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Comment II
Last Updated: 06/29/2012
The Bunga Bunga of the Security Council
Fausto Aarya De Santis

Fausto Aarya De Santis gives an overview of the long-standing debate about security council reform, and asks the key question: can it really be changed at all? And if it can, what would an expanded, representative security council look like?

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In 1945 at San Francisco fifty-one countries signed the Charter of the United Nations and since then, as the membership grew, no debate for reforms within the United Nations has been more heated, at both the high-level nation state attention and the public interest, than the composition, decision-making rules and working methods of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC/SC) (Luck, 2007, p. 659).

The essence of the debate has revolved around two views. On the one hand, it is claimed that the structure and voting rules of Council are unjust and inequitable and, on the other, while accepting this fact, it is argued that this inequality is precisely the factor that allowed the Security Council to survive the Cold War and pass important decisions (ibid, p.660).

In taking the above debate as the theoretical backbone, this paper will analyze the political debate surrounding the Security Council reforms by taking a legal stand that understands the near impossibilities of drastic reforms, but argues that the sustainability of the Council, and as such the United Nations, lies in the sharing of decision making power; for the real power of the UNSC has its foundation in the recognition, support and acceptance of the all its member states, including the hundred and eighty seven non-permanent members.

History of the Security Council and the Debate

The United Nations Security Council is the primary organ responsible to maintain world peace and security (UN Carter, 1945) and it achieves this though international, legally binding resolutions that are considered “hard laws” under international law. In other words, whatever the Security Council decides cannot be considered illegal under international law, unless its decision is ius cogens or if it concerns an issue that it is not competent to decide on. The above sentence shows the powers that the Council holds and testifies to the importance of this debate, in both symbolic and empirical terms. To this political and legislative power that the Council holds, let us also add the element of veto powers that five member states hold, and suddenly the importance of this debate becomes even weightier.

When the SC was formed in 1945, it consisted of five permanent members: USA, Russia, UK, France and China; and six non-permanent members that were elected by the United Nations General Assembly (Britannica). Calls for Security Council’s membership expansion started as early as 1956, for the two years previous to this date has seen a score of new memberships in the UN (Luck, 2007, p. 659).

By 1963, the membership to the UN grew to 114 and in December 1963 the General Assembly passed a vote to reform the Council. This amendment, as part of the procedure of the United Nation, had to be accepted by the Security Council and a deadline to the 1st of September 1965 was given. Some argue that it was more an outcome of the Cold War completions (to accept the will of the majority) that led to the expansion of the Council in 1965, when two third of the Council members, including the P-5, accepted the reform. The Security Council expanded from eleven to fifteen and the first amendment of the Charter was accomplished. The expansion, however, only allowed more temporary member and not permanent ones, with veto powers still possessed only by the P-5 (Ibid p. 661).

With the expansion of the Security Council in 1965, the calls for a larger membership did not fade away since membership of the United Nations General Assembly kept increasing as well. However, the ineffectiveness of the Council to take decisions during the Cold War (an outcome of the veto powers) reduced the pressure for reform to sporadic calls. It was only after the end of the Cold War that this debate picked up again.

There are 193 member states at the United Nations today, and the growing polarities of economic and military strengths and also regional cooperation, are continuously pushing this debate forward. The Council has certainly made reforms to include more transparency and greater participation by non-Council members in the decision making process, but the structure and the factual working methodology of the Security Council remains the same since 1965.

Proposal for Reforms

The New York Times, in a 2004 editorial analyzing the composition of the Security Council stated that “the Security Council [’s] … permanent membership reflects the power relations of 1945, not 2004” (Blum, 2005, p.636).

After the reform in 1965, the report in 2004 of the high level panel that Kofi Annan set up in 2003 to address “threats, challenges and change” confronting the United Nations (ibid, p. 632), was the most tangible effort advocating a reform in the Security Council, after many previously failed attempts. This report, while arguing on many other aspects of the UN, argued that there the P-5 were given veto powers in 1945 because “they were expected to shoulder an extra burden in promoting global security”, but although there has been a change in the “distribution of power among member states” since 1945, “the Security Council has been slow to change”(Ibid, p. 639). Keeping this view, the report suggested two alternate models and both these models viewed expansion as the essential element of change. While being aware of the criticisms, in political debates and by some scholars, on the effectiveness and rapidity of the Security Council to operate within an enlarged Council, the panel proposed, in both the models, an expansion to twenty four member state: a number they thought would balance out effectiveness with representation. The difference between these models is mostly, in my understanding, a very superficial one that has its basis on small technicalities: permanent vs. semi-permanent members (longer period of representation). I argue so because in both the models the quantitative representation of the various regions in the world was quite the same, but most importantly, in both the models, the veto power remained only with the P-5 - it did not matter if the new member states were permanent or not, they would not hold veto powers.

Leaving aside all the technical criticisms that all proposals will always be subjected to, the important factors remains this constant struggle by non-permanent members to change the Council in some way or the other. A struggle that will probably be always the anti-thesis of any thesis that the Council may achieve in different periods of its history. But the essential question remains, can the Security Council be really changed?

