Overhauling the anachronistic U.N. groupings

by Ramesh Thakur

Come October, Australia will be competing with Finland and Luxembourg for two of this year’s five elected two-year seats on the U.N. Security Council. Why against Finland and Luxembourg and not others also contesting for the total of five seats up for grabs? Well might you ask.

Most public debate on U.N. structural reform is focused on the Security Council. Arguably, an even greater historical anomaly is its system of regional groupings that shapes so many U.N. entities and activities. The founders of the U.N. system believed they were providing fair opportunity for interested members to share in the system’s management through periodic election to key decision-making bodies, particularly the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.

To this end, they divided the U.N.’s original 51 members into regional groups. The current 193 members are divided into five groups as follows: Africa (54 members), Asia (53), Latin America and the Caribbean (33), Western Europe and Others (WEO, 29), and Eastern Europe (23).

Kiribati, a small island in the South Pacific, does not belong to any group.

One immediate anomaly is Israel. Because it is persona non grata, so to speak, in its own region, it is in the WEO group. But so, too, are Australia and New Zealand, with Canada and the U.S. making up the remaining “Others” in the WEO group.

Notions of equity, national identity and geopolitics have changed dramatically since 1945. For Australia and New Zealand to be considered representatives of Europe today is frankly bizarre. For the “Others” to have to compete with Europeans who begin with a 47-strong Council of Europe or a 27-strong European Union (EU) is semi-disenfranchisement.

In parallel with the international economy, the international political system too is afflicted with an accumulation of global imbalances.

The existing equilibrium, although inequitable, is stable because it has developed entrenched interests. But the increasingly idiosyncratic and anachronistic system of regional groups has real-world consequences.

Failure to change it will damage the U.N.’s capacity to be relevant and responsive to its membership. The deep disenchantment, disempowerment and distance of member states from key decision-making bodies does not just erode U.N. authority; it also undermines U.N. effectiveness and risks displacing it from the center to the periphery of world affairs.

Electoral groupings are a critical prop of U.N. legitimacy. The current configuration negates the U.N. Charter principle that all countries should be able to take part in the key institutions of the U.N. system on the basis of equitable rotation. The present system of groups does not produce such efficacious outcome. The net result is to erode the overall legitimacy of the U.N. system and the decisions made by it.

The unfairness arises first from the wide disparity in the size of regional groups, ranging from 23 to 54. The disparity is even worse in terms of population. The Western and Eastern European groups were also transformed substantially by major changes on the continent when the Cold War ended.

Another question is, does “equitable” refer to opportunities or outcomes? What of states that are persistently disenfranchised and disempowered, most notably Israel? Luxembourg has never before been elected to the Security Council.

Geographical representation and distribution applies also to U.N. staffing arrangements. In most groups, contestation for quota seats to elective positions is very real and can be bitter, divisive and sometimes even hovering on the margins of questionable practices.

Reorganizing the number and composition of electoral groupings would enhance the representational credentials of the U.N. system, consolidate its legitimacy and increase its efficiency.

The agenda of reconfiguring the electoral groupings should be decoupled from the debate on the reform of the Security Council, but fed into it. An oblique approach to the Security Council structure and composition might succeed in reviving the momentum for its reform, which has flagged under the weight of more frontal approaches. As a corollary, efforts to reconfigure the electoral groupings should learn from the failures to advance the agenda of Security Council reform.

There is always the fear that linking the issue of electoral group reconfiguration to Security Council reform will promote neither and kill both. Ironically, a consensus for change may develop in the end on the basis of a rough equivalence of discomfort or disappointment from the existing system rather than expectations of reciprocal benefits from a new one.

Any new system must demonstrate an equivalence of benefits to all groups through “win-win” outcomes. The way to do this is to increase the number of groups and thereby shrink the size but strengthen the homogeneity of each.

Reflecting the quadrupling in numbers since 1945, the membership could be split into eight regional groups of between 20 and 30 each, for example: Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, North America and the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand). Details of a new schema are less important at this stage than the principle.

Success in reconfiguring the electoral groups would realign the U.N. with present-day reality, consolidate its legitimacy, increase its efficiency and underpin the Security Council with a more pluralist foundation.

A useful approach to initiating the process might be for Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to canvass the views of member states through a simple resolution of the General Assembly. Another would be to create a high-level panel of eminent persons to formulate recommendations with a time limit of one year.

Meanwhile, three of the five permanent members are from the Council of Europe: Britain, France and Russia. Azerbaijan, also in the Council of Europe, is on the Security Council until the end of next year.

If Australia loses in October, then next year the Security Council will have six of its 15 members from the Council of Europe: a 40 percent (over)representation for a population of 800 million in a world of 7 billion people. That would deepen the democracy, representational and legitimacy deficits of the United Nations system. We would all lose.

Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, adjunct professor in the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, and former U.N. assistant secretary general.