Is There Momentum for Security Council Reform? What are the Obstacles?

31 May 2014

Security Council reform is one of those ongoing issues, it has been for the last 20 years. I’m not making any predictions about the future but your kids will be grown up by the time we wrap this up.
President of the General Assembly, John Ashe, press conference, December 2013.

Current state of Intergovernmental Negotiations

After a hiatus of three months, the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council reform (IGN) continued with round ten in March 2014. The repetitive nature of the statements made during the six meetings held in March, April and May was painfully obvious to many. Real negotiations are not taking place.

At its mid-May meeting of ten Heads of State and Government in Oyo, Republic of Congo, the C10 similarly concluded that:“ the debate still remains within the realm of a restatement of known positions.” (see notes below on the various groupings of Member States and key stances).

Africa’s 53 members remain one of the keys to any solution on expansion. However, recent efforts to moderate Africa’s common position - by organizing a retreat of all Heads of African States and Governments, for instance - are said to face strong internal objections. South Africa especially has been pushing for such a retreat with the hope to create more flexibility about the extension of veto rights to new permanent seats.

The Advisory Group’s non-paper of late 2013 (India keeps referring to it as the PGA's paper) did not seem to bring about the breakthrough that some Member States - especially those in favor of new permanent seats and their closest allies - had hoped for. The non-paper has not become a more easily accepted and workable basis for the negotiations than the various versions of the 30-page negotiations/compilation text that have been on the table for years. (See the Center’s previous update on the receipt of this non-paper.)

There has been one development in the IGN, however, that some Member States deem important. At the latest meeting on 8 May, Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative, H.E. Mr. Vandi Chidi Minah, who chairs the C10 in New York, indicated that the Chair of the negotiations, Permanent Representative H.E. Mr. Zahir Tanin of Afghanistan, should be allowed to make an assessment of the negotiations. Apparently, Egypt immediately objected, saying that this pronouncement clashed with the official position of the C10. The UfC and some P5 members have never been keen on a very active role for the Chair, claiming that the level of division among the membership precludes this. In the past, the C10 has often agreed with the UfC on issues related to process, undermining the G4 contention that only a handful to a dozen of countries are hindering progress.

The recent Oyo conclusions do not specifically refer to the Chair producing an assessment. Nor do the Oyo conclusions make a specific reference to a growing convergence between the African Group and the L69, as had been reflected in various C10 statements from 2013. Instead, the C10 remains especially keen to find out what the exact reactions of the P5 are towards Africa's common position. Interestingly, the C10 also wants clarity about the “adherence of some Member States of Africa to other interest groups,” which the C10 believes undermines the common African position. Presumably this primarily concerns the 14 African members of the L69 grouping.

Tanin has provided numerous overviews of the negotiations since 2009 and these have tended to be somewhat optimistic as well as vague. In July 2012, however, Tanin added specific proposals to his overview, suggesting that he could be asked to produce a concise working document and - if there was sufficient progress - for a high-level meeting to be held to “assess the state of play and propose ways to keep the process moving forward.” His proposals were not widely accepted at the time, but the G4 and its supporters still push for developments along similar lines, which led to the non-paper of the Advisory Group as well as calls for this reform issue to be part of the September 2015 summit declaration and negotiation process. 2015 will be the tenth anniversary of the 2005 summit and the 70th anniversary of the UN. Reform of the Security Council was a major issue in the 2005 summit negotiations. However, many Member States are in favor of focusing much more exclusively on the declaration that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (expiring in 2015) with new Sustainable Development Goals.


A key question to ask at this stage is whether there is enough “momentum” or "progress" to justify moving the informal negotiations to a high-level meeting. The obstacles remain enormous, and include - but are by no means limited to - the following:

