International Crisis Group
Oct 26 2015
UN Security Council Reform Now: Start With the G20!
By Celso Amorim,
Brazil's former Foreign Minister of External Relations
As the UN marks its 70th anniversary, the crucial question of Security Council reform remains neglected, despite a number of UN-focused initiatives launched, both by think-tanks and other private institutions, as well as by the UN Member States and its secretariat. This, despite the fact that the Security Council and its reform has been the object of heated and, by and large, fruitless debate for at least twenty years. Now, on the occasion of the UN’s 70th anniversary, the upcoming G20 meeting — and the G20 themselves — should be leveraged to gain real traction for reform efforts and ensure a broader group of voices, reflecting today’s world, are heard.
I was personally involved in the debate surrounding UN Security Council reform at different phases and from different angles: in New York as Brazil’s permanent representative to the UN during the nineties, as foreign minister of Brazil for the better part of the first decade of this millennium, and as member of more than one commission and/or panel of experts.
As time has passed, my initial optimism has somewhat faded. Not so my sense of urgency, though. As a government official of one of the “natural candidates” to permanent membership, my opinions may be considered as biased, a contention I would not try to deny. The same is true, of course, of the proponents of positions opposed to mine.
Seventy years is a lot of time, even from the perspective of history.
Leaving aside recent events (always hard to judge), let us consider other historical events and timeframes. In the nineteenth century, less than seven decades elapsed between the Congress of Vienna and the war between France and Prussia, which marked the rise of Germany. Less than seven decades lie between the abolition of serfdom in Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution! How quickly and substantially the world around us can change, yet we absurdly cling to a system of peace and security based on realities which have inexorably altered.
Apart from the considerations of legitimacy and justice — often raised in this regard, and with serious merit — other aspects must be considered. Not least the efficacy of the Security Council itself, which very frequently is torn apart or deadlocked by opposing views among permanent members. With the risk of sounding too simplistic, the “Western” view of world affairs, encouraging of liberal democracy, can on occasion be supported to the point of being willing to impose it by force (whether this is a genuine reason for intervention is beside the point); a countering “Eastern” view, places greater value on respect for national sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention.
To a large extent, this dichotomy has been responsible for the paralysis of the Security Council in relation to major issues such as the conflict in Syria.
Equally important: this dichotomy was directly or indirectly invoked to justify unilateral action in situations like those in Iraq and Kosovo. But there is, I would argue, a “third” view, which is the one of countries like India, Brazil and South Africa (we could add a few others). These nations place great value on the principle of democratic governance and respect for human rights; at the same time, as developing nations, they are sensitive to considerations of non-interference in internal affairs.
Based on experience, I would claim that these countries (not by chance members of the IBSA tripartite dialogue forum) could often provide a bridge between these opposite stances and help, through dialogue, to find consensus on some thorny issues. Brazil played precisely this role in 1999, when it chaired a UN Security Council panel on Iraq. As a result of its work, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) replaced the previously existing UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) with new, less intrusive methods. Under the chairmanship of Hans Blix, this new structure could have prevented the disastrous bombing and invasion of Iraq, were it not for supervening events, especially 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror”.
Situations such as the ones in Syria and Libya could have been better dealt with if the Security Council could count, among its permanent members, countries of the developing world whose positions carry weight and leadership.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the growth in influence of countries like Germany and Japan, whose contribution (financial and otherwise) may be invaluable to the Security Council’s decision-making process and the implementation of its decisions.
Apart from the number, geographical provenance and relative weight of the UN’s member states, there is another aspect of the changing world reality that makes reform of this UN body both necessary and urgent. The very concept of what we mean by “peace and security” — and therefore what falls within the UN Security Council’s mandate — has changed over the last decades.
Internal, rather than international, conflicts have increasingly become the main object of the Security Council’s decisions; at the same time, other themes such as migration, climate change and even diseases like Ebola have been brought to the Council’s attention.
The distinction between socio-economic matters and security ones has become blurred, at least partly due to a desire to make the international public opinion focus on these subjects. Whatever the reason, once the Security Council “becomes seized” of a certain matter, one cannot exclude that it will act in accordance with the powers conceded to it by the UN Charter. As the Security Council’s role and scope grows, so does the importance of ensuring its representativeness and thereby its legitimacy .
Of course, reforming the Security Council is not an easy task
It involves, among other things, an amendment to the UN Charter with all the accompanying complexities, such as the need for ratification by two thirds of the members, including the five permanent ones. Many member states support the view that some kind of consensus (or general agreement) is necessary for approval of a General Assembly resolution on reform. But it is unlikely this will be obtained, as the unending debate on the subject has shown. Rather, a change in the Security Council composition, with new permanent members, initially at least, might involve some kind of “co-optation” of the sort that brought about the G20.
Maybe one step in that direction would be to empower the G20 itself to deal with peace and security matters (including meetings of foreign ministers in preparation to the summits), while preserving the ultimate formal power of the Security Council.
To some extent, this would allow the world to replicate, with the participation of developing nations, the process which took place in the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Bringing peace and security issues into the G20 forum for discussion would allow a greater variety of opinions — representative of different world views — to be heard on important issues, from the internal conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the question of Palestine. For such a proposal to work, the composition of the G20 would also require some adjustment, in particular to improve the representation of Africa.
In the event, formal reform of the UN Security Council — the only one legally empowered to authorise coercive measures — will have to come. Pending this, the world should be allowed to get accustomed to seeing international peace and security, in its ever expanding scope, formally safeguarded by a broader group that better reflects the realities of the world we now live in.