CANBERRA/MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – On the one hand, the United Nations remains indispensable for setting international standards and norms to regulate international behavior. The Philippines took its maritime territorial dispute to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which delivered its verdict July 12. The judgment was a comprehensive rejection of China’s unilateral claims and a sharp rebuke of China’s aggrandizing behavior. The court based its decision on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The PCA is part of the U.N. system and so is UNCLOS. The tactic was thus a successful effort to use U.N. law and arbitration as instruments to redress power inequality in interstate disputes.
On the other hand, the ruling is unlikely to change the reality on the ground as the only enforcement option is via the U.N. Security Council, where China is a veto-wielding permanent member. Despite disagreements over the reasons for it — critics and supporters would likely differ on the weight of responsibility they assign to internal U.N. pathologies, the expectations-resources gap, and the prioritization of national interests at the cost of any international vision by member states — few would quarrel with the claim that the world organization has not fulfilled expectations and requirements.
Hence the urgency of reform.
There seems no realistic prospect of structural reform of the permanent membership in the foreseeable future, disappointing as this might be to Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, who are widely (but not unanimously) regarded as deserving candidates. Equally, however, there is no realistic substitute in the foreseeable future for the UNSC as a universally validated body acting on behalf of the international community.
Hence the importance of reform.
Efforts are currently underway to rebalance the UNSC-General Assembly relationship by changing the numbers and tenure of the council’s 10 elected members (the E10). Because the UNSC is the geopolitical cockpit of the U.N. system, most reform attention has focused on the misalignment of its five permanent members (the P5) with evolving global power equations. Yet two-thirds of UNSC members are elected and their utility in revitalizing the council as an effective executive body is neglected.
Of course, there is an aura of doomed fatalism around any UNSC reform proposal. In contrast to the seemingly futile quest for reforming the UNSC permanent membership, investing in reforming the elected membership may be more defensible in principle, yet less difficult to achieve in practice. The reason is simple. With all efforts to reform the permanent membership, losers outnumber winners and double down on resistance. By contrast, reforming the elected component can produce win-win outcomes all round, including a reduced workload for the P5.
The change most likely to attract support from the necessary two-thirds of the U.N. members — without P5 opposition — is enlargement of the council with only additional elected members because, unlike the case with permanent membership enlargement, in this case most countries are winners not losers. The probability of broad support would be increased with the specification of a fair regional distribution of the elected seats.
The General Assembly reform discussions have been chaired by Ambassador Sylvie Lucas of Luxembourg. In her formal letter of July 11 to General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft reporting on the progress to date, Lucas emphasized widespread demands for the UNSC to be “transparent, efficient, effective and accountable.” Increasing the number, and thereby also the proportion, of elected members would mitigate the pathology of P5 dominance of council affairs, strengthen its representativeness and increase its democratic accountability.
There is consensus in the U.N. community, according to Lukas, on the need for “a balance between the representativeness and effectiveness of an enlarged council.” Many elected members, much more than the P5, have proven capacity to represent the interests of the other members and add to the council’s effectiveness, thereby also bolstering its equity and strengthening its legitimacy.
Brazil made considerable headway with its 2011 proposal on “Responsibility while Protecting” in response to the criticism of NATO for exceeding the Resolution 1973 mandate to protect civilians in Libya.
Germany orchestrated the division of sanctions regimes applied to the Taliban and al-Qaida, which previously had been lumped together despite their wide differences; used its two presidencies in 2011-2012 to promote debate about the security implications of climate change; and sponsored a resolution on children in armed conflict.
During 2013-2014, Australia was actively engaged on Afghanistan, humanitarian relief for Syria, the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine, management of small arms and light weapons, the use of police in peacekeeping and human rights in North Korea.
Their experience confirms that, notwithstanding structural constraints compared to the P5, elected members can exert significant influence if their mission is adequately funded and their diplomats are skillfully engaged, innovative and seek to cooperate pragmatically with other council members, elected and permanent.
Expanding the number of elected members could enable the council to become more equitably and effectively representative of the U.N. membership, ensure that a wider range of issues and perspectives are included in debates, and harness a greater range of assets and skill sets to the critical work of the council available from among the other 188 members.
If the number of elected members were expanded by eight, and their terms increased to three years, then six new members would be elected each year. This would strengthen the relative power of elected members. The reputational cost to China of obstructing efforts to enforce the PCA ruling would be higher in opposing 22 instead of 14 other UNSC members. The E18 would collectively also outnumber the P5 by 3.6:1 instead of 2:1. The council would be more difficult for the P5 to control. Even if they all agreed, they would require nine, not four, elected members to obtain the 60 percent majority needed for a resolution to be adopted.
Three-year terms would enhance the capacity for elected members to make a substantial contribution. More issues of interest to them could be tabled for debate and action. The risk of conflicts that deserve attention being neglected would decline.
According to Lukas, member states want a UNSC-UNGA relationship that is “mutually reinforcing and complementary … and with full respect for their respective functions, authority, powers and competencies.” Enlarging the number of elected members would strengthen legitimacy, improve UNSC accountability to the General Assembly, and increase the council’s capacity to fulfill its responsibilities for the maintenance of international peace and security. The PCA ruling confirms the need; this article shows the way.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and a former United Nations assistant secretary-general. John Langmore is a professorial fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He was previously a director in the U.N. Secretariat. This article draws on a longer article published last month in The Washington Quarterly (available at twq.elliott.gwu.edu ).
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