Special Reports





Peter Crisell


The constitution, membership and decision-making structures of organisations like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, reflect the global power relationships of a bygone age and do not take into account the rapid changes that have occurred since. One effect of this is arguably the over-representation of the old European colonial states – whose power and influence is in decline – with corresponding under-representation of the emerging countries of Asia and elsewhere. In the case of the UNSC, which we discuss here, the membership is based on ten member states elected by the General Assembly for a two year term and five permanent members (each having a veto) who all happened to be the winners in the world war that finished sixty six years ago. This restricting of permanent membership (including veto powers) excludes: Germany, Europe’s largest country and leading economy; and Japan, the world’s second or third most successful world economy, depending on the data one chooses. For this representation (imposed by the victors of a war fought long before most of the world’s citizens alive today were born) to continue, is now absurd in the face of the great global changes that have subsequently taken place. Additionally India, forecast to soon become the world’s most populous nation as well as a leading world economy, is not a permanent member, nor are any African or Latin American countries.

Contrast this with the more recently formed G20 whose membership is more inclusive and representative of today’s world. This is undeniably the case, so does it not make sense for dinosaurs like the aged UN Security Council to reconstitute its membership along the lines of more contemporary and dynamic bodies like the G20? Indeed should not the G20 nations subsume the UNSC and become the worlds (the UN’s) “Executive Committee” dealing as now with all the problems of Security in its different modes, but to include the problems of economics and international finance which led to the creation first of G8 and then G20?

Fortunately in this context, all five present permanent members are also G20 members, so this is not a question of exclusion but of a more logical inclusion. The question of veto powers we consider later on.

We will examine the argument in detail:
The many challenges facing humankind in the twenty-first century are well documented. Terrorism, ethnic conflicts, infectious diseases, climate change, energy security, food and water scarcity and international migration flows are examples. These are what Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, calls ‘problems without passports’. We are living in a ‘globalised’ world where regional economies, societies, and cultures have become more integrated through communication, transport and trade. Rapid globalisation now means that certain threats, formerly regarded as local, can no longer be contained and pose a threat to global stability and security. Climate change and resource issues are examples of the global interconnectedness that demands international co-operation and a system of global governance.

The economic interdependence brought about by globalisation has been taken to a new level by the rise of the fast-growing economies of China, India and Brazil. These new powers on the world stage remind us that we live in an increasingly multipolar world. The expanding economies of these countries enable them to extend their power and influence beyond their own borders. But this trend is not confined to the giant states. Developing countries generally are gaining more international clout and even non-state organisations and groups continue to be empowered by the new communication technologies. The difficulties of establishing and sustaining systems of global governance are made even greater by these contemporary developments. A further drag on progress - and it’s in the nature of democracy, is that politicians everywhere are more concerned with the demands of their own domestic politics, than wider international issues. Only rarely do they see advantage in promoting the policies of international compromise and co-operation.

Governments are not the only participants in international policy making. As S. Forman and D. Segaar point out: “In addition to the multiplication of countries seeking a voice in international forums, transnational movements of civil society, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multinational corporations, and even wealthy individuals are influencing the ways in which international public policy is made and implemented. Through advocacy, lobbying, and direct service provision (and now global terrorism), these nonstate actors are changing perceptions and behaviour in fields as diverse as international health, environmental management, peace and security, human rights, and trade”.


Existing global governance institutions that were developed after World War Two have a mixed record on the collective management of international problems. As the number and complexity of international issues continue to grow, there are concerns that these institutions are unable to cope with the contemporary, globalised world.

It is undoubtedly true that the UN Security Council has a long historical pedigree. The UN Charter was approved by 50 nations in 1946 and the General Assembly, which represents all member states, was set up. The Security Council was established as a smaller executive body or managing cabinet, charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council consisted of five permanent members, the victors of World War Two: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and the Republic of China. The Republic of China, based in Taiwan, was later replaced by the mainland People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation in 1991 became the successor state to the Soviet Union.

Alongside the permanent members, the UN Charter provides for the election by the General Assembly of ten other non-permanent members for two year terms, with five members replaced annually. The aim is to achieve a regional balance, with five Asian or African members, two Latin American members, one east European, and two members from Western Europe or other regions. Nations compete for vacant seats of what is seen as an élite club. Membership also gives them the opportunity to air their own national concerns at the highest level. www.un.org

The Security Council may investigate any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute. All decisions of the Security Council require the affirmative vote of nine of the 15 members but each of the five permanent members individually hold the power of veto over any such decision. The council can decide what measures are necessary where there are threats to peace, or breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression. It can recommend or take action including the use of armed force to maintain or restore international peace and security. As a result, the UN in 1950 took armed action in the Korean War and authorized the use of armed force by coalition forces in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. The veto was used less frequently after the Cold War ended and this has helped the Council to become a more effective decision-maker. However, US political scientist John J. Mearsheimer claims that "since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, that’s more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members”. (The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”. J. Mearsheimer and S.M. Walt. Macmillan 2008).

