Who's in, who's out: UN Security Council mulls reform

Talks began Monday on making the council more inclusive, but critics worry about the debate's timing.

Washington wants the international community – via the United Nations Security Council – to take a tougher line on Iraq.

In reality, the council is not the "international community." It's the leaders of America, Britain, France, Russia, and China, meeting behind closed doors. This same quintet – the Security Council's only permanent, veto-bearing members – has shaped every major international peace and security decision since World War II.

Many in the rest of the world seethe at their exclusion from these discussions. Africa, Latin America, and the Islamic world, for example, have no permanent voice on the council.

But as the 191-member UN General Assembly takes up its annual debate of Security Council reform this week, there is a sense that now – amid a standoff between Washington and Baghdad – may not be the best time to push for reform.

"Everybody has some resentment and wants to say something about it, but in the short term, there is a problem we first have to face in Iraq," says a Japanese diplomat at the UN, whose country contributes nearly 20 percent of the UN budget and is a frontrunner for permanent member status. "But this is still an ongoing process, and the frustration of some members at not knowing what's happening with Iraq is just one more argument we can use in the future when saying that reform is necessary."

Even if the timing were better, though, observers predict that huge obstacles will continue to trip up reform efforts.

Resolutions of the 15-member council carry the weight of international law. But they pass only if they avoid a veto from the permanent five (or "P5") and garner nine votes overall. Ten nonpermanent members rotate through the council, each elected to a two-year term. Seats are allotted regionally: three to Africa, two each to Asia, Latin America, and Western Europe, and one to Eastern Europe.

Most reform proposals suggest expanding the council from five to 10 permanent members, and elected members from 10 to 11 or 14.

Beyond that there's little agreement. What should the new geographic composition be? Which new members should be awarded permanent seats? Should states be elected by regional groupings? Should new members enjoy veto power? Should the P5 be stripped of their vetoes?

"If you add another five permanent members, all of them casting vetoes, forget about anything being accomplished," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a UN watchdog advocating council reform. "It's not just casting a veto, but the threat of casting a veto that keeps the whole issue off the agenda. A lot of council members wanted to act regarding Chechnya, but the Russians wouldn't even allow any discussion, much less action."

How did the P5 secure these privileges in the first place?

When the League of Nations disintegrated, having failed to prevent a second world war, that war's "victors" took another crack at forming an international body to bring stability to the globe. On Oct. 24, 1945, with 50 nations as signatories, the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, France, and China ratified the creation of the "United Nations" – a name coined by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Together, the five empires spanned much of the globe; they anointed themselves responsible for providing the money and muscle to "maintain international peace and security." Others saw them as simply protecting their own interests, but decided that was a small price to pay if it meant peaceful coexistence.

The council began with the five permanent and six non-permanent members. In 1965, it expanded to its present 15. Yet, as the Cold War unfolded and the globe evolved into a bipolar world, there was relatively little activity within the council, with decisionmaking power in the hands of Washington and Moscow.

The council's noteworthy moves of the era were its June 1950 call – without the Soviet Union present – for UN member-states to assist Koreans from the south to repel a northern invasion; its August 1963 voluntary arms embargo against apartheid South Africa; its March 1964 dispatch of peacekeepers to Cyprus; its imposition of sanctions against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); and, in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, its passage of Security Council Resolution 242, the cornerstone of future Arab-Israeli negotiations.

This moderate activity changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The outbreak of ethnic, tribal, and religious conflicts across the globe spurred a spike in Security Council activism, in both peacekeeping missions and punitive sanctions.

At that point, the rest of the world body – both large and small, rich and poor – began to object to what they saw as a council not genuinely representative of the "international community," heavily tilted toward the industrialized North yet dealing with conflicts primarily in the developing world. They began to demand greater transparency in council decisionmaking, and that the body's makeup reflect the new political landscape, not that of 1945.

The first official calls to end this perceived "two-tier" system and give greater say to "southern" states went up in 1993. But that cracked open a Pandora's box.

Now Germany and Japan, leading world economic powers and major UN contributors, want their permanent place at the table. But poorer countries protest that seats are "not for sale," and South Koreans object to Japan, pointing to past persecution. Then there's Italy, which some say doesn't want to suffer the indignity of being the only major industrialized European nation without a permanent seat – so Rome opposes expansion and argues against permanent seats. In Latin America, Brazil is pushing for a permanent seat, but its national language is Portuguese, not Spanish like that of its continental neighbors. The world's largest democracy, India, is also clamoring for a seat, but neighboring Pakistan vehemently resists. And in Africa, three continental heavyweights – Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa – are duking it out for a potential permanent seat.

As a result, current reform efforts are stalled.

But the Global Policy Forum has a proposal that would skirt those tensions outright. Its version of Council reform would nix expansion, eliminate all permanent memberships, and create a council of elected representatives from various regional groupings, accountable to those groupings.

"Currently, the nonpermanent members at least have the legitimacy of elections, while the other five are like presidents for life," says Mr. Paul. "What kind of consensus is that in the modern world? Politics is about change; permanence is about nonchange. The Council is frozen in the logic of 1945."

The Clinton administration raised hopes for reform in the spring of 2000 when it said it would consider expanding the Council from 15 to 21, but little more was said before the President's term expired. Official US policy remains expansion to 21.

"There's no question about it: we support the idea for an expanded, more representative council, because the world's changed and the Council needs to better reflect today's world," says a Bush administration official. "But you're not going to give up the vote and your ability to influence world events, and ensure that your country's global interests are pursued."

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