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Case for Reforming Security Councils

The United Nations Security Council (henceforth SC) is the executive arm of the United Nations (UN). Its role is to maintain peace and security and to restore peace whenever the need is required. The SC consists of five permanent members (P-5), namely: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. In addition it has ten non permanent members which are chosen by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). For a resolution to pass there should receive the approbation of nine members including the approbation of the P-5. The P-5 has the veto power. If one members of the P-5 vote against a resolution, hence the resolution is rejected. Since its creation the membership of the SC has been modified only once. In 1965, the number of non permanent members increased from six to ten. That reform also required that the number of votes for a resolution to pass be increased from seven to nine. From then on there has been no significant reform even if members of the UN regularly raise the issue. This essay will investigate why the SC should be reformed, why it is difficult to reform the SC and also the problems with present reform proposals.

Why should we reform the Security Council?

One of the main reasons for the existence of the SC is to maintain peace and security and also to act as the arm which will ‘enforce’ the principles on which the UN was built like for example the right to self determination. The Security Council can take measures mentioned in articles 41 and 42 of the Charter to enforce political solutions which it judges necessary to maintaining peace and security. Even the General Assembly cannot make recommendations on any political, military or other situations when the Security Council is dealing with it, except when it is requested to do so.

Apart from maintaining peace and security, the Security Council can recommend the admission of new members and also the terms on which states may become parties of the statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It also has the power to exercise the trusteeship functions of the UN. And finally with the General Assembly it can elect the judges of the International Court of Justice. These facts, from maintaining peace and security to election of judges for the ICJ are only a view of the functions of the Security Council according to a charter-based analysis. In reality things did not go so smoothly for the Security Council (particularly assuming its primary functions). The paradox is that the powers within it have been unable to cohere and coordinate their efforts toward a world peace.

In the light of these it can be seen that the Security Council has “extremely sweeping powers” [1] . However in any situation the council is expected to act according to the principles and purpose of UN.

Since 1945, the Security Council has not been able to stop the deaths of over 30 million people in armed conflict including genocide in Rwanda, wars in Angola, central Africa, Sudan and elsewhere. The Security Council also did nothing to prevent Britain from going to war to claim the Falkland Islands. Also, the most powerful members of the Security Council, charged with promoting peace, are ironically enough the world’s biggest arms traders. For Example, the United States continues to arm Israel and the Security Council is not acting against this issue.

In all that, the Security Council, with its inability to act has in some way been overshadowed by the General Assembly. This was shown by the fact that the UN secretary General’s role has been more active during the past twenty years or so. There is also the development of regional military alliances like NATO. However it must be recognised that the nature of conflicts is changing in the world, it is now taking a more internal trend rather than an international one. The cases of Bosnia, Sudan and Haiti are example to that. Nevertheless with the end of Cold War in the 1990’s, there seems to be a sort of revival of the Security Council particularly its powers under chapter VII. As a result many countries raised eyebrow on who can control the legality of SC’s actions. So there was renewed interest in the relationship between the SC and the ICJ.

Since the SC plays a vigorous role than in the past, its failures are more apparent and its reform is more crucial than ever. But the pathway to reform is very difficult. Nations can agree on the SC’s inadequacies, but they differ sharply on the necessary solutions. All agree, for example, that the Council’s membership and institutional structures reflect out dated geopolitical realities and political thinking, shaped by the world of 1945. However the P-5, with their vetoes and many distinct privileges, are much in criticism as a self-appointed oligarchy. But for more than a decade, nations have been debating Council reform in the UN General Assembly without result. Hence the main reasons for why reforms are needed are basically to question the veto power how it is undemocratic; the inadequate representation of the UN states member, actions taken by self-interest no check and balances and so forth. The Change in the Council’s membership, the thorniest issue of all, requires revision of the UN Charter.

