Remember Groucho Marx’s wisecrack about the exclusive club that he would refuse to join if it was willing to have him as a member?  There is another modern-day exclusive club which evokes scorn and ridicule, and is widely seen as an anachronism divorced from present-day realities:  it is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). whose five permanent members – the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China – have enjoyed unprecedented powers and privileges exercised, mostly, to represent their own agenda rather than to contain or prevent conflicts in the world. 

Time to Reform the Security Council?

Although the UNSC has 15 members, ten of whom are non-permanent members, the P-5 armed with veto powers can often become obstacles in the way of conflict resolution.  The majority of the 193 UN member nations – the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary this year – feel that it is high time to reform this body and make it more amenable to present-day realities on the ground.

The P-5 members, who jealously guard their exclusive circle, were inducted into this august body in the aftermath of World War-II with the grudging acceptance of many well-meaning but naive fellow members. In 1971 China took over the seat which had been occupied by Taiwan up to that time.

Each autumn, when the UN General Assembly gets into session, the theme of UN reforms invariably crops up. But the subject also gives rise to infighting and jealousy within the international community — a fact that is cleverly exploited by the P-5 members to preserve their exclusivity and the privileged but disdained veto right. While paying lip service to the issue of reforms, the P-5 maintain that the member states should first decide and agree among themselves which countries should join the UNSC.  

The UN Remains Vital, but Lack of Action is Worrisome

Of course, there is no alternative to the United Nations; our planet would, to use the metaphor, go from the frying pan into the fire if the world body did not exist.  It was created and founded on noble principles. But, over the decades since its creation, the world body has transformed itself into a bloated international bureaucracy whose effective role as a peacemaker is tarnished by bouts of individual egotism and self-interests of the P-5, ignoring the larger cause of peace and conflict prevention. 

The P-5’s obstructive behavior is chronicled by poor judgement in crises starting with Algeria (1954-62), Suez (1956), Hungary (1956), Vietnam (1947-1975), Sino-Vietnamese conflict (1979), Afghanistan (1979-88), Panama (1989), Iraq (2003), Georgia (2008) and Syria (still ongoing). Although the veto has not been indiscriminately exercised in recent years, China and Russia have been sharply criticized for twice aborting the draft resolution that supported the Arab League’s plan to end violence and push ahead with a political transition in Syria. The US also vetoed a resolution to stop Israeli colonies in the West Bank in February 2011.

Critics blame Russia and China for their stance on Syria because they believe that many thousand lives could have been saved by timely action. Russia is a supplier of arms to the Syrian regime while China, also an arms supplier, plays second fiddle in this game.  The Syrian conflict recorded an estimated 220,000 casualties, including many small children, and millions of displaced persons.

Then there was in the early 1990s the Rwanda crisis which, thanks to the UNSC inaction, witnessed the genocide by Hutus who massacred more than 500,000 Tutsis. 

Suggestions for UNSC Reform

The G-4 members — Brazil, Germany, India and Japan — have been knocking at the club’s door for admittance. The G-4 have called for UNSC reforms that reflect the 21st century’s geopolitical realities, reminding that the UNSC’s difficulties to effectively address current international challenges were a compelling reminder of the urgency to reform the body. 

Several models have been suggested to reform the UNSC. One such proposal includes replacing the P-5 veto right with individual voting rights for each of the members of an expanded UNSC. Resolutions could then be passed based on majority votes with each member, including newcomers, casting a single vote.  

There is also the question of equal geographic representation in the UNSC. The African continent, for instance, would like to have an African representation in the UNSC. African dignitaries during visits to UN headquarters in New York privately vent their scorn for the UNSC’s “fossil-like character.”

During a recent visit to the UN in New York, the foreign minister of the Cote d’Ivoire Marcel Amon-Tanoh said that Africa, given its weight in the world today, would not continue to accept its lack of proper representation through a permanent seat in the UNSC.  Amon-Tanoh, who was responding to my question on the UNSC reform during a discussion at the International Peace Institute in New York – the high-profiled discussion was moderated by the IPI’s vice president Adam Lupel – called for a revival of the debate in the General Assembly that had tried unsuccessfully in the past to reach consensus on how to expand the UNSC and make it more representational of the UN membership. 

Amon-Tanoh: ‘UNSC Does Not Reflect the World We Live In’

Amon-Tanoh’s echoed sentiments voiced by many UN member nations when he said: “I think everybody will agree along with our countries that the UN Security Council as it exists today does not reflect the world we live in.”  He said that the question of reforms was discussed in the Security Council but not in the General Assembly … we must try to make sure that the debate in the General Assembly that has lost energy can once again regain a dynamic quality so that the debate that existed at the time of (former Secretary-General) Kofi Annan can exist today.”

On the question of the number of permanent seats claimed by Africa, Amon-Tanoh said that Africa should have the ambition of having permanent seats on the Council regardless of number, adding that it was “unjust or even hypocritical not to consider the African continent which is envied for its natural wealth and resources.”

While some describe the failed attempts to reform the UNSC as a “tale of blood, sweat and tears,” the P-5 members should realize that their refusal to wholeheartedly support the UNSC reform process could brand them as power-hungry villains and obstructionists with little concern for the rest of humanity. 

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