The Why, the What and the Can

The “why” of reforms is a rhetorical argument suggesting that an increase in representation will reflect a more realistic power relation of the world and thereby lead to more intelligent (for the greater common good) decisions for the world community. The “what” are usually different expressions of the interpretations of the “why”, and each “what” is always subject to heavy criticism, for it never is inclusive or functional/effective enough. Both the “why” and the “what” are interesting intellectual exercises, but can the Security Council be reformed (yet again)?

Since San Francisco, the Charter of the United Nations has been amended only three times (UN Charter History) and this fact shows how, “in practice, substantive and substantial reform[s] have repeatedly proved virtually impossible” (Weiss, 2003, p.147). The UN founders, according to Weiss (ibid, p.148) deliberately divided the rights and roles of the members when establishing a universal General Assembly and a restricted Security Council, where the prerequisite for action was the unanimity of the great powers; an arrangement conceived to contrast the failures the Council of the League of Nations.

Article 108 of the UN Charter provides each permanent member the trump card to overrule any effort to weaken its formal power, and Article 109 explains how the procedure for any amendment of the Charter requires the positive vote from each permanent member. To veto the abolishing of “your own” veto is quite a difficult procedure, for it implies the willingness of the P-5 to give-up or share their power; an obstacle that has proven impossible to overcome.

The “Can” of Reforms: Legality vs Political Reality

There are many arguments that see expansion as linked more with equality rather than practicality (Weiss, 2009, p.149). In the recent years, however, the hypocrisy of the Western policies in the face of their proclaimed ideology has led to a decrease in the “moral” and “political” stance of these states in the opinion and foreign policies of the developing countries and the United Nations can slowly move on this dangerous. Article 2 of UN Charter declares the “principle of sovereign equality among its member states” and if this is not shown in practice, the very practicality of function might be at jeopardy, for the existence of the UN relies on willingness of the non-permanent five to participate and recognize.

Legally speaking it is impossible to change the Security Council without the consent of the P-5, and why should they give up their powers? Why should the USA participate in an institution whose purpose is to limit its powers (ibid, p.155)?

This questions reminds me of monarchies in Europe in the Medieval time. Why should a King give up monarchy for democracy? Why should it give away its powers? I agree, there is no reason except the intelligent understanding of looking at the socio-political reality. Just like how no person could have thought of a society without monarchy in the Medieval times, no one can think today of a Security Council without the P-5 and their veto powers. But just how monarchs forgot to understand that the power was given by the people, the P-5 are forgetting their their veto is given by the member states, and the stubbornness not listen to their views, combined with the non-acceptance of the multi-polar economic and political reality, will only lead to a fading out of their veto powers in a long run and maybe of the UN itself.

I believe in the United Nations and as such I believe in the expansion of the Security Council. An expansion that must balance functionality with representation and I disagree with the arguments that see expansion as jeopardizing effectiveness, for an intelligent expansion does not imply slowness of the process but does imply a more intelligent outcome. At the same time, I also believe in the importance of the veto power, for sometimes the majority might not consider the importance of a minority group and may take decisions that are in fact not beneficial to the world community. The veto however, should not be held by one country but it should be reached when 4-5 countries together go against a decision. The veto should be the power of a group that unite together and not the free-will of one country. In maintaining the veto power, as a group power, I would not see permanence as an element of equality among states. Just how a democratic society function today as an elected oligarchy, the Security Council members should be elected by the general assembly on periodical basis. The election process will by its very nature represent the economic and political reality of the historical moment. If the USA is an important player in the world, there is very little chance that it will not be elected at the Security Council. While advocating an elective system, I would also see the necessity to preserve two seats (through elections) for small countries, so that the voices of the minority can be advocated through them.


Hobbes conceived of the social contract theory because he believed that it is the people that give power to the state to govern them. In the same way, I believe, it is the member states that give power to the P-5 to veto. The exploitation of this power will only lead to the fading out of the “political UN contract”. I believe in and see the importance of the United Nations and would like to see it become a more important player in world affairs, but its very survival depends on the intelligence of the P-5 to delegate and share their power and really practice the ideology of the equality of all sovereign states.

The above proposal is just one among many, but the elements of group veto and democratic election, in my opinion, are fundamental elements for functionality, effectiveness and credibility.


? Blum Yehuda Z., Proposals for UN Security Council Reform, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 632-649

? Britannica Encyclopedia, United Nations Security Council, URL = <>

? Luck, Edward C, Principal Organs, The Oxford Handbook on The United Nations, (2007). Pages: 653-674.

? UN Charter, Charter of the United Nations, Art. 51, 1945, URL = <>

? UN Charter History, Procedural History, URL = <>

? Weiss Thomas, The Illusion of UN Security Council Reform,The Washington Quarterly 26 (4), (2003), pp. 147-161.

Fausto Aarya De Santis is an MA candiadate at the University for Peace.