No checks and balances

Under the Charter, the SC can recommend states to refer their legal disputes to the International Court of Justice or can ask for a legal advice from it. According to Article 36(3) of the charter, the Security Council, in attempting to settle disputes peacefully between states has to “take into consideration that legal disputes should as a general rule be referred by the parties to the International Court Justice….” [2] However, surprisingly, the Security Council has made use of that only once in its more than 50 years of existence. This was in 1947, in the Corfu Channel case, opposing to Albania. Till today the Security Council has been unable to justify this underuse of that judicial organ. But it may be inferred that there may be fear concerning the binding effect of judicial procedures. Moreover, states seem to have a preference for political settlement over judicial settlement, since they have more control over the outcome. [3]

The Security Council has also the power, under Article 96(1) to ask for an advisory opinion from the court. However here also this power has been underused, as, in more than 50 years of existence, the Security Council has used it only once( in the case of Namibia). The reasons for this underuse remain blurry. The argument that the court has faced no legal problem during those years is fallacious. Since disputes like the Iran-Iraq, the Suez Canal and Lebanon Cases “contained very real legal questions” [4]

The Security Council cannot give as reason that the court’s procedures are too slow. Since firstly this is not the case and secondly many of the disputes appear in the Council’s agenda for years so a quick response is not required. A stronger reason for the council’s reluctance to ask for advisory opinion is the Eastern Carelia principle. This principle states that court cannot use advisory opinion to avoid the requirement that both parties must give their consent to the jurisdiction of the court to judge a case. In fact two permanent members China and Russia has never use the court for settling their dispute. France has used it since 1974 whereas USA since Nicaragua case.

The Charter does not provide for judicial review of SC actions but judicial review can arise accidentally only. This is so when parties in a dispute bring their case to the ICJ to “dispute the legality or effect of resolutions of the UN organs” [5] while the case is in the hands of the Security Council. In this situation, however, the judgement will involve only two parties not the Security Council. Nevertheless in view of the present legal system the court can treat the resolution as unchallengeable or challengeable.

Treating the resolutions as unchallengeable has the advantage, for the SC of being sure that its decisions (particularly under chapter VII) would be implemented by members. Had members been free to challenge the Security Council’s decision before the court the speed of action would be undermined? Yet, that obligation of members of the UN to accept the Security Council resolution rest on the assumption that its decisions are in accordance with the Charter and international law. In circumstances where member states feel that Security Council’s decision has not been taken in accordance with the Charter, then whether can intervene on the legal aspect of that resolution comes again to the surface.

Inadequate Representation of UN member States

Another important reason why the SC has to be reformed is that it is not representing members of the UN adequately. Since the end of World War II, when the UN was established, the world has experienced many changes. For example there has been the rise of countries like India and Pakistan to the status of nuclear power. More importantly, with the end of colonisation, the number of states in the world and members of the UN has risen considerably. Today, regional powers and other member states are calling for greater representation and power than their ten rotating non-permanent seats in the Security Council and their minuscule voting influence. [6]

The SC lacks adequate representation of the developing nations that account for far more than half of the world’s population. This non-proportional representation of the non-P-5 member states in the Security Council gives them less ownership “in the maintenance of peace and international security” as set in the UN Charter. Furthermore, the permanence and privileges in the Security Council of the countries that won World War II is no longer justified, for only the United States can still claim such great power status [7] .

Decisions really come down to five countries meeting behind closed doors. This same group of permanent, veto-bearing members has shaped nearly every major international peace and security decision since World War II. Currently, four out of five veto-bearing members are industrialized countries and the fifth, China, is rapidly approaching industrialized status. Many in the rest of the world see at their exclusion from this elite group. Africa, Latin America, and the Islamic world, for example, have no permanent voice on the council. Without a voice, it is understandable why many countries are unwilling to send troops or help whenever the Security Council demands it. This imbalance, highlighted by the Iraq war, has made Security Council reform a sizzling theme of debate.

After the end of the Cold War the situation altered significantly. The UNSC was no longer a phase for superpower enmity and could entirely presume its functions of maintaining global peace and security as outlined in Article 24 of the UN Charter. [8] The first steps in this direction were encouraging. An agreement of the Iran-Iraq crisis and compromise (though with some reservation) on the action during the Gulf Crisis of 1990-91 made the thought of an active and productive Security Council seem possible. Nevertheless, the concerns of lack of representation and usurpation of the UNSC by the permanent members of the Security Council (P-5) rapidly resurfaced and the legality of the Security Council was destabilized. Describing the cause of the problem Justin Morris notes:

