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Difficult reform of the UN Security Council

  On November 17, 2022, the 77th UN General Assembly held a plenary session to consider the reform of the UN Security Council. Previously, on September 20, Kresch, President of the 77th UN General Assembly, emphasized in the general debate of the UN General Assembly that efforts should be made to revitalize the United Nations and promote negotiations on the reform of the Security Council, because this “relates to the credibility of the United Nations and the multilateral order.” The reform of the Security Council is the focus of the reform of the United Nations mechanism. Over the past 30 years, around the expansion of the Security Council and the veto power, heated discussions have been held inside and outside the United Nations, and various reform proposals have been put forward. So, how should we view the prospect and direction of Security Council reform?
Reform is the general trend

  The Security Council is one of the six major organs of the United Nations, and its institutional design is unique, which is significantly different from other international organizations. Currently, the Security Council consists of five permanent members and 10 non-permanent members. The five permanent members are China, the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom; the non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly. According to the “United Nations Charter”, the Security Council adopts different voting methods on procedural and substantive issues. For procedural issues, approval by more than nine member states is required. For substantive issues, more than nine members of the council must agree to it, and no permanent member of the council can object to it. That is to say, the permanent members of the council have the veto power. In today’s world, although the Security Council has been subjected to various criticisms and censures, it is undeniable that the Security Council has played an extremely important role in preventing conflicts and wars and maintaining world peace and security. Without this institution, the world would be a more chaotic and even dangerous place. The Security Council remains an indispensable stabilizing force for the international community and can be called the cornerstone of the international order.
  Security Council reform is the general trend. On the one hand, the structure and size of the Security Council do not properly reflect the changed balance of international power and international political realities; on the other hand, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Security Council appear insufficient.
  The Security Council reform process that started after the end of the Cold War has been advancing slowly. In order to promote the reform of the Security Council, the four UN secretaries-general have introduced corresponding plans and programs and taken relevant actions during their term of office. However, “thunder and rain but little rain” is a true portrayal of reforms in the past 30 years. At present, the member states of the United Nations have reached a consensus on the reform of the Security Council, and the intergovernmental negotiations on the reform of the Security Council have made some progress, but they still face obstacles.
There is a consensus on the expansion of the Security Council

  Judging from the proportion of members of the Security Council to member states, when the United Nations was founded in 1945, the Security Council had 11 members, accounting for about one-fifth of the 51 member states. In 1965, the membership of the Security Council increased to 15, accounting for 12.8% of the then 117 member states. Now, the membership of the United Nations has expanded to 193, and the number of members of the Security Council only accounts for 7.77% of the member states. From the perspective of both representativeness and decision-making efficiency, it is more appropriate for the number of members of the Security Council to account for 10% to 15% of the member states.
  From the perspective of development process, in the middle of the 20th century, national liberation movements surged all over the world, and a large number of emerging countries gained independence. The United Nations added 24 new members in the 1950s and 36 more from 1960 to 1965 as a result of newly independent states, which was the main reason for the expansion of the Security Council in 1965. In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated, the United Nations ushered in the second wave of new member states. From 1991 to 1993, the number of new member states of the United Nations increased by 26. After that, the reform of the Security Council was officially launched.
  Compared with the first 20 years after the founding of the United Nations, the changes in the international balance of power in the past 60 years are undoubtedly fundamental. The membership of the United Nations has changed from an east-west structure where two camps confront each other to a north-south structure with differences in development levels. The number of developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America greatly exceeds that of developed countries in Europe and America. Germany and Japan, the two main defeated countries in World War II, embarked on the road of transformation and became the world’s major economic powers. Britain and France, the two permanent members of the Security Council, have fallen out of the world’s top five economies, and Russia has failed to rank among the world’s top ten economies.
  In terms of regional representation, although the seats of non-permanent members of the Security Council are allocated according to regional principles, there is a serious regional imbalance in the seats of permanent members, that is, Europe has three seats, and Asia and North America each have one seat. Due to historical reasons, Africa and Latin America do not have permanent seats. Great changes have taken place in the political ecology of the United Nations, but the composition of the Security Council has remained basically unchanged.
  The Security Council needs to be expanded to allow more countries to participate in its decision-making, and most UN member states have reached a consensus on this. It should be pointed out that the expansion of the Security Council is not the purpose of reforming the Security Council, but that through reform, UN agencies including the Security Council will be more authoritative and effective, and better serve all member states and the people of the world.
“Increase” is difficult

