The UN Security Council between Rifts and Reform
The UN Security Council between Rifts and Reform
An official looks at the empty chair of leaders ahead of their participation in an open debate of the United Nations Security Council in New York on September 20, 2017. Stephane LEMOUTON / POOL / AFP
Commentary / Multilateral Diplomacy 13 minutes

The UN Security Council between Rifts and Reform

Talk of reforming the UN Security Council is gaining currency, due in part to Russia’s war in Ukraine. But the obstacles are many. A more modest vision of what the body should be and what it can achieve is probably best for now.

Prior to the pandemic, the ambassadors of the fifteen UN Security Council member states took time to reflect on the state of the world every summer, heading out to an estate on Long Island for discussions with the Secretary-General. The conclave was, as Crisis Group noted in advance of the last one to occur before COVID-19’s onset in 2019, a chance “to discuss ways to ease relations” after bruising diplomatic exchanges. While the coronavirus put a brief halt to the annual tradition, health concerns no longer constrain diplomats. But in 2023, politics rather than the pandemic presents the main obstacle to the retreat. As of yet, no Council member has opted to convene the meeting, presumably because each worries that the discussions would degenerate into rows over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

If discussions on reform falter, the [UNSC] could wind up looking more antiquated than ever.

It is unfortunate that the ambassadors have not gathered, because they have at least three major issues to reflect upon. Inevitably, one is how the Council will function against the backdrop of the prolonged war between Russia and Ukraine, which casts a long shadow over Russia’s dealings with its Western counterparts in New York. A second, less widely reported challenge – a push by African states to curtail the Council’s oversight of peace and security questions on the continent – is also creating friction in New York. Thirdly, in part because of frustration with Russia, which has been blocking Council action on Ukraine, there is mounting talk among the UN membership about the need to reform the body to reflect the changing global power balance. Every permanent member of the Council acknowledges the need for reform, albeit some with more enthusiasm than others. But the obstacles to overhauling the body’s make-up are sizeable. If discussions on reform falter, the Council could wind up looking more antiquated than ever.

Combined, these challenges threaten to place new curbs on the Security Council’s often tenuous position as a centre of decision-making about international peace and security. The range of crises in which the Council has the unity and leverage to play a significant role in preventing or resolving conflict is shrinking. Nonetheless, the Council’s members – and especially the five powers with permanent seats – can still use the body as a platform for managing a number of serious crises, when their interests converge and each member is ready to make compromises.

Adapting to the Ukraine War

Even prior to Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Crisis Group warned that it was necessary to accept the reality of a “limited Security Council”, following stark divisions among the body’s members over if and how to act on crises including the Tigray war in Ethiopia, which broke out in late 2020, and the 2021 coup in Myanmar. In cases such as these, the Council was largely reduced to releasing statements of concern, often after protracted negotiations, and encouraging other institutions, such as regional organisations, to engage diplomatically. While Council members kept up work on existing files – such as peacekeeping in Africa and humanitarian aid to Syria – the body increasingly struggled to agree on how to respond to emerging crises.

From this unpromising starting point, the Council’s capacity to function following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has proven better than once seemed likely. Many diplomats and UN observers (including at Crisis Group) fretted that disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine would spill over into discussions on other topics, paralysing the Council. But as Crisis Group noted in an annual briefing on the state of the UN in September 2022, the Council has not been completely mired in dissension. Council members did engage in toxic, repetitive debates about Ukraine, but at the same time they managed to keep passing resolutions on other issues. Council members even displayed an increased ability to innovate in some cases, passing resolutions on files such as engaging with the Taliban in Kabul, sanctioning gangs in Haiti and authorising humanitarian exemptions to UN sanctions regimes.

No one should think that a spirit of collegiality reigns at the UN. Diplomats say getting these deals has often been exhausting, and debates on longstanding points of contention with Russia, such as the Women, Peace and Security agenda, have become distinctly more spiteful over the last sixteen months (Russia and China, for example, killed off a Council statement prepared by Norway criticising the Afghan Taliban for barring girls from secondary education, arguing that it focused too narrowly on gender). Nonetheless, the Council has not ground to a halt.

Most UNSC members are keen to keep separating Ukraine from other issues in 2023.

Most Council members are keen to keep separating Ukraine from other issues in 2023. Japan, which took over the rotating presidency in January, suggested that the Council hold no meeting on Ukraine that month (though the U.S. and Russia eventually insisted on discussing the war). Some of the old habits of Council diplomacy, disrupted by Russia’s aggression, are returning. The ambassadors of the five permanent members, having suspended regular meetings in the first months of the full-scale war, are now again getting together to discuss Council affairs, albeit fitfully. While the Council has continued to hold intermittent, tendentious debates about Ukraine – and Russia has annoyed other members by inviting a series of conspiracy theorists and dyed-in-the-wool critics of the U.S., such as Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, to brief the body – overall the war has taken up less energy than it did in 2022.