  • Among the many Member States supporting new permanent seats, many have made their support conditional on other factors. For instance, a sizable number - the Center estimates about one-third - do not want veto rights to be extended to new permanent members.
  • The recent conclusions in Oyo reconfirm that new African permanent members would have to be chosen by African countries, but agreement about which African country/countries should get a new permanent seat will be hard to achieve. Many Member States have indicated in the past (including the US) that they would not approve any proposal for new permanents seats without first exactly knowing which African countries would be in contention. And whether Africa should get one or two permanent seats is far from resolved either. (Some permanent members have indicated preference for one such seat.)
  • To get the necessary majority - two-thirds of the membership - accommodations will have to be made to groups such as small island states (who want a dedicated crosss-regional non-permanent seat); East Europeans (also want a dedicated non-permanent seat); and the Arab Group (want their own permanent seat). These accommodations are not acceptable to some Member States that are otherwise open to new permanent seats for the G4 and Africa.
  • There are significant divisions within each of the groupings that profess common positions. Such divisions prevent genuine flexibility and real negotiations. Even a small group such as the G4 has internal differences, with Brazil and India more willing to publicly accommodate the African Group’s demand of veto rights than Germany and Japan. UfC members apparently differ about the length and renewal of long-term seats. The UfC's assertion that it is flexible has thus far not been seriously tested.
  • A number of countries (including France and the UK) would like to see all G4 members get new permanent seats. But if the determination of new permanent members would be done through elections in the GA, can there be real assurance that all four would be picked?
  • The permanent members do not share a common position and the UN Charter allows each of them to block reform. Disenchantment with the P5 is widespread among Member States - not only about the situation in Syria, but also because of the P5’s lack of accountability to the UN membership. But whether this discontent will lead to concerted action on security council reform is not a given. The understanding that additional permanent members would really improve the Council’s effectiveness and accountability is not widely shared.
  • Not only UfC members are against new permanent seats. There are an unknown number of other Member States that do not welcome expansion in both categories. Some of these prefer to see substantial results on working methods instead. However, some governments state that the P5 seem to be even more resistant to real change in regards to working methods (including the veto) than expansion.
  • France’s interesting proposal to create a voluntary code of conduct that would have permanent members not use their right of veto in case of mass atrocities has gathered some steam, but may end up not accepted by all P5 members, or may end up diluted by loopholes undermining its intent. Obviously, this matter can be pursued independently of the IGN as it does not involve a Charter change.
    [*]Decision 62/557 sets the parameters of the IGN, stipulating that the issues of categories of membership, veto, regional representation, size and working methods, and the relationship between the General Assembly and Security Council should be dealt with in a comprehensive manner. Clearly, a grand bargain encompassing all issues will not be easy to achieve. The decision also stipulates that the “widest possible political agreement” (described by the 2007 facilitators as meaning more than the required majority) should be achieved before moving from informal to formal negotiations, where 2/3rd of the whole membership (not present and voting, as decided in 1998, A/RES/53/30) will be needed for the adoption of a resolution. Moreover, any adopted resolution will also need the ratification of 2/3rd of the membership, including the P5, which may be a harder feat now than in 1965 - when non-permanent seats were added to the Council - considering that much more power is at stake this time around.[/*]

    Given all the obstacles described above, it is questionable that there presently is enough momentum to move the negotiations from the IGN to more formal decision-making processes. Still, the G4 and its allies hope that a more formal process will get more capitals involved and possibly result in more clarity or a re-evaluation of positions. In other words, they hope that a formal process itself will create the necessary momentum.

    Tanin now has the difficult task to produce a summary/assessment of round ten of the IGN. Will he decide to provide a brief summary of the recent meetings as he has often done in the past, or will he come with specific proposals on how to move the negotiations along, as he did in July 2012? Or both? Will he wait till the next AU Summit has taken place in Equatorial Guinea on 26-27 June 2014? To our knowledge, there is no strong membership-wide push to add this reform issue to the agenda in September 2015, although the G4 and South Africa especially seem very determined.

    Efforts from the G4 since September 2012 to create momentum outside the IGN - by stimulating worldwide interest from academia, NGOs, and the media - have thus far not borne a bounty of fruit. However, there is a growing amount of literature and studies from New York-based organizations. For example, the following four publications have become available online during the last year, including one produced by the Center:

    Security Council Working Methods: A Tale of Two Councils?, Security Council Report, March 2014

    Reforming the Working Methods of the UN Security Council: The Next Act, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung New York office, Volker Lehmann, August 2013.

    Pathways to Security Council Reform, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, Richard Gowan (project director) and Nora Gordon (Lead Researcher), May 2014

    Reform of the Security Council from 1945 to September 2013 Center for UN Reform Education, Jonas von Freiesleben (chapter 1) and Lydia Swart (chapter 2), September 2013.

    G4: Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. In favor of new permanent seats for themselves as well as two such seats for Africa. Since 2005, the G4 as a group has been willing to forgo veto rights, at least until a review would take place. Brazil and India are also part of L69 which officially has a different position on extending veto rights since 2012.
    L69: A group of 42 countries in favor of new permanent seats. According to a draft resolution from 2012, in favor of extending veto rights to new permanent seats immediately. Also in favor of a dedicated non-permanent seat for small island states. Some believe that the 2012 resolution was just meant to "create momentum."
    C10/African Union: 53 African countries (Egypt’s membership in the AU has been suspended). According to the Ezulwini Consensus, in favor of two permanent seats for Africa, including veto rights. 14 African countries are also part of L69, while at times South Africa and Nigeria have seemed aligned with the G4 position.The C10, which coordinates the African position, consists of Sierra Leone (Chair), Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Namibia, Zambia, Senegal, Kenya, Algeria, and Uganda.
    UfC: (Uniting for Consensus) 12 core members (Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, San Marino, Spain, and Turkey) but Indonesia and China take part in its meetings as well. Against new permanent seats. In favor of adding non-permanents seats and/or longer-term and renewable seats.
    Arab Group: In favor of a new permanent seat for Arab countries, though their demand - made in late 2013, was not repeated at the March 2014 meeting on expansion.
    ACT (Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency): Countries actively working on reforming the working methods of the current (not expanded) Security Council: Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Gabon, Hungary, Ireland, Jordan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania (obs) and Uruguay.
    CARICOM: group aligned with the L69. Some of Caricom’s members are also part of L69.
    Pacific SIDS (Small Island Developing States): Aligned with L69 and some of its members are also part of L69. In favor of a dedicated non-permanent seat for small island developing states.
    P5: permanent members China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States. France and UK share a common position, but the others each have different preferences.