The UN Security Council: Illegitimate, inefficient, and incapable of reform?

‘In a fairer world, it would be unthinkable for Russia to remain a member of the UN Security Council.’ Venezuelan diplomat Diego Arria’s declaration, pertaining to Russia’s Ukraine-related disinformation within the UNSC, constitutes only the most recent development in a protracted power struggle. Penetrating the heart of international governance, the Security Council features heavily in discussions about the United Nation’s ‘crisis of legitimacy’. Unrepresentative, inconsistent, and inefficient, the Council’s codification of inequality within the central structures of IR has increasingly been challenged by reformist movements such as the G4 nations. While it is clear that some kind of reform is necessary – whether structural or working methods – the issue remains controversially complex.


The origins of the UNSC

Formed in 1945 at the organisation’s inception, the Security Council was accorded ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security’ by the UN Charter. Conveniently, this enabled the ‘great powers’ of the USA, the UK, France, China, and Russia to ensure their supremacy in permanent seats and a veto, empowering them to reject resolutions when in conflict with their national interests. The fact that such privileges undermined Article 2’s proclamation of all members’ ‘sovereign equality’ is reflected in the derisive view of the Council as the ‘aristocracy’ ruling over ‘the masses’. In fact, this core-periphery dynamic was redolent of the decaying colonial order the egalitarian UN purported to supersede.


Resolution 1991

As post-war decolonisation enlarged UN membership in line with the proliferation of sovereign states, such polarisation forced a restructuring of the original system. The subsequent Resolution 1991, instituted in 1965, entailed a maintenance of the Permanent-5’s dominant position and an expansion of non-permanent seats from 6 to 10. While UN membership has far transcended the original 51 states at 193 countries, this remains the first and only reform of the UNSC’s composition. Accordingly, the world’s central securitisation mechanism is anachronistic – rooted as it is in the realities of 1945. Although the General Assembly has voted unanimously in favour of its reform, decades of deliberation have produced no consensus.



Though reformists have long asserted that only a Council representative of ‘we the peoples’ can maintain legitimacy, what it means to be representative is a politically contested concern. Crystallising in 2005, the Group 4 nations of Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan have asserted their rightful place amongst the powerful P-5. While pointing to their populations, economies, geographical placement, and contributions to the UN, they also suggest that member-states like the UK no longer deserve to possess the privileges of the ‘great powers’.


While such claims force us to reconsider the basis of power in the UNSC, they hardly resolve the debate. An enlargement of permanent membership would serve to reinforce the system’s endemic elitism, enhance the issue of developing countries’ voicelessness, and reassert the issue of setting power in stone. The controversy of these claims is reflected in the response of the G4 nations’ rivals and comparable moderate powers like Pakistan and Italy under Uniting for Consensus. Formed in the 1990s, this movement exists primarily to block the G4’s aspirations.


For UfC members, enhanced representation would involve an enlargement of non-permanent seats to include more countries from the Global South. Problematically, while most UNSC decisions affect developing countries, they rarely secure an influence in debates. This is despite the fact that a two third majority is necessary in the General Assembly to ratify resolutions. Although UfC reform proposals offer hope for democratisation, their fatal flaw lies in sacrificing the efficiency the Council was designed to promote. By delaying decision-making, greater membership is seen by critics as a threat to the body’s obligations under Article 24 of the Charter


The veto

Beyond representation, the veto is an inherent source of disagreement in the UN in allowing the P-5 to bypass conventional democratic procedures. A persistent problem is that the veto is repeatedly and inconsistently used even when states’ national security interests are not being challenged. For example, the USA’s and Russia’s deployment of the veto over Syria and Israel respectively has created a political paralysis and inhibited the UN from responding to significant international crises. Used 121 times by Russia and 82 times by the USA, the veto possesses a symbolic importance in the battleground of great power politics – with consequences for vast populations.


The G4 and African Group have demanded an expansion of veto power to allow a more diverse set of member-states to protect their national interest – a proposal that does nothing to tackle its problems of efficiency and legitimacy. Simultaneously, the UfC’s demand for the abolition of the veto is idealistic and lacks practicality; it would ultimately fail to pass due to the P-5’s codified privileges. While the permanent membership of France and the UK is contested, neither member has used the veto since 1989. Indeed, the states’ awareness of their declining influence means they serve as a more liberal mediatory force within the UNSC.


Moderate measures may be the key to enhancing the UNSC’s utility. As well as proposing a solemn declaration to exercise the veto only when national interests are threatened, the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency group pleads for the P-5’s abstention from its employment in situations of genocide and humanitarian crisis. This seeks to promote the implementation of Responsibility to Protect and enable the Council to act more swiftly and decisively as atrocities unfold – an attempt to avoid replicating the failures in Rwanda, Darfur, and Somalia.


Working methods reforms

In addition to structural reforms, working methods reforms are necessary to promote the UNSC’s legitimacy. This was acknowledged in 2006 with an agreement to open UNSC meetings to external member-states, reflecting a commitment to greater transparency. But more can be done to close the Council’s ‘democracy gap’, from the introduction of greater accountability mechanisms to the enhanced circulation of documents. Moreover, Article 31 of the Charter – which enables non-Council members to participate in debates without a vote – could be employed more regularly to ensure that a diversity of perspectives is honoured in each decision.


Working methods reforms alone would be insufficient to tackle the UNSC’s endemic problems: they must be pursued along with structural reforms to prevent member-states’ disillusionment within the UN, which Tharoor warns could threaten its survival if defections to groups like G20 occur. This underpins the notion of a crisis of legitimacy within the UN, which serves to destabilise international governance.


From Syria to Myanmar, and from Israel to Rwanda, the Council has repeatedly failed to safeguard peace and security due to issues of power politics. The General Assembly’s ruling signifies the necessity for reform within the structures of the UN, whose efficacy is increasingly questioned. Without a pragmatic programme to ameliorate the UNSC’s representativeness, efficiency, and legitimacy, the future of the world’s foremost international organisation seems uncertain.


Featured image: Mathias Reding on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel