United Nations Security Council: Prospects for Reform

In this essay, the author examines the current composition of the UN Security Council and discusses prospects for reform.


By Anna Rabin, 18 Jan, 2012

Established as one of the principle organs of the United Nations (UN), the Security Council bears the ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.’[i] The Council’s mandate, outlined further in Article 24 of the Charter, coupled with its ability to make legally binding decisions, makes the Security Council arguably the most powerful organ of the UN. The Council has retained its importance in international relations and is arguably of increased importance as a result of heightened international co-operation in the post-Cold War era.[ii] The lack of reform since its creation, has however led to doubts over the Council’s legitimacy and effectiveness in contemporary politics. One observer even referred to its lack of reform as ‘one of the most successful failures in the history of the United Nations.’[iii] The most commonly debated areas for reform revolve around the veto power, the size of the Council and in the event of an enlargement, the powers and selection of new members.

Currently, the Security Council is comprised of five permanent members, referred to as the P-5,[iv] and ten non-permanent members, each elected for a two-year term. In addition to having a permanent seat on the Council, Article 27 of the UN Charter grants the P-5 a veto power. Reform of the Council requires support from two-thirds of the General Assembly and all of the P-5. Whilst reform is not impossible, as seen by the successful 1965 reform that enlarged the Council from eleven to fifteen members, consensus on necessary reform is hard to achieve.

With a seat of the Council seen as ‘a proxy for global influence on peace and security issues’[v] competition for the ten non-permanent seats is high. The size of the Council is therefore a key concern for member states. With the Italian delegation pointing out that 77 countries have never had a seat on the Council and 47 have sat just once,[vi] questions over the Council’s size have been raised. This disparity is due to the fact that, having increased in size just once since its formation, the size of the council is no longer proportionate to the size of the General Assembly. At its formation, the number of member states compared to seats at the Council was 11 to 51, representing a ratio of 1 to 4.6. In spite of the increase in the number of seats on the Council from eleven to fifteen, the dramatic increase in the General Assembly, largely as a result of decolonisation and the break up of the Soviet Union, has seen this ratio increase, reaching 1to 12.[vii]

The significant increase in the number of States in the General Assembly indicates that enlarging the Council is a necessary reform. Enlarging the Council, however, must not hinder efficiency.[viii] The majority of proposals for an increased Council have therefore varied between the low to high twenties. Proposals such as ‘In Larger Freedom’[ix] [x] and ‘Uniting for Consensus’[xi] [xii] for example, recommended an increase to 24 and 25 seats respectively, aiming to enhance ‘both the legitimacy and the efficiency of the Council.’[xiii]

Whilst referred to as ‘the apex body of the United Nations’[xiv] the Council’s current composition is no longer representative of the values of the General Assembly. Formed in the aftermath of World War II, the Council’s composition has not adapted to reflect contemporary political realities, notably decolonisation. The stagnant nature of the Council in turn undermines its legitimacy as according to Hurd, social institutions derive their power from their perceived legitimacy. This means that a reformed Council ‘will find compliance with its rules more easily secured, than in the absence of legitimacy.’[xv] Unlike the large consensus that surrounds calls for the increased size of the Council, plans such as ‘In Larger Freedom’ that call for an increase in permanent members have led to fierce debate. Vocal calls for inclusion as permanent members of an increased Council have largely come from the G4 countries[xvi] and developing countries.

The G4 members states, in particular Japan and Germany, the second and third largest financial contributors to the Council respectively, argue their case for permanent membership on the grounds of Article 23 (1) of the Charter. The Article states that selection to the Council must take into account the country’s commitment to the ‘maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization’ and ‘geographical distribution’.[xvii] This argument is supported by advocates of the functionalist perspective such as Schwartzberg, in what he refers to as the ‘entitlement quotient’ for entry into the Council.[xviii] Under a functionalist framework, such as Schwartzberg’s, Japan for example would be a more favourable candidate than Nigeria. Whilst Japan contributes more to the UN, this approach does not take into account the fact that Japan has a 4.91 trillion dollar economy and that an Asian country is already a member of the P-5. Nigeria on the other hand is Africa’s most populous country and although home to the most UN members, no African country has a permanent seat at the Council. Whilst taking a more literal approach to Article 23 (1), a purely functionalist perspective places too much emphasis on the financial capabilities and neglects geographic distribution.

