Though the UN Security Council can appear defunct, it remains a crucial feature in the architecture of international governance. It is in British, and global, interests to reform it. But if Britain wants to transform its rhetoric on this issue into reality then it must take steps to expedite the process.
US Presidential confidante Daisy Suckley recalls that Franklin Roosevelt was in bed when it hit him. Next morning, as soon as he had finished breakfast, he climbed into his chair to be wheeled to Winston Churchill’s room. He knocked on the door. Hearing no answer, he went in and called for his guest. Churchill had just appeared, nude, in the bathroom door, when the President exploded: “The United Nations!”. “Good!”, the Prime Minister replied.
The UN was born in a Washington bedroom as the name for a wartime alliance. Yet in the face of newer, non-conventional threats such as cybercrime, terrorism, climate change, and now COVID-19, its executive body can appear deadlocked, even defunct.
Of course, the UN Security Council is not the only organisation confronting these challenges. NGOs and regulators worldwide are also working to tackle them, as are private corporations. But allowing our response to the 21st century’s most pressing problems to be outsourced to external actors is perilous.
NGOs are able to energise the public and policymakers on particular issues, but are often unable to take the kind of open, holistic approach that governing bodies are built for. Unelected advisors and businesses suffer from a similar paucity of democratic accountability.
For all their flaws, bodies like the Security Council remain a crucial feature in the architecture of international governance. It is in global interests that they are reformed rather than rejected.
It is also in British interests. By expanding the Council to redress its regional imbalances – there are 54 African UN member states but none are permanent members – the UK can help relocate important debates to a chamber where it enjoys disproportionate influence. Britain is a veto-wielding permanent member with a strong diplomatic reputation, and ‘penholder’ on 11 of the 41 issues regularly considered by the Council, meaning it leads negotiations and resolution writing on them. Leading Council expansion could also help signal that Whitehall is serious when it claims that the UK will be “more active in shaping the international order of the future”, as the Integrated Review reads.
The Government appears to recognise these arguments. Britain has been committed to securing permanent seats for a G4 of Japan, Brazil, India, and Germany as well as permanent African representation since 2008. It is also in favour of a moderate expansion in the number of non-permanent members, taking total membership to around 25.
This looks like bad tactics. Indeed it entails the dilution of Britain’s power in an important international body. Yet it is good long-term strategy, challenging efforts by the UK’s systemic rivals to claim that they are the sole supporters of developing nations.
Still, good strategy suffers without implementation. As the German Permanent Representative to the UN argued in a 2020 debate, citing one of Grimm’s fairy tales, if the UK wants to “kiss sleeping beauty” it must find the courage to “cut through the rose bushes” and act.
Cutting through the rose bushes might cause some scratches. Two-thirds of the General Assembly would have to approve any reform proposal, and Britain’s is opposed by G7 allies Italy and Canada.
Yet change has been achieved before – in 1963, when the number of non-permanent members was increased from six to 10 – and there are some steps the UK can take to expedite the process.
First, the UK should seek appointment by the President of the General Assembly as Chair of the next round of Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council reform.
Second, and preferably from that position, the UK should push for consultations on the basis of a single text. This text could be developed from the ‘commonality’ and ‘convergence’ documents produced over past years as well as an updated version of 2015’s Framework, which provided attributed positions on particular reform ‘clusters’. It could then be amended and rolled over into successive sessions, with the aim of drawing it steadily closer to a formal resolution.
This will likely be divisive. There is no consensus on moving to text-based negotiations, and building the text itself will require member states to pick sides as they give public opinions. Yet members have moved pressing issues to text without prior consensus before – on COVID-19 for example – and this could preclude another restatement of views, moving parties immediately into negotiations and, hopefully, compromise.
Britain can make its commitment to Security Council reform more than rhetoric. But it has to act.
Dylan Rogers is a Fellow at UN Watch. He writes in a personal capacity.