“The UN was forced to rely on the major Western Powers for political leadership and material help and found itself on the horns of a dilemma. Inactivity attracted disapprobation not dissimilar to that of the Cold War…yet where the UNSC became engaged; its actions were often accompanied – on occasion with good cause – by allegations of inappropriate self-interested motives on the part of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the UK and France (so-called P-3)” [9]

Nonetheless Member States not on the Council are often unsatisfied with the results of Security Council actions. These actions are frequently seen as inconsiderately motivated by the powerful states taking part, and not sufficiently reflecting the will of the General Assembly as a whole. For example, the recent and on-going war in Iraq instigated by the United States came with no United Nations mandate and little international consensus. [10]

Actions motivated by self interest

To be able to function as the Charter prescribe the Security Council needs to have the unanimous vote of its Permanent Members. This has not been the case, particularly during the Cold War when the US and the USSR (Capitalist versus Communist) vetoed each other’s action, during that period there has been 279 vetoes in the Security Council like the Atomic Energy Commission could not implement their program because of the political considerations opposing the communist and the capitalist. Moreover, the collective security system on which the UN and ultimately the Security Council is founded also failed.

Even when there was a semblance of collective security as in the case of North Korea’s attack on the South Korea in 1950s everything was not done according to the charter. Firstly the Soviet Union boycotted the Security Council’s meeting on the case and also the US was authorised to attack North Korea for the UN. In fact the ‘uniting for peace’ resolution (1950) allowed the General Assembly to deal with the threat to peace if the Security Council is in deadlock. [11] In this case by not using the military staff committee and the UN land the Security Council was found as not respecting the Charter. Moreover although the troops used for the Korean intervention came from 16 countries, the US and South Korea provided bulk of it. Furthermore the troops was placed under the command of US Army General Douglas Max Arthur who was answering the U.S President Harry Truman instead of Security Council.

Economic considerations have also hampered the working of the Security Council. In this case one of the best examples is Chinese veto. To the SC’s decisions to impose economic sanctions on Sudan due to the fact that it has invested heavily on Sudan’s oil industry. So as it can be seen in this case, economic considerations of their country come first- before human lives and the maintenance of world peace and security. However economic considerations have also forced permanent members of the UN to cooperate. This is particular true in the case of Iraq invasion of Kuwait when Resolution 678(1990) authorised the use of force to bring Iraqi out. In that case, the big powers feared a shortage of oil, if Kuwait has to stop production. This could bring many economic problems for the big powers.

It is also a fact that scholars have found that countries which get a non permanent membership seat received 59 percent more aids from the US and got loans more easily from financial institutions which are dominated by the P-5. [12] By accepting favours of the permanent members, smaller countries associate themselves with the self interesting actions of the major powers.

Veto power is antidemocratic

How did the permanent five secure these privileges in the first place? After World War II, the victors took another crack at forming an international body to bring stability to the globe. Hoping to do better than the ill-fated League of Nations, the victors appointed themselves responsible for providing the money and muscle to “maintain international peace and security.”

Use of the veto after the Cold War has dropped off dramatically but the statistics belie the true power of the right to veto. The mere threat of the veto has prevented many actions or talks to ever get under way. For example, the Security Council never acted in Chechnya since it was assured that Russia would veto any measure. The attacks on the right of veto held by the Council’s five permanent members were particularly harsh. Ofuaku and Ukaga quote Alounkhed Kittikhoun of Lao’s People’s Democratic Republic stating that “most countries were of the view that the veto power was anachronistic, anti-democratic, and contrary to the principle of sovereign equality of states.” [13]

Reverse Veto issue.

A final reason why the SC should be reformed is the reverse veto issue. Reverse veto does not prevent action, rather it prevent stopping an action. . For example during the Gulf War, after days of bombarding Iraq, many countries try to stop the war. Yet the UK and the US vetoed any resolution to end the war.

Why is it difficult to reform the Security Council?

The procedures to reform the Charter is under the control of the permanent members and up to now they have not been willing to lose their status which the Charter grants them. Any change in the membership of the Security Council requires a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly, which includes all the permanent members. Moreover the permanent members can still use economic pressures to appease demands for reforms.