The financial requirement of the functionalist perspective also gives preference to developed countries, therefore ensuring the continued underrepresentation of the developing world. It is important to note that the majority of population growth is occurring in the developing world with predictions that in fifty years, the populations of India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia and Nigeria will exceed four billion.[xix] Representation by region would minimize this disparity and give increased geo-political legitimacy to the Council by rewarding both contribution and ensuring regional representation.

The existence of the veto power is possibly the most contentious feature of the Council. Whilst arguably an inevitable reaction to the failure of the League of Nations, the P-5 no longer represents the great powers in international relations. The two-tiered structure of the Council reinforces the notion that ‘some states are more equal than others’[xx] resulting in entrenched institutional elitism within the UN. Whilst ‘a splendidly egalitarian idea’[xxi] to abolish the veto, with the P-5 eager to ‘cling fiercely to their veto privileges’[xxii] and reform requiring unanimous P-5 support, debate surrounding the abolishment or expansion of the veto is largely redundant.

Whilst reforming the veto is unlikely, enlarging and altering the composition of the Council would significantly increase its legitimacy and ensure it remains of contemporary relevance. Although a country’s contribution to the Council is important, the exponential growth of the developing world indicates that regional representation in an enlarged Council is imperative to ensure legitimacy.



[i] David M. Malone, ‘Security Council’, in Thomas G. Weiss and Sam Daws (eds), The Oxford Handbook on The United Nations, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.117.

[ii] ibid., p.131

[iii] Terraviva Europe, ‘United Nations: Security Council Reform Remains Deadlocked’,  (accessed on 30 March 2010), 6 August, 2009, p.1.

[iv] The P-5 members of the UN Security Council are the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France.

[v] David M. Malone, The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations, 2007, p.132.

[vi] W. Andy Knight, ‘The future of the UN Security Council’, in Andrew Cooper et al., (eds), Enhancing Global Governance: Towards a new diplomacy, Tokyo, UNU Press, 2002, pp.24-25.

[vii] M. J. Peterson, ‘General Assembly’, in Thomas G. Weiss and Sam Daws (eds), The Oxford Handbook on The United Nations, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.106.

[viii] Global Policy Forum, ‘Pros and Cons of Security Council Reform’,  (accessed on 24 March 2010), 19 January, 2010, p.1.

[ix] In Larger Freedom offers two different plans. Plan A would create six additional permanent members and three non-permanent members. Plan B would create eight new members, each of which would hold a four-year renewable seat, and one non-permanent seat.

[x] In Larger Freedom, ‘V. Strengthening the United Nations’,  (accessed on 30 March 2010), p.1.

[xi] Uniting for Consensus would increase the number of non-permanent seats on the Council to 20.

[xii] Press Release GA/10371, ‘United for Consensus’ Group of States Introduces Text on Security Council Reform to General Assembly’,  (accessed on 30 March 2010), 26 July, 2005, p.1.

[xiii] Global Policy Forum, ‘Pros and Cons of Security Council Reform’, (accessed on 24 March 2010), 19 January, 2010, p.1.

[xiv] W. Andy Knight, Enhancing Global Governance: Towards a new diplomacy, 2002, p.19.

[xv] ibid., p.24

[xvi] The G4 countries are Germany, Japan, Brazil and India.

[xvii] Global Policy Forum, ‘Pros and Cons of Security Council Reform’,  (accessed on 24 March 2010), 19 January, 2010, p.1.

[xviii] W. Andy Knight, Enhancing Global Governance: Towards a new diplomacy, 2002, p.27.

[xix] W. Andy Knight, Enhancing Global Governance: Towards a new diplomacy, 2002, p.26.

[xx] Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, London, Penguin Books, 2006, p.52.

[xxi] Paul Kennedy and Bruce Russett, ‘Reforming the United Nations’, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 5, Oct. 1995, pp.56-71.

[xxii] Terraviva Europe, ‘United Nations: Security Council Reform Remains Deadlocked’,  (accessed on 30 March 2010), 6 August, 2009, p.1.




One thought on “United Nations Security Council: Prospects for Reform

  1. Pingback: Expansion of UNSC: an imperative – John Malcolm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s