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Securing Permanent Seat in UNSC
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Once again the much talked about reforms in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is in news ever since on 14 September 2015 the member nations agreed by consensus in a meeting that over the next year, they will negotiate the wording of a document seeking reforms in the United Nations Security Council. India considers it a significant achievement more so because this materialized despite US, Russia and China not participating in the exercise in an apparent bid to spoil the move for the expansion of the Security Council.

Needless to mention that India along with certain other influential nations due to common interests have been pressing for the stated reforms for long though without much success. The current draft resolution calls for next year's UN agenda to discuss the "Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council." Once the draft is agreed on, it will be put to vote at the General Assembly, where a two-third vote would be needed to clear it.

UN Charter

According to the Charter, the United Nations has following chief purposes:

  •  to maintain international peace and security;
  •  to develop friendly relations among nations;
  •  to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights;
  •  and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations.

The United Nations charter provides for six main organs of the United Nations, that include the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice and UN Secretariat, all established in 1945. Of these, the most important one is the Security Council which has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, and it meets whenever peace is threatened.

All members of the United Nations are obliged to accept and implement the decisions of the Security Council. While other organs of the United Nations can make only recommendations to member states, the Security Council has the power to take decisions as also action to ensure the member nations implement it under the UN Charter.

Organization and Role of UNSC

After it came in existence post World War II, the Security Council had held its first session on 17 January 1946 at Westminster, London. Thereafter, its permanent seat was made at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. After World War II, the victor nations USA, UK, France, USSR now Russia and China had emerged as the most influential nations and were given (or had assumed) permanent membership of the Security Council as undisputed and obvious choice. Around that time, USA was the only nuclear power but gradually the remaining four nations too joined the elite nuclear club. During the last seven decades, many changes have taken place impacting the world map politically, economically and militarily. This has not only changed the erstwhile power equation but new players too have emerged impacting the world economy and military balance staking their claims for a permanent seat in Security Council and elsewhere.

As per the Charter, the UNSC has primary responsibility of the maintenance of international peace and security. Whenever any major event involving peace and security of nations or group takes place, the initiative is taken by the Security Council suo motu or on a call given by any member nation in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It advises the parties concerned to settle the issue by peaceful means besides recommending methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. Also there are instances, when the Security Council has also resorted to imposing sanctions or authorizing the use of force in the aegis of United Nations through a resolution to maintain or restore normalcy, peace and security.

Security Council resolutions are normally enforced through UN peace keeping forces voluntarily provided by the member nations and funded independently of the main UN budget. Currently, over a hundred thousand soldiers and other personnel are deployed on over a dozen missions around the world. So often the issue of the Security Council's effectiveness have been raised by more vocal members seeking reforms in its structural change but the response so far has been lukewarm with no consensus mainly due to reluctance of permanent members to cede any ground to others and also due to certain opposing regional interest groups.

The Security Council also recommends to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary-General, the admission of new Members to the United Nations and the judges of the International Court of Justice.

Permanent and Non-Permanent Members

The Security Council is comprised of 15 Members; of which five members namely China, France, Russia, UK and USA are permanent since its inception and the remaining ten non-permanent members are elected for two-year term at a time by the General Assembly. Incidentally, these permanent members of the Security Council are also the ones maintaining the most powerful armed forces, exporters of arms and nuclear-weapon states as well. Then they have veto power which enables them to stall or prevent the adoption of any draft resolution irrespective of the level of international support. The veto is said to have been exercised when any permanent member casts a negative vote against a draft resolution in the Council.

The current ten non-permanent members are Angola, Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain and Venezuela. Any country which is a Member of the United Nations but not of the Security Council can participate in its discussions when the Security Council considers an issue involving its interests but will have no voting right. The presidency of the Council is held by each of the members in turn for one month, following the English alphabetical order of the Member country names.

Maintaining Peace and Security

In discharging its chief function of maintaining peace and security among the member nations, whenever an issue posing threat to peace in some place is raised, the Security Council explores various alternatives including recommending that the conflicting parties try to forge an agreement by peaceful means. The Council endeavors to enunciate principles for such an agreement, undertakes investigation and mediation if the situation permits, dispatches a mission or appoints special envoys and, where necessary, engages the Secretary General to use his offices for a peaceful settlement of the dispute.

In situations where the dispute escalates leading to hostilities, the Council endeavors to end hostilities by issuing ceasefire directives and in certain situations even dispatches military observers or a peacekeeping force to reduce tension between hostile groups. The peacekeeping force usually acts as buffer between warring parties to establish calm giving opportunity to explore peaceful settlement.

In extraordinary situations, the Council adopts enforcement even opting for coercive measures like recommending economic sanctions and penalties, arms embargo and travel restrictions against the warring nations or parties. Then in exceptional situations, the Council may even resort to recommending severance of diplomatic relations, blockade or even joint military action.

Growing Population and Changing World Order

As per the United States Census Bureau estimates, the world population crossed 7 billion mark in March 2012 while as per estimate by the United Nations Population Fund this milestone was achieved in October 2011. Currently, this estimate is put at approximately 7.3 billion as in July 2015. As against this, the population of India was estimated to be around 1.28 billion in July 2015, billing it as the second most populous country in the world, China topping the list with over 1.37 billion people. Thus numerically, India represents about 17.5% of the world's population, meaning thereby that one out of every six people on this planet live in India. Apart from this, India has emerged as a giant nation economically and militarily with nuclear status too in the recent years. While slowing down of world economy had major impact on countries like USA, Western Europe and China but India has largely remained unaffected during the period in its development and growth on major economic parameters.

Over the years, Japan and Germany have become the second and third largest fund contributors to the UN and stake their claim for a permanent seat since the early nineties. India is the largest democracy, second largest in population with fast emerging nation in terms of economy and military might. Similarly, Brazil is fifth largest country in terms of geographical area and has emerged as a major economy and influential regional power in Latin America. In fact, India and Brazil have emerged as the most favourite and powerful nations within their regional groups to stake claim for a permanent seat. Of late, these four countries have formed a formal interest group known as the G4 to push reforms in the Security Council since 2005.

Almost concurrently, many African countries too formed a pressure group demanding two permanent seats quoting historical injustice with them and the fact that the Council’s agenda most of the time is focused on the issues of this continent. So it is not surprising that India, along with countries like Japan, Germany and Brazil, has made out a strong case for a permanent seat and is among more vocal and proactive countries seeking early UNSC reforms.

Initiatives for Reform of the UNSC

Demands of the countries seeking reforms comprises five major points that includes categories of membership, regional representation, size of an enlarged Council and working methods, relationship vice General Assembly and the veto power exercised by the permanent members. On all these issues, the member nations, regional groups of nations and other interest groups have different positions and proposals to move forward for much talked about reforms. The constitutional position in this regard is that for any reform in the Security Council at least two-thirds of UN member states would be required to vote in including all the five permanent members of the UNSC currently enjoying the veto right.

When the United Nations was established with headquarters at New York City on 24 October 1945 immediately after the World War II mainly in order to rule out another such war, it was joined by 51 founding member nations that included India even before independence. The organization was to be funded by voluntary contributions from its member countries with its objectives remaining the maintenance of international peace and security, fostering socio-economic development, promoting human rights, protecting the environment besides humanitarian aid in the event of famine, natural disaster, armed conflict etc. In later years, more and more countries had joined the Organization with current UN membership reaching to the level of 193 nations. With the overall change in world political and socio-economic order and membership, the need for reform in the structure and composition of the Security Council has been increasingly felt. During the last seven decades, the only reform experienced was in 1965 when the number of non-permanent members was increased from six to ten.

The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in March 2005 called on the UN to reach a consensus on expanding the council to 24 members. He had proposed two plans as alternative formulation for implementation. Plan ‘A’ had a provision of six new permanent members and three new non-permanent members in addition to the existing five permanent and ten non-permanent members in the council while Plan ‘B’ catered for the creation of eight seats for a new class of members with a term of four years and one non-permanent seat in addition to the existing membership. The proposal, however, could not progress due to reluctance of permanent members and stiff division among the regional groups.

The Group G4 is not without opposition from their regional rivals. For instance, China, a traditional rival of Japan, would traditionally oppose permanent membership for the latter besides having reservations against India. Pakistan is hell bent to oppose India’s cause in any UN forum including the Security Council. Italy is a natural opponent of Germany and Mexico traditionally opposes Brazil. In response to G4, Italy, Pakistan, Mexico and Ezypt had constituted a separate interest group known as Coffee Club, which latter expanded to a Group called ‘Uniting for Consensus’ with joining of many more countries. African countries too have formed a pressure group demanding for two permanent seats in any expansion of the Security Council for reason given in earlier paragraphs.

Besides, the existing permanent members, each with the right of veto on any Security Council reform, represent a rather ambiguous picture in so far as their any known position on such reform. The United States is understood to be in favour of India and Japan as permanent members with a few additional non-permanent members but they are not proactive in moving or leading any agenda for this reform. The position of United Kingdom and France is fairly transparent in so far as supporting the G4 nations for the permanent membership is concerned, with the expansion of non-permanent members as well to ensure the presence by African countries on the Council. Russia, a traditional and longtime tried and trusted friend and ally, has in the past raise voice in support of India’s permanent status but with latter’s gradual opening towards United States and Western European countries in trade, economic relations and armament supply has made it a doubtful nation. China, on face, appears to be supporting the stronger representation of developing countries, with uncertain flip-flop so far as India is concerned, with India emerging as a potential rival in the regional as well as global context.

Draft Resolution for Expansion of Council

For the first time perhaps in the history of United Nations, the majority member countries of the have agreed in a meeting on 14 September 2015 to negotiate the wording of a document that will call for reforming the Security Council over the next year. There was no voting on the decision to continue text-based UNSC reforms in the 70th session of the General Assembly and it was adopted by consensus. Ironically, US, Russia and China have stayed away from this exercise, a rather bad omen of their apparent reluctance to favour the proposed reform and expansion of the Security Council. However, India has treated this as a major diplomatic success particularly in view that different countries have submitted their written suggestions for the first time on the text of resolution. India is on record terming it as "historic" and "path-breaking" the adoption of the document, saying the decision puts the Inter-Governmental Process formally on an "irreversible text-based negotiations path" and changes the "dynamics" of the negotiations on achieving UNSC reforms.

The draft resolution calls for next year's UN agenda to discuss the "Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council." Once the draft is agreed on, it will be put to vote at the General Assembly, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to clear it. One of the proposed reforms is to allow more permanent members in the Council wherein, needless to mention, G4 nations have a strong case. While the position of five permanent members with veto power is by and large same as explained above but a far greater opposition is likely to come from the ‘Uniting for Consensus Group’. As already elaborated, this group is largely comprised of the regional rivals and economic competitors of G4 nations such as Pakistan against India, Italy and Spain against Germany, South Korea opposing Japan and Mexico, Colombia and Argentina grouping against Brazil.

The past track record of the G4 nations in the Security Council as non-permanent members has been fairly good. For instance, Japan and Brazil have been elected nine times each to the Council for the two-year term, India has been elected seven terms and Germany on three occasions in the past. Incidentally, the G4 nations along with five permanent members account for nine of the ten largest economies in the world GDP wise and fall under eight of the ten largest defense budget in the world.

Recent Maneuvers

In the context of reforms in the Security Council, the recent remarks of the UN Secretary General are of topical importance:

“The U.N. Security Council reform, being debated since two decades is too long overdue and the necessary expansion must be made considering how much the world has changed.”

Some political observers feel recent meeting of Indian Prime Minister’s with the leaders of Japan, Germany and Brazil and Japan on 26 September 2015 as a very significant move by G4 nations that they are really serious and committed to pushing the Security Council reform this time. The meeting of the Prime ministers of India and Japan, German Chancellor and Brazilian President, first of this kind since ten years of the formation of this Group, was in the wake of the UN decision to continue discussions on reform to further develop on a text that was adopted by consensus earlier same month. As such text of the recent UN resolution is considered a significant step for initiating reforms and Indian side considers it a diplomatic success by taking initiative to bring top leaders of G4 nations in a joint forum to seek reform.