Problems with the different reform proposals

As such this section will mostly deal to reconsider the proposals for reform of the UN Security Council put forward since the 1950s and evaluate the latest ones in order to see whether reform is desirable and or feasible. Also it will analyse the key issues at the centre of the current debate on Security Council reforms for example size of an enlarged Council, categories of membership and regional representation, the veto, Security Council’s working methods, relations with the General Assembly and so forth. Likewise it will follow with criticism addressed to the UNSC and discusses different versions of the reform proposed by various states and scholars.

It is generally agreed that in the SC structure, some vital things still needs to change. Even though everyone seems to agree on the fundamental idea of reform, efforts have been obstructed for over a decade. Most reform proposals relate to the work, size, and composition of the Security Council. Concerning its size and composition, the General Assembly at the prompting of General Secretary Kofi Annan adopted resolution 48/26 in 1993. This established the Open-ended Working Group to consider all the issue of Security Council membership reform. For a decade now, diplomats and committees have been working on Security Council reform. Most of the discussion has revolved around technicalities such as how much should it be expanded, should they be permanent members, and whether they should have vetoes or whether vetoes should be abolished altogether. [14]

In 1997, there was a strong push to get Germany and Japan permanent Security Council seats. The initiative faced many obstacles that eventually disrupted the effort. Many delegations opposed any more permanent members since they would create more arbitrary distinctions between member states. Other delegations felt it was unfair to only add Germany and Japan since it would elevate yet another European state and make the council even more unrepresentative of the world’s people. Increasing the number permanent members mean that there will be more members with the veto power and consequently more probability there SC actions will be blocked.

Even if it is obvious that the P-5 nations will not grant their right of veto, nor will they approve the abolishment of this organization, the efforts were made to tackle the subject. The Commission on Global Governance, for example, suggested that the permanent members should only exercise their right to veto in the circumstances they believe outstanding. Moreover, it suggests the creation of “standing members” of the Security Council for example permanent members without the right to veto. [15]

The Netherlands also lay forward a proposal, according to which “two negative votes by permanent members would be required to veto a decision instead of one.” [16] It doesn’t matter what the scheme may be, it is inevitably linked to the issue of the composition of the Security Council and by extension, its enlargement.

One daring suggestion would be to forget about expansion of the Security Council and presently eradicate the permanent membership and build a council of elected representatives from diverse regional areas. Those promoting this approach point out that permanent member are like presidents for life. The difficulty with this strong suggestion is its impossibility. Any proposal that does pass would have to have the support of the dominant veto-bearing states. A more realistic suggestion would be to add five permanent Security Council members but without veto powers. But this thought is based on basic 21st century political reality and not on any ideal notion of parity or justice. The result of adding up countries would increase worldwide representation and thereby strengthen its reliability.

Many academics disputed for expansion, if only to reflect the fixed rise in membership in the United Nations. The General Assembly grew from 51 to 191 but the number of permanent members, yet, remained similar. Most reform proposals imply increasing the council from five to ten permanent members, and elected members from ten to fourteen. Beyond that there is little agreement. Of whether there should be new geographic composition? Or which new members should be awarded permanent seats? Or even should states be elected by regional groupings?

“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. “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.” [17]

Representation & Effectiveness-Which Way the parallel?

The extension of the Security Council is a crucial assessment of strengthening of its legitimacy. Though, the amount of the expansion is strongly contested. The debate touches on another vital concern over the democratic nature and lucidity of the Security Council. Ofuaku and Ukaga quote Pehr Ksanda of Zambia stating, “Those who urged democratization at the national levels should be at the forefront of efforts to democratize international institutions, including the Security Council.” [18]

However democratization would dictate that all permanent members are democratic states and that work of the Security Council is apparent at all its stages, but neither of these conditions is satisfied at the current time. China is a non-democratic permanent member with the right of veto and Article 30 of the UN Charter gives the Council the right to determine its own work procedures. [19] Besides, a democratic institution should make every effort for wider and not narrower representation. So far the P-5 seeks to limit the number of permanent and non- permanent members of the Security Council.

