Reforming the Working Methods of the UN Security Council

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by Lena Becker

On October 31st, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva organized a conference on “Reforming the working methods of the United Nations Security Council”. It assembled a group of high-profile academics and practitioners working  on UN issues, including the Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations in Geneva and Ambassador of Switzerland to the United Nations. The occasion was a reform proposal by Small Five (Switzerland, Costa Rica, Liechtensctein, Jordan, Singapore) from April 2012. (For more information, please see : Reform Proposal by the Small Five

Despite the original draft resolution being withdrawn only a day after its introduction, it undoubtedly revived a long-lingering discussion within the UN itself, as well as amongst scholars and the mass media.

The Security Council is one of the two main organs of the United Nations (UN) and the only UN body with the power to make binding decisions. It is composed of five permanent members with veto power and ten additional non-permanent members elected for a two year term.

In the past the Security Council has been repeatedly criticized for its organisation and working methods. It got accused for being too inefficient because of the veto power, too undemocratic because of missing control mechanisms or too weak. However, the introduced draft resolution by the S5 was the first formal draft resolution proposing to improve the working methods of the Security Council being proposed form outside of the Security Council itself. The draft resolution mainly calls for closer and more transparent cooperation between the GA and the Security Council as well as a new regulation of the right of veto. The Permanent 5 (USA, China, Russia, UK and France) expressed their general opposition and criticized the action of the S5 introducing a draft resolution instead of relying on intergovernmental negotiations.  Even though the draft was withdrawn almost immediately after its introduction, I believe that its impact is not to be neglected and a contingent reform of the Security Council seems to be timelier than ever.

The Graduate Institute’s conference started off with a round table debate, chaired by Professor Nicholas Michel, on  “Issues of transparency, accountability and relationship between the General Assembly and the Security Council”. During this round table, all the essential points included in the proposal of the S5 were discussed. It was followed by the Keynote speaker Paul Seger, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United Nations on the question if there is “Any white smoke coming out of the Security Council Chamber? The long story of the comprehensive reform of the Security Council”.

The S5 proposal in fact was revolutionary as it is the first attempt to formally amend and adapt the mechanisms of the United Nations and notably the Security Council, which would lead to severe changes in the power balance of the Security Council. Thus far, most amendments made to the United Nations charter are only numerical and not substantial. As guest speaker Professor Gowlland pointed out most of the previous changes within the working mechanisms of the UN were due to changes in the interpretation of international law, rather than a change in the law itself. These changes can be described as a soft process, rather than a strictly legal procedure. Furthermore  Professor Hug indicated how important it is to have the consequences of a possible Security Council reform for the General Assembly in mind. In its annex, the S5 draft resolution calls for more transparency and a closer cooperation between the UN’s two principal organs, primarily through regular reports and briefings.

Issues of Accountability and Transparency

The key words for the design of this new cooperation are “accountability” and “transparency”. The draft resolution recommends the P5 to explain the reasoning behind their vetos. This practice is not yet in place, and would, according to Professor Peters, lead to a far higher transparency of the decision-making process. This would ideally lead to a positive feed-back loop as hypocrisy and legally not admissible arguments are open to be attacked and are therefore far less likely. To achieve obligatory accountability, a new legal culture and a different mind-set within the Security Council is required, according to Professor Bianchi. Only if transparency becomes part of popular culture will it become an integral part of the Security Council.  Regarding the role of the General Assembly in the Reform of the Security Council, the German diplomat Fitschen noted the diminishing importance and influence of the General Assembly in the whole framework of the UN. The General Assembly and the Security Council are in conflict over their competences and ever new coalitions outside the UN threaten the relevance of the General Assembly. For Fitschen this could explain the proposed reform of the Security Council, which lays greater importance to the GA. He also reminded that the function of the SC- quick solutions for security and peace aspects- are quite different to those of the GA- which gives smaller states a stage for debate. Subsequently a reform of the GA following a reform of the SC seems inevitable.

However as important ─and maybe even over-due─ a reform of the Security Council might be and despite the very important points being brought forward by the draft resolution of the S5, a consensus seems far out of reach. In fact, keynote speaker ambassador Seger found a very simple answer to the question raised in the title of his speech: No, there is no white smoke coming out of the Security Council chamber! He stressed that debates about a Security Council reform have been going on as open-ended negotiations for 20 years, without ever reaching a consensus. The first break-through of these negotiations was a resolution setting the framework for even further negotiations, which got adopted in 2008. Yet a consensus still seems out of reach. The different blocs within the GA have very divergent positions on how this reform should look like. The G4 (Brazil, Japan, Germany and India) , supported by the E 69, wish for an increase in permanent as well as non-permanent members to the SC. Other states, such as Mexico and South Korea, wish only for the number of non-permanent members to increase. Other propositions are on the floor but none has a sufficient majority within the GA to push through so far. An  interim solution could be introducing a de facto permanent seat to the Security Council, by prolonging the mandate of non-permanent members, rather than a legal permanent seat which faces strong opposition by the P5.

The conference at the Graduate institute delivered interesting insights in the weaknesses and strengths of the draft resolution introduced by the S5. In conclusion it is to say that there is a general pessimism about a reform of the working methods of the Security Council to be undertaken soon. Professor Gowlland requested an overall reform of the system of the UN to reach a long-term solution. This need has been echoed by her colleagues.  Professor Peters added that every reform should always work towards good global governance.

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