  Specifically, the expansion of the Security Council includes two levels of permanent and non-permanent members. Member states have a consensus on the issue of “increased abnormalities”, but there are still serious differences on the issue of “increased abnormalities”. Some member states represented by the “Group of Four” (composed of Japan, India, Germany, and Brazil) actively advocated and vigorously promoted the increase of the number of permanent members of the Security Council. In order to cope with the rise of the “Group of Four” and check and balance its power, the “Unity and Consensus Group” was developed in the 1990s, led by Italy, and its members include South Korea, Canada, Spain, Turkey and other countries. The member states represented by “Unity for Consensus” are mainly out of consideration of the balance of power in the region, and strongly oppose the increase of permanent members of the Security Council, but they are not opposed to the increase of non-permanent members. African countries are the most underrepresented in the Security Council and therefore advocate increasing both permanent and non-permanent seats on the Security Council. Regarding the expansion of the Security Council, the five permanent members have different opinions, but “no increase”, “less increase” or “late increase” should be more in line with their interests.
  Even among the member states that advocate “increasing the Security Council”, there are different opinions on the basis and criteria, quantity and distribution of the “increasing” and whether the newly added permanent members have veto power. The existing “five permanent members” are determined by historical factors such as the contribution and status of the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, and obviously cannot be used as a basis for “increasing permanent status”. So, is “increasing” based on the size and strength of the UN member states? Not to mention the ever-changing size and power of member states, this standard in the era of power politics also seems outdated in the era of global governance. Is it based on financial contributions to UN agencies? This seems inappropriate for political international organizations. Can regional powers be used as a basis for “increasing normalcy”? This involves issues such as whether regional powers are needed and whether they can be recognized by countries in the region, and how to balance between regions. At present, Europe already has three permanent members of the Security Council. Does it need to add more seats? Africa and Latin America don’t have a single permanent seat, and Asia has only one seat. How many more should be added to these regions?
  ”Increasing normality” still faces procedural difficulties, and at least three hurdles must be passed. One is the “Five Constants” pass. In theory, increasing the number of permanent members of the Security Council requires the unanimous consent of the existing permanent members. If a permanent member of the Council opposes it, the “permanent growth” reform cannot be advanced. The second is the General Assembly. If the five permanent members do not object, the reform plan of the Security Council, including “increasing the number of permanent members”, must obtain the approval of at least two-thirds of the member states in the UN General Assembly. It is no easy task to promote such a vote in the UN General Assembly and obtain the support of at least 129 member states. The third is the parliamentary relations of member states. Even after passing the General Assembly, due to the “increasing” need to amend the UN Charter, it needs to be approved by the parliaments of member states. This will be a long process full of variables. After the three hurdles have been passed, which country(s) are eligible to become new permanent members still requires member states to engage in a long-term game.

Prospects for reform are not optimistic

  There is a strict “dual power” structure within the Security Council. The five permanent members have no term limit and have veto power; the non-permanent members have a term of no more than two years and have no veto power. If the reform of the non-permanent members, including the expansion of the membership and the extension of the term of office, etc., will not “severe the muscles and bones”, then any reform of the permanent members, including “increasing the permanent members” and limiting the veto power, etc., will touch the The most sensitive place in the United Nations machinery. Improper reforms may endanger the entire United Nations “edifice”.
  In fact, if it stays at the level of membership expansion and “increase in regularity”, the reform of the Security Council will inevitably lead to a dead end. The reform of the Security Council must simultaneously consider several fundamental issues.

On November 17, 2022, the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly held a plenary session to consider the reform of the Security Council. Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, put forward China’s three expectations at the meeting.

  One is the balance between democracy and efficiency. The Security Council is the largest and most centralized but smallest body in the United Nations system. Underrepresentation has become one of the Council’s major ills. Expanding the size can improve the democracy of the Security Council, but too many members will affect the efficiency of its decision-making and actions. Therefore, any expansion and “increase” of the Security Council must be based on a reasonable balance between democracy and efficiency.
  The second is the relationship between power and ability. As the main body for maintaining world peace and security, the Security Council has heavy responsibilities. Some countries do not naturally have the ability to maintain peace after serving as members of the Security Council, because the size and strength of a country are not equal to the level of peacekeeping capabilities. From a historical point of view, some permanent members of the Security Council have not always been peacekeepers, but instead have become peacebreakers. How to make the members of the Security Council both representative and capable of maintaining world peace and security is one of the issues to be resolved in the reform of the Security Council.
  The third is the consideration of interests and values. The reform of the Security Council is a reorganization of power, which involves the redistribution of interests, but also involves the trade-off of values. The Security Council plays a decisive role in what kind of security concept to advocate, how to resolve conflicts, and what means to use to ensure peace. For the members of the Security Council, the importance of national interests and the common interests of the international community is more important. When voting, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and their values ​​should be considered mainly, or their own interests and foreign policies. This is another difficult problem facing the reform of the Security Council.
  Fourth, is it a “package” or “gradual” reform? Any proposal for Security Council reform would require broad consensus among the UN membership. However, the reform process of the Security Council for more than 30 years has shown that such a consensus is difficult to achieve. It is difficult to solve the problems and difficulties faced by the Security Council through expansion and “regular increase”. So, is “gradual” reform feasible? For example, increase the number of non-permanent members first, or establish non-permanent members with longer terms of office, or restrict the veto power of permanent members to a certain extent. In April 2022, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stipulating that the permanent members should convene a meeting of the UN General Assembly within 10 days after exercising the veto power, requiring the exercising country to explain its reasons. This shows that the “progressive” reform of the Security Council has taken an important step.

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