Suggestions have been made to establish a new category of permanent members that will not possess the right of veto. Hence we hereby come to a remarkable dichotomy. On one side, the Security Council have to be enlarged to regain legitimacy and effectiveness in the eyes of the developing world. On the other side, restraining the UNSC membership is seen as the condition of its efficiency. Even though it may be appealing to limit participation in favour of speedier decision-making, the idea has to be advanced with prudence. The need of an efficient action has frequently been used as a good reason of tyrannical regimes and is not deemed rightful at the national level. Consequently, such a procession of analysis is barely suitable for international institutions. Although a justly democratic principle of representation in the Security Council may be hard to attain, this does not mean that the ideal itself should be discarded. The reform of the Security Council should sustain the principle of democratic structure and work organization even if the differences from the principle are unavoidable.

Realist Arguments on Reform

Several academics and think-tank forecasters have disputed that reform must bend to the realist point of views and that the Council must reproduce the actual distribution of wealth and power in the world, not conceptual ideas of equality and impartiality. This argument shows a crucial challenge in Council reform. How can democracy operate in a state system with such huge global disparities of wealth and power? Evidently, the answer cannot be a Council composed largely or entirely of major powers. [20] As such a body could never order adequate legality much less arrive at just and efficient decisions. Reforms that emerge pragmatic at present would shortly prove systematically un-realistic, leading to additional supremacy, hostility, destabilization and violence. However efficient reform could and should resolve this dilemma. The one-dimensional realist thoughts and the narrow state-interest of contenders to permanency will not produce the needed innovation.

Since the eradication of the veto is not a feasible choice, member states must put forth pressure to limit the use of the veto. One reasonable and acceptable recommendation for veto use limitations would be a renewed call to adopt the failed 1945 Australian amendment. This amendment would restrict the use of the veto to decisions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter, thereby permitting the whole Security Council to act with more authority and unity in the many cases falling under Chapters VI and VIII. [21]

A further suggestion is that no particular P-5 member could veto a decision backed by others. This appears coherent in that it would prevent one-sided action by a P-5 member beside the will of the bigger international community. If this proposal would have been instituted in 1945, it would have prevented 195 unilateral vetoes used against the will of the remaining member states. The notion of having two P-5 members vote down a resolution creates a bigger legitimacy in the Security Council, preventing the will of one country from trumping the rest.

Another way to achieve reasonable reform in the Security Council would be for “countries invoking the veto . . .[to] be required to state and defend their reasons.” [22] Even though this thought is based more on diplomatic consideration and respect than precedence or Charter interpretation, it provides a logical process by which the great divide between P-5 and other member states can be at least slightly bridged. Moreover, in cases of humanitarian emergencies, human rights violations, or genocide, the P-5 could abstain from using the veto if their vital interests are not involved, [23] and thereby keep their power of the veto to protect their national interests while adhering to the principles of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” [24]


Finally one can say that there is a strong case for reforming the UN but the procedures set in place and the proposals need much improvement if a more effective SC is to emerge. However many reforms proposals have been advanced along with its inadequacy. The consensus on the need of the reform was someway reached and thus, the idea is hopeless. Some of the reforms proposals are workable, though many issues remain debatable. Besides, the legitimacy of the UN as an international organization is rather significant.

It should not be forgotten that the United Nations is an institution created by its members, as is the Security Council. Hence, strengthening the legitimacy of the UN will only be possible if the member-states are determined to commit to the reform. It is the commitment of member-states and mostly of the permanent members of the Council that will likely decide the future of the UN Security Council in the years to come

However the Security Council is mostly criticised by developing and emerging countries as they believe that the UN SC should enlarge to encompass more countries for it to be more legitimate and representative.

But the reform of the Security Council has always been problematic. To be able to reform the UN Security Council, all its members must vote for that so as to change the charter of the United Nations.

Additionally, let us view about the efficiency of an enlarged security council. The Security Council is an organ which has to be very reactive; will it not be burdened with more members?

Hence there is no consensus on who is going to be these possible new permanent members for ex African countries are fighting against one another to decide which of them is going to represent Africa within the Security Council.

Nevertheless the challenges facing today’s global community, such as tensions in the Middle East, AIDS, and the environment, can only be resolved through coordinated and bilateral efforts. The motive being is the universal nature of many of these glitches. As the United Nations discussions potential reform let us not forget the significance of having a solid international organization. As unsatisfying as it might be for the largest country or the smallest country to work within the United Nations charter the changes are not worth considering.

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