Op-Ed: Why the UN Security Council Needs Reform
The composition of the Security Council no longer reflects the real world and threatens its legitimacy. A permanent German seat is possible, even though it requires stamina and an ample dose of calculated optimism.
The plea by the president of the Security Council is more than forthright: “Please tell your capitals that the German UN Ambassador asks whether you can still look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow.” New York, July 11, 2020: Russia and China have once again vetoed a German-Belgian resolution on border crossings for humanitarian aid to Syria. Hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation. With the ambassador’s appeal falling on deaf ears, the Security Council is at a stalemate. Only a last-ditch effort ensures that one of four border crossings is kept open for one year.
Episodes like this show what has become of the Security Council. The committee that many Germans like to call Weltsicherheitsrat (“World Security Council”) no longer reflects the real world. It is in danger of losing more and more of its effectiveness and legitimacy, just like at the height of the Cold War. Germany was a non-permanent member for 24 months until the end of the annus horribilis of 2020—its sixth membership since joining the UN in 1973. It was a challenging time, marked by the foreign policy provocations of the Trump administration, the escalating Chinese-American antagonism, pushback by Russia and China, and, last but certainly not least, the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended numerous diplomatic conventions.
We had a number of achievements, whether in the effort to contain sexual violence in conflict by adopting a resolution that opened the way for perpetrators to be brought to justice, or in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation by salvaging together with our European allies the nuclear agreement with Iran for the post-Trump era. We gave new hope for peace in Libya with the Berlin Conference and our patient perseverance in maintaining sanctions. The same is true for Afghanistan, where we repeatedly provided the UN mission on the ground with a new mandate and accompanied the peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha.
Our candid voice on the Council is missed these days when it comes to a number of files, from humanitarian access to Syria, to the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and the transition process in Sudan. But even if we cannot directly contribute from within the Security Council anymore, we will continue to actively contribute and to look to the future with a sense of optimism. The new US administration is taking a more interested, hands-on approach to the United Nations and has found in Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield a committed and experienced UN insider. The influential US presidency of the Council will take place in March. In addition, the issue of climate change will receive due attention at the top of the agenda in the years to come. The Informal Experts Group on Climate and Security, which was initiated by Germany and is composed of Security Council experts, is an important foundation for the ongoing discussion.
Germany will also continue its outspoken advocacy for human rights around the world, as in the case of grave human rights violations by China in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Together with our partners, Germany is poised to play an important role by bringing attention to international human rights violations, be it inside or outside the Council.
However, one issue that will stand out as a priority of German foreign policy is Security Council reform. Just recently, we announced our candidacy for another non-permanent seat for 2027–28. In addition, we are pursuing the ambitious goal of gaining a permanent seat even before that. We are not doing this purely out of national interest; we want to make the Council more legitimate and assertive as a guarantor of a working multilateral system. Even if the committee is often blocked and appears obsolete to many of its critics, it is still the central switchboard where international crises and conflicts are prevented and reined in. At this juncture, it cannot be replaced by any other entity.
From Global Payer to Global Player
For more than 40 years, very little reform has happened in the UN Security Council. Countries could not even agree on a single text as a basis for negotiations in the past few decades. The Council was last reformed in 1965, when it added four non-permanent members. In the meantime, the number of UN member states has quadrupled from around 50 to almost 200. The former colonies of the United Kingdom and France have been self-reliant and self-confident members of the UN for half a century.
Given this reality, it is baffling that Africa is still not permanently represented on the Council. The countries of this continent make up more than a quarter of UN member states. Various African conflicts are important items on the Council’s agenda. India, which will become the most populous state on Earth in the next 10 years and is already the planet’s biggest democracy, is not a permanent member. Brazil, despite all the setbacks of the last decade and an administration that is not one of multilateralism’s biggest fans, is still the biggest player in South America and yet it is not part of it. Japan, one of the most important UN supporters in the field of humanitarian aid, stabilization, and development cooperation for decades and a convinced multilateralist, is being excluded. And finally: Germany, one of the biggest donors to the entire UN system, an internationally recognized defender of human rights and the rules-based international order, is also not on it.
This must change. Seventy-five years after the founding of the United Nations, we finally must turn from a global payer into a global player. De facto, Germany is that important player already—but that is not reflected in the configuration of the Security Council. However, bringing about any real change here is of course easier said than done. There is one sobering principle in the United Nations: It is much easier to prevent something from happening than to create something new. This holds true especially for Council reform.
An EU Seat?