Consequent to this diplomatic initiative, a joint declaration by the G-4 stressed that “the process underway in the UN… should be conducted, given its urgency, in a fixed time frame” and called for “securing concrete outcome during the 70th session of the General Assembly”.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September 2015, the Indian Prime Minister Modi made a strong case for the Security Council reforms to sustain greater credibility and legitimacy. Needless to mention this was in consonance with India’s motive to secure a permanent seat in any expanded Security Council. Heads of the other members of G4 nations too made a strong case in their speeches in UN Assembly for the reform in Security Council with permanent status to their country, besides discreetly lobbying with various regional groups and entities.

Notwithstanding these maneuvers and hectic diplomacy, the prospects of the G4 nations leading the agenda for the UNSC reform with limelight do not appear strong. The text-based negotiations are likely to go on for a long time despite the call for a deadline. China and Russia may play the role of spoilers of the game though it may be difficult to completely ignore the majority opinion in the event UN ultimately votes for reforms with two-third majority. But on date, one cannot say with certainty what shape the final document will take. Moreover, when it lands at the table of the UNSC, despite favourable overtures and feelers from time to time how one or more permanent members with veto power will conduct in reality.

Where do G4 Nations stand?

It may be interesting to analyze what the relevance of the G4 today after a tumultuous start in 2005 when the Group was formally formed. India and Japan have emerged as the most notable and vocal states for a reformed Council and perhaps the strongest candidates too to find a place in any expanded Council. Incidentally, they are also the countries with a formal support of the USA and, at the same time, the ones which might find it tough to mobilize support of China.

After the World War II, today Germany is the most significant European power with a greater clout to mobilize global support than it was when G4 was formed. But in the event of the majority nations pressing for a proportional representation, it might be difficult to mobilize support for Germany to accommodate three permanent members from Europe, with UK and France already on board. For the argument sake, many may admit that Germany is worthier of a permanent seat than UK or France but it would be practically impossible to dislodge a permanent member to accommodate a new incumbent.

Brazil is currently experiencing a political and economic turmoil with a sovereign low rating, corruption scandals including an impeachment motion against the president. These developments with stiff opposition from the regional opponents like Mexico and Argentina might make Brazil’s going tough for a permanent seat. This leaves India and Japan as the strongest possible countries in the event of the expansion of the Security Council.

India’s Pros and Cons

Despite open opposition from Pakistan and possibly some other countries, India is likely to receive support from a majority of nations world over for a permanent seat in the event of expansion of the Security Council. The main challenge, if any, may be posed by the permanent member nations of the Security Council. The US may not support all the G4 nations, though India is likely to be on its favoured list. The policies of UK and France are fairly transparent and they have indicated their stand on earlier occasions. Hence India may not find it difficult to mobilize their support for its permanent membership in the expanded Council. With globalization and changing world order, Russia may be weary and concerned about India’s growing relation with West but it is not likely that it will ever openly oppose its traditional ally and friend though it might attempt to thwart the entire process as such to maintain status quo.

This leaves China alone as a doubtful entity. As it appears, China has given feelers to India on more than one occasion in the past that the latter should not make common cause or ally with Japan if it desires to secure Chinese mandate. The kind of strategic alliances Chinese hold with India's neighbours in the region, boundary disputes historically existing with bitter past due to Chinese territorial ambitions and now with its growing rivalry in the global context too with India gradually emerging as a major economic and military power, India should not expect any unconditional support from China, irrespective of the fact whether or not it makes a common cause with Japan for securing a permanent seat in the Security Council. Hence any political or diplomatic compromise on this issue would be futile and not wise for India to dilute its association with G4 nations in general or Japan in particular irrespective of ultimate outcome.

A far more important point to look for is as to how long a few permanent members with the veto power, for their vested interests, can continue to ignore aspirations of other emerging major nations by stalling their entry in the big league to deny them opportunity to contribute for the security and peace in the futuristic world order. In any case, despite internal complexities and inherent contradictions, in another decade or two, India would be economically and militarily so strong that it would be nigh impossible for the world community to ignore its opinion in the matters of security and peace in global theatre.

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