A Narrow Path to Reforming the U.N. Security Council

COMMENTARY Global Politics

A Narrow Path to Reforming the U.N. Security Council

Nov 21, 2022 6 min read
Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Representative of the Russian Federation, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, attends the Security Council meeting on the maintenance of peace and security in Ukraine in New York, U.S.  Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Reforming the United Nations Security Council has returned as a hot topic after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

Altering the council’s size, terms for members, thresholds for approving resolutions or the powers of the permanent members require amending the charter.

There is consensus that the council should be expanded and the relationship between the council and the General Assembly strengthened.

Reforming the United Nations Security Council, an episodic effort that waxed and waned in focus during the post-Cold War era, has returned as a hot topic after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

As a permanent Security Council member, Russia predictably used its veto to block the council from acting to address the crisis. That spurred Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to challenge the body to act or “dissolve yourself altogether.” Dissolution is unlikely, but the paralysis has given new ammunition to those who demand change. 

United States President Joe Biden breathed further life into the effort to enlarge the council when he endorsed the idea in his September 2022 remarks to the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. president said: 

Members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, should consistently uphold and defend the U.N. Charter and … refrain from the use of the veto, except in rare, extraordinary situations, to ensure that the council remains credible and effective. …[T]he United States supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the council. This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa [and] Latin America and the Caribbean. The United States is committed to this vital work.

That was music to the ears of many in developing nations, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that have long demanded greater representation in the council. Unsurprisingly, several countries that aspire to permanent seats on a reformed panel—BrazilGermanyIndiaJapanKenyaMexicoNigeria and South Africa—also expressed support. 

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While concerns about the council run high, the path to reforming it is narrow and tortuous. Challenges abound, making the outcome highly uncertain. 

The Mandate 

The Security Council is the United Nations’ most powerful organ, charged by the U.N. Charter with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. To fulfill this responsibility, the charter grants the council broad authority to intervene to resolve disputes, including initiating investigations and seeking solutions through negotiation, mediation or other peaceful measures. 

The council is empowered to take additional measures to address crises threatening international peace and security. They include applying sanctions and approving the use of force necessary to restore peace. U.N. member states are obligated under its charter to “accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” 

Initially, the council comprised five permanent members of the U.N.: the Republic of China (Taiwan), France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the U.S., and six member states elected by the U.N. General Assembly to a term of two years with “due regard being specially paid, in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution.” 

A supermajority of the council adopts its decisions. All five permanent members have a veto, and any of them can use it to block the body’s decisions and resolutions, even if all remaining members support the measures. 

Because of the council’s power and prestige, many U.N. member states aspire to sit on it and work within their regional groups to amass support for their candidacies. To avoid contentious squabbles, regional groups often agree years in advance on which countries they will put forward for election to the council. 

Amending the Charter

Altering the council’s size, terms for members, thresholds for approving resolutions or the powers of the permanent members require amending the charter. Amendments enter into force when they have a two-thirds vote of support in the U.N. General Assembly and two-thirds of the assembly’s member states—including all permanent members of the Security Council—have ratified them.

With such barriers in place, amendments are rare. The U.N. Charter has been amended only five times since its adoption in 1945, with the most recent changes entering into force in 1973. The amendments most relevant to the focus of this report were those made to Articles 23 and 27, in force since 1965. These amendments increased the Security Council’s size from 11 to 15 members by adding four additional elected members. Also, it increased the threshold for adopting decisions from affirmative votes of seven to nine members, including the concurring votes of the five permanent members. (Both a positive vote and an abstention by a permanent member is regarded as a concurring vote allowing a decision or resolution to be adopted.) 

In the early 1960s, pressure to expand the Security Council arose principally from complaints that the body no longer adequately represented the U.N. membership. The member states’ ranks more than doubled from the original 51 in 1945 to 113 in 1963 when the General Assembly approved resolution A/RES/1991 (XVIII) to amend the charter. 

Nations in Africa and Asia, whose numbers swelled as colonies became independent nations, particularly pressed for additional elected seats. China, then represented by Taiwan, was the only permanent member to support the 1963 resolution. France and the Soviet Union opposed it; the U.K. and the U.S. abstained. But political dynamics and the rising influence of new members ultimately led the permanent members to ratify the proposed amendments.

Repetition of the Past?

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Further expansion of the Security Council has been discussed since the early post-Cold War era. Justifications echoed the arguments made in the 1960s: that U.N. membership has again increased substantially (to 193 member states), that the council does not reflect the current world order, and that the developing world and emerging powers deserve larger representation. 

Several proposals have been floated, most prominently by the so-called G4 (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan support each other’s bids for permanent council seats), the Uniting for Consensus coalition (or UfC; led by Italy, the coalition aims to counter G4 bids) and the African Union. All three factions support a substantial expansion to 25 or 26 total Security Council seats and—UfC takes exception here—adding six new permanent members with veto power. None of these proposals has garnered enough support in the General Assembly to initiate the amendment process. 

Since 2008, the U.N. has annually convened intergovernmental negotiations on “equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council …” As detailed in a recent report by the group cochairs, there is consensus that the council should be expanded and the relationship between the council and the General Assembly strengthened. However, substantial disagreements remain regarding the particulars. 

Considering the complications of finalizing a council expansion proposal that garners support from two-thirds of the member states and all the current permanent council members, the most likely outcome is continuing paralysis..

This piece originally appeared in Geopolitical Intelligence Services Reports Online