistic assessments of the UN's role in relation to global security. The most recent configurations of the UN Security Council—including many of today's major powers—have demonstrated that the council can still be an effective institution, as well as highlighting the potential benefits of inclusive decision making for the Security Council's work. However, under the current rules, the non-permanent members must give up their seats at the end of this year or next. Short of reform, how can the Security Council maintain its current level of inclusiveness and relevance?

Major powers at the table
One of the issues that has bedeviled reform of the Security Council has been ratifying a contemporary understanding of which are the major world powers. Recent UN General Assembly voting on which states will fill the non-permanent Security Council seats suggests that, even without formal ratification, there is an emerging consensus about who needs to be at the table. The fact that the Security Council currently includes Brazil, Germany, India, Nigeria and South Africa as non-permanent members (with Japan and Turkey having recently completed two-year terms) cannot be coincidence.

Far from being paralyzed by the presence of so many strong voices, the Security Council in these configurations has taken some important decisions. These have provided firm evidence that the Security Council can learn lessons and apply them in important—and controversial—issue areas, including constraining the use of force by major powers and responding appropriately to the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Benefits of inclusiveness
UN Security Council Resolution 1973, mandating armed international intervention in Libya to protect civilians, illustrated that a more inclusive UN Security Council configuration was capable of approving the use of force in an ongoing internal conflict. It also showed that a way forward could be found even when there was not full agreement among states: Germany voiced its misgivings by abstaining in the Security Council vote; nevertheless, it did not block the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which it is a member, from carrying out the operation.

Although the rules that guide the legitimate use of force have not been modernized and brought into line with contemporary practice, this did not prevent states from finding a common framework for international action in Libya, built and sustained under the authority of the Security Council. If the Security Council failed to agree on a response to the worsening security situation in Syria—where circumstances are largely similar to those in Libya a few months ago—this was due to China and Russia's use of the veto rather than obstruction by the non-permanent members.

Furthermore, both Security Council Resolution 1973 and its predecessor, Resolution 1970 (which was adopted unanimously), refer to the Libyan authorities’ 'responsibility to protect' the Libyan population. This is the first time that this language has ever appeared in a Security Council resolution.

In another recent case, when Resolution 1929—imposing additional sanctions on Iran—was debated in mid-2010, both Brazil and Turkey voted against them. This made transparent the doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran that are felt in important countries whose policies have a material impact on the diplomatic and political effort to resolve disagreements over the Iranian nuclear programme peacefully. However, both countries underlined their intention to comply with whatever decision the Security Council made.

In these cases major powers have accepted that they must moderate their national positions in order to achieve a common result. Also, the wording of the resolutions and the voting pattern in the Security Council have made transparent aspects of their thinking on key issues.

If not reform, then what?
There was a belief, in the wake of the cold war, that standing security institutions could be more effectively replaced by ad hoc coalitions of states. The failures of this approach in practice have only reinforced recognition that standing institutions are needed not only to marshal resources effectively but also to provide continuity and sustain engagement in the complex tasks of enforcing, keeping and building peace.

The UN Security Council remains the supreme decision-making body in the area of international security. It is a forum where political understanding can be hammered out among major powers and then, if their national perspectives can be reconciled, codified in decisions that are published, affording a degree of transparency. Security Council decisions remain the most appropriate way to ratify and codify the appropriate major power responses.

There is little doubt that the UN Security Council could be improved. Experience shows that changing the legal basis of multilateral institutions is difficult, but not always impossible. The legal base of the European Union has been in a continuous state of evolution for more than two decades and the final closure of the Western European Union in June 2011 showed that institutions can even be disbanded if the need for them has passed. However, a fundamental reform of the Security Council has so far proved impossible and other ways need to be found to maintain relevance and effectiveness.

The participation of the current batch of contemporary major powers in the UN Security Council cannot be sustained, as non-permanent members cannot be immediately re-elected after a two-year term. The benefits of the recent Security Council configurations risk being lost. With no reform of the current rules in sight, flexible ways need to be found to sustain a continuous engagement with the new major powers, both regarding what constitutes a threat to international peace and security and in crafting a response.


Dr Ian Anthony is the Director of the European Security Programme.