The international community stands ready for reform by global leaders © Shutterstock

An inevitable ‘too little, too late’ scenario for UNSC reform?
Global leaders must acknowledge that the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiations on UNSC reform will not lead to meaningful change any time soon
1 May 2024

As global peace and security challenges worsen, alongside deepening geopolitical rifts and threats to the international multilateral system, calls for the reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have grown louder in recent years. However, the year-on-year progress registered at the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) long-running annual Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN), focusing on matters relating to UNSC reform, has been incremental at best. At worst, the IGN process remains completely overshadowed by the shortcomings of the current composition of the UNSC to fulfill its mandate in the maintenance of international peace and security. 

As the Council remains largely deadlocked over ongoing conflicts and crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, largely due to the veto powers and privileges afforded to its permanent five (P5) members, the IGN process has done incredibly little to reassure the international community that meaningful change may be on the horizon.

In many ways, this is unsurprising. Reforming the UNSC in terms of the IGN’s key points of debate is a monumental undertaking, with sweeping implications for structure and future trajectory of international order.

In particular, broad consensus on points relating to the potential size of an enlarged UNSC, the categories of its membership, regional representation, the relationship between the UNSC and the UNGA, and questions concerning veto privileges, are currently mired in a number of competing proposals for reform from different coalitions of states within the IGN.

These coalitions include: Brazil, Germany, India and Japan (the ‘G4’) – seen as arguable frontrunner states for permanent membership based on their regional power profiles. The G4 calls for UNSC reform primarily based on an expansion of its membership by six new permanent members (including two from Africa) and four or five new non-permanent members. The group proposes that new permanent members should enjoy all rights, privileges and responsibilities as the current P5 – with the caveat that a decision on an expansion of veto powers only be granted after a multi-year review following the Council’s restructuring.

A competing proposal, which opposes the expansion of permanent UNSC membership, is composed mainly of the G4’s regional rivals (Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea and Turkey, amongst others) under the ‘Uniting for Consensus’ (UfC) banner. This group put forward a model in which Council expansion is largely based on longer-term non-permanent membership, which could be expanded to a maximum of 27 members. The grouping places greater emphasis on regional representation than the G4, and takes a dimmer view of questions surrounding the use of the veto – proposing that measures be adopted to suppress its continued use by permanent members.

Other coalition proposals within the IGN include: ‘L.69’, composed of a large cross-regional grouping of developing countries; African Union (AU) members united in their common position as per the ‘Ezulwini Consensus’; and other common regional positions put forward bythe IGN’s Arab and Nordic groupings.

Complicating matters further are the divergent P5 member positions whose support for each of the proposals varies considerably based on the Member State composition of each coalition, alongside the actual substance of their respective models for structural reform. Again, unsurprising given the deepening geopolitical rifts between the Council’s three permanent Western members and Russia and China, which has led to much Council business becoming unduly politicized in recent years – as seen with the increasing use of the veto.

However, ensuring P5 unanimity on UNSC reform is critical, as an amendment to the UN Charter (to restructure the organization’s highest decision-making body) would require their approval, alongside a two-thirds majority vote within the UNGA.

How the IGN process may possibly lead to some form of P5 consensus – and widespread support within the UNGA – remains to be seen. As the IGN continues receiving updated proposals for reform from each of the coalitions, there remains no actual working text from which Member States can negotiate. Accordingly, the year-on-year incremental progress registered at the IGN has largely resigned the process to the sidelines of the grand geopolitics currently being waged by major powers in determining the future of the international order.

This is an unfortunate situation, but the likelihood of a significant breakthrough on UNSC reform, stemming from the IGN, appears increasingly slim. There may, however, be a tipping point on the horizon based on the ongoing erosion of the Council’s legitimacy and credibility to maintain international peace and security.

To pre-empt this ‘too little, too late’ scenario, Member States must acknowledge the limitations of the IGN process, and perhaps consider more creative or radical avenues for reform – both within and outside of the UN system. This requires global leaders to make difficult decisions and compromises now, which may not necessarily align to their immediate national interests, for the sake of longer-term international peace, security and stability. 

* Priyal Singh is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
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