While some diplomats frame this state of affairs as “normalisation” of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the conflict is by no means forgotten in New York. The United Kingdom is convening a ministerial debate on Ukraine in July. Russia has insisted that the Council track European investigations of the September 2022 NordStream gas pipeline explosion. Events on the battlefield – such as a breakthrough by Ukraine during its counteroffensive or an incident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – could put the Council’s spotlight yet more intently on the war.

There is also no guarantee that tensions between Russia and the West will not bleed more into other Council business. A pointer in this direction may have appeared in June, when Russia seems to have tacitly supported (or, by some accounts, encouraged) Mali to demand that the Council withdraw UN peacekeepers from its territory, undercutting efforts by France to keep the blue helmets in the country. This decision, which France and other Council members concluded they had to acquiesce to, would seem to play in Russia’s favour, as Moscow has established close diplomatic ties with Bamako and blessed the deployment of Wagner private military contractors in Mali. China and the Council’s African members have expressed concern about these dangers. But at least in the short term, Russia has scored a symbolic win over France.

Although it is not clear that the Mali episode marks a turning point – Russian diplomats have taken pains to express support for other peacekeeping missions – it shows how easily tensions over Ukraine could affect other Council affairs. At a minimum, Russia (like the Council's other permanent members) retains the ability to cause disruption at the UN, as it further demonstrated on 11 July when it vetoed a resolution extending the mandate for aid agencies to deliver supplies to non-government-controlled north-western Syria for nine months. This mandate, which allows humanitarian workers to operate with permission from Damascus in the densely populated Idlib region, is a recurrent source of friction in the Council. Russia used its veto to kill off previous resolutions extending the aid scheme in 2020 and 2022, but each time it compromised on bargains to keep the mandate alive. It may do so again and agree to a shorter extension, having stated that it is open to a six-month renewal (aid workers say this brief timeframe complicates their planning). Nonetheless, Moscow’s blocking tactics are another reminder of how fragile the diplomatic modus vivendi in the Security Council has become. 

Africa Seizes the Day

While keeping a wary eye on Russia, Western Council members are also concerned about tensions with the body’s three African members (Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique, or the A3) over how to respond to events on their continent. While Ukraine and crises in other regions have sucked up a growing amount of the Council’s time in recent years, conflicts in Africa remain its most common focus. In 2022, the Council held 208 formal meetings in total, and 86 of these addressed African issues. Generations of African Council members have complained that the European former colonial powers dominate these discussions. But as Crisis Group first noted in 2019, recent A3 members have invested in coordinating their positions and liaising with the African Union Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa, insisting that they – or African regional bodies – should shape debates about the continent’s affairs.

 Already notable in Council deliberations about the Tigray war, this shift rose to prominence in UN debates over Sudan’s sudden descent into war in April. While all Council members expressed shock at the upsurge of fighting in Khartoum, and duly released a brief call for calm in mid-April, the A3 members opposed the Council taking any more immediate action. If their reluctance came partly in response to an aggressive lobbying campaign by the Sudanese mission to the UN, it was also grounded in the principle that African mediators should have time to find a solution before the Council waded any further into the crisis. While China and Russia supported the A3’s position – and the Council had few obvious tools at its disposal for influencing the warring parties in Sudan – diplomats say the A3’s position ensured that the Council said nothing about the worsening violence or attempts to secure a ceasefire through late April and May.

This example of A3 assertiveness at the Council, while more dramatic than others, is not unique. Gabon and Ghana, now both in the second years of their Council terms, have been especially critical of UN sanctions regimes on countries such as the Central African Republic and Somalia, arguing that these embargoes weaken the governments and do not foster stability. The A3 members also refused to back a resolution extending the UN arms embargo on South Sudan on 30 May. The resolution passed nonetheless, but its credibility was dented. In June, the A3 successfully lobbied other Council members to drop a requirement that the armed forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should notify UN sanctions experts when importing weapons or receiving military assistance from abroad.

The U.S. has put its weight behind an African push to table a resolution establishing a new system for the UN to fund African-led peace operations.

Western Council members note that they still have common interests with the A3. The U.S. has put its weight behind an African push to table a resolution establishing a new system for the UN to fund African-led peace operations. This idea is not new, and successive A3 members have tried to forge consensus around such an arrangement. But whereas the Trump administration opposed the idea, Council members say the Biden administration’s UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is personally interceding to help Ghana, which is leading the charge on the issue, secure a resolution before it leaves the Council in December. Although diplomats still need to negotiate the sensitive technical details of this arrangement, Council members appear more optimistic about reaching an agreement than at any time since the issue was first broached in 2007.