One may wonder why a European seat, a clear goal of the German government in the last five coalition agreements, is not the most viable option. After all, the EU has been represented in New York with its own delegation to the UN for years. For example, it plays an important role by coordinating resolutions in the UN General Assembly. On the other hand, the EU is not a nation state. The UN Charter therefore does not grant it a vote, even if it has a seat at the table (a so-called “expanded observer status”). To change this, the UN Charter would have to be adapted, but nobody has dared to touch it so far. Perhaps this will be different with the new US administration. However, we should be realistic as domestic recovery seems to be much higher on the US agenda than questions of foreign policy reform.
In addition, our French partners, with whom we chaired the Council in March/April 2019 in joint presidencies, are very critical of the idea of a European seat. Their argument goes like this: a single seat for the European Union would devalue the existing seats of EU member states on the Council (currently France, Estonia, and Ireland, but as many as five states in the recent past), thereby limiting the power of the EU in the Council rather than expanding it. The argument carries weight, but there is more behind it: for France (as well as the other four P5 states), the permanent seat on the Security Council is a question of national interest and international prestige.
That is legitimate, but it locks the obsolete configuration from the Cold War era in place. In the future, France could very well be the only EU member state on the Council due to Brexit. Even if France supports us like no other state in our endeavor for a permanent seat, it refuses a Europeanization of its own seat—this is strictly taboo. Also, EU cooperation in the Council operates under clear limitations again and again. While the African members of the Council or the ASEAN states regularly agree that only one of them will take the floor in the Council for the entire region, this seems to be impossible with EU member states.
For 13 years, the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) group has been the UN committee that discusses Security Council reform—behind closed doors, without any transparency whatsoever, and with the same phrases being repeated year after year. Within the IGN, there are numerous member states that want to slow things down and prevent any reforms from happening. Among the most prominent ones are China and Russia. Even the United States is not enthusiastic about a comprehensive reform expanding the Council (and adding more veto- wielding members).
In addition, a number of global middle powers are putting their foot on the brake. As the Uniting for Consensus group, they have been making life difficult for the G4—the group comprised of Germany, Brazil, Japan, and India calling for new permanent seats—by calling only for more non-permanent seats. Finally, the IGN operates exclusively by consensus, which nips any chance of progress in the bud. Initiatives by the G4 to enable a webcast of IGN proceedings, which would show the outside world what happens in the “black box” of Security Council reform, were shot down in 2020.
Apart from Russian and Chinese critics, Germany’s position enjoys wide international support. This is why we should expand our efforts to sit at the table permanently in New York. To this end, an elusive constellation of factors is needed: a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly with a subsequent ratification by two-thirds of UN member states—including the permanent members of the Security Council. Impossible? Anybody saying this has already given up. As is well known, diplomacy needs stamina and an ample dose of calculated optimism.
An Alliance for Multilateralism
Perhaps the Alliance for Multilateralism, created by Germany and France in April 2019, could instill new life into the debate. The loose coalition of several dozen states has the goal of drawing more attention to the rules-based international order and international cooperation. It pursues a multilateral approach on a number of crucial forward-thinking issues such as climate, health, digitalization, and equal opportunity. It includes many states that have contrary opinions in the Security Council reform debate. When the various camps are in gridlock, a new forum with new rules can sometimes be useful.
Apart from closely tying in the US under its new administration, it is also essential to intensify cooperation with Africa. The 54 African states form a blocking minority on almost anything that is being decided in the General Assembly. This comes close to a Sisyphean task as China, which is against reform, often has the upper hand on the African continent. It is therefore crucial to redouble our reform efforts, especially in order to bring the African continent closer to the Common African Position of having two permanent seats itself. Finally, there needs to be a willingness to maneuver the IGN deliberations out of the dead end they are currently stuck in. The committee has become a fig leaf behind which those who want to prevent all reforms have made themselves cozy.
In 2020, the IGN only met twice. The COVID-19 pandemic was a welcome opportunity to prevent all further meetings. Most of the other UN bodies kept on convening, of course, including the most prominent example: the Security Council. Progress is only possible by escaping from this dilemma and going back to the body where the reform debate belongs: the UN General Assembly. What we need are real, text-based negotiations, as is common practice in diplomacy. Perhaps in a not-too-distant future we may find ourselves saying: we do not even need a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council anymore, since we are now on board permanently. As a next step, we could then push for a common voice for all EU members of the Security Council from a position of strength. However, waiting for another couple of decades is not an option.
Christoph Heusgen has been Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations since 2017. Prior to this, he was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Foreign and Security Advisor for 12 years.
Friedrich Schröder is Political Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations.
Both authors are writing in their personal capacity.