While a new funding arrangement might address some of the A3’s concerns, it is unlikely to resolve all of their reservations about the distribution of power and decision-making in the Council. African officials are likely to continue to demand greater autonomy to deal with security issues in their own region. They are hardly alone. Many South East Asian nations were sceptical of both the Security Council and the General Assembly intervening in Myanmar after the 2021 coup there. European governments have been wary of involving the UN in their affairs since the Balkans disasters in the 1990s. France and Germany resisted proposals by Poland that the UN appoint an envoy for Ukraine in 2018-2019, preferring to handle relations with Moscow themselves. In a period in which the permanent members are profoundly divided, and Western powers focused on Ukraine, there are more opportunities for states and organisations from other regions to push back against the Security Council. 

Squabbling over Seats

These challenges to the Council’s reach and influence raise the broader question of institutional reform. If the Council as it is currently constituted is losing sway, it is tempting to look for ways to restructure it so as to restore its credibility. Russia’s use of its veto to fend off criticism of its actions in Ukraine sparked widespread talk in 2022 of the need for Council reform, including to bring in new permanent members. U.S. President Joe Biden stirred up further excitement among diplomats by calling for reform in his speech to the General Assembly that September. Ambassadors are suddenly paying more attention to the long-running and usually soporific annual Inter-Governmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform, while Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has taken soundings from other UN members.

All the major players in the Council say they want reform, but their visions of what it might look like are not easily compatible. The U.S. has argued that Germany, Japan and India should have permanent seats in the body, albeit without vetoes, and hinted that Brazil should also attain this status. The UK and France broadly concur. Russia agrees that Brazil and India should get permanent seats, but it leaves Germany and Japan aside, in the hope of tilting the Council against Western interests. China speaks more vaguely of better representation for the developing world. All agree that Africa should gain a stronger voice in the Council, but exactly what that means remains unclear, in part because the African group calls for two permanent seats but cannot say which countries would fill them. A significant bloc of middle powers outside the Council, such as Italy, Mexico and South Korea, are resolutely opposed to the creation of any new permanent seats.

It will be hard, and most likely impossible, to hit upon a path of [UNSC] reform that a critical mass of UN members can back.

It will be hard, and most likely impossible, to hit upon a path of Council reform that a critical mass of UN members can back, much less one that can get through all the technical wickets set up by the UN Charter. Reconstituting the Council requires amending the Charter, which requires the backing and ratification of two thirds of the UN’s members and all of the five current permanent members. Even if the Biden administration were to cut through the many objections to Council reform, it would still need to find a formula that Beijing, Moscow and a highly polarised U.S. Senate could approve. In sum, it is a long shot. 

There is also a risk that by talking up the need for Council reform, the U.S. and its allies will highlight the flaws in the body’s make-up without being able to fix them. Some diplomats in New York have already given up on the topic, arguing that there is more to be gained by making improvements to other multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

 Preserving a Vital Function

There is no shortage of ideas about how to work around a troubled Security Council. A significant number of UN members would like to see the General Assembly play a greater role in peace and security issues to compensate for the Council’s difficulties, as it did at times during the Cold War. It is not clear that the 193-member Assembly is either unified or fast-moving enough to do more than make broad statements of principle on emerging crises, as it has done with respect to Ukraine. Still, UN members would be well advised to at least research and discuss what the General Assembly can and cannot do in crisis situations, as an insurance policy against future Council dysfunction. Many UN members would like to see the Peacebuilding Commission – an advisory body that works collaboratively with states at risk of conflict or recovering from it – gain more powers to funnel economic and political support to vulnerable countries. Activist diplomats in Geneva argue that the Human Rights Council could take a greater role in crisis prevention. Such ideas are likely to pile up as the Security Council appears to struggle with crisis management.

[The UNSC] remains the only UN body with the power to enact legally binding resolutions and to order coercive measures.

While such ideas are worth exploring, the Security Council – even absent major reforms – is likely to retain residual value in a period of international turbulence. It remains the only UN body with the power to enact legally binding resolutions and to order coercive measures. Moreover, despite recent tensions over Mali, Sudan and Syria, the Council has served tolerably well as a space for the U.S., France and Britain to carve out compromises on a limited number of issues with Russia and China. It is possible that this task will become harder as Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, but it could also be that the Council’s function as a rare channel for communication may give it greater cachet while other diplomatic conduits decline in usefulness.

Taking this perspective means adopting a pragmatic view of what the Council can achieve. The number of crises and conflicts where the Council can play a leading part may diminish over time, whether because of major-power tensions or because regional groups of states sideline it. But rather than asking why the Council cannot resolve the full slate of conflicts worldwide, it may be best to accept that its primary use is as a platform for the major powers to handle those crises – perhaps a small minority – where their interests coincide and where other organisations or coalitions are unwilling or unable to step up. Such a vision for the Security Council’s future may be narrow, but it would preserve the Council as a venue for major-power cooperation. If and when Security Council ambassadors relaunch their summer retreats with the Secretary-General, the question of how the Council can still perform this limited but vital function will likely top their agenda.

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