The use of the veto from any of the permanent members may thus cripple any possible UN diplomatic or armed response to a crisis. It is self-evidently undemocratic, yet in the atmosphere of the Cold War perhaps member states could justify its use. But in today’s and tomorrow’s world, the community of nations should be mature enough to do without it, and client nations protected by other means.

The Security Council historically has always sought to prevent armed conflict in the first place, but when a dispute does flare up, its first aim is to seek a diplomatic solution. If a conflict persists, the Security Council may work towards a ceasefire and deploy peacekeepers. It can order UN nations to impose sanctions and, as a last resort, it may authorise military action against an aggressor.

We are proposing that the G20 together with its remit, should become a UN organization with its existing national membership, taking over the role of the existing UNSC, with veto powers discontinued.

To do this the UN Charter would have to be changed. This needs adoption and ratification by two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly, and that includes all of the permanent members of the UNSC.

Obviously any piecemeal changes to UNSC permanent membership would lead to aspiring members being opposed by neighbours and rivals. Pakistan objects to India’s permanent membership because it could affect “regional stability” (although India was recently elected unopposed to non-permanent membership). Argentina and other Spanish-speaking Latin American countries might just conceivably object to Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country, representing them on the Security Council. Germany might only obtain a permanent seat if France or Britain surrendered theirs. Neither shows signs of obliging. In any case, the EU would be seen as over-represented if Germany became an additional permanent member of the existing UNSC. It is doubtful whether China would support Japan with whom it has an uncertain and ambivalent relationship. African membership would be a bone of contention. South Africa’s candidature, for example, would be opposed by Nigeria or Egypt who might themselves wish to be members.

The five existing permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are all nuclear powers and are criticized by outsiders as concerned only with their own strategic interests. An example given is their defence of oil-rich Kuwait in 1991 against the Iraqi invasion in contrast to the lack of protection afforded to resource-poor Rwanda in 1994. Any expansion of permanent membership would therefore have to include non-nuclear powers, if such a reform were to have legitimacy. Another concern is that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all numbered amongst the top ten largest arms exporting countries in the world. There has also been much criticism of the practice whereby the permanent members meet privately and then present their resolutions to the full council.

It might be held that if UN Security Council reform were to increase the number of permanent members, better representation might render it too cumbersome and unwieldy to operate effectively. But the enormously important G20 obviously copes with that level of membership, indeed recently in supervening the work of the smaller membership G8.

The legitimacy gained by reform may be seen as outweighing the disadvantages.
The pressure on the UN Security Council for reform comes not only from governments but, as already remarked, it is also precipitated by the existence of other players in the field of peace and security. Where, for example, the Security Council has been unable to agree to mount a peace-keeping operation, ‘coalitions of the willing’ have intervened. The most notable example of countries acting outside UN auspices were those which supported militarily or verbally the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was also made without Security Council authorization.

Outside the UN Security Council, there are diverse initiatives for dealing with global peace and security. Some involve multiple agencies. For example, the UN's Counter-Terrorism Committee has protocols for reporting on state efforts to disrupt and dislodge terrorist activities through national laws and actions. Meanwhile, the G8 is trying to curb the financing of terrorist operations through its Financial Action Task Force. Other initiatives are ad hoc and inter-governmental such as the British, French, and German initiative in Iran and the six-party talks in North Korea which underpin the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, the proliferation of these various initiatives also renders the international architecture for global governance increasingly complex and unrepresentative. It also raises questions of legitimacy, accountability, and sustainability as well as the ultimate effect these collaborations have on the operations of formally constituted multilateral organizations.

The inadequacies of the traditional global governance institutions prepared the ground for the formation of the G20 (the Group of Twenty), finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 economies - 19 countries plus the European Union. They first met in 2008 and their meetings are sometimes attended by heads of state. Collectively, the G20 economies consist of two thirds of the world’s population, 85% of global gross national product and 80% of world trade. The G20 studies, reviews, and promotes discussion (among key industrial and emerging market countries) of policy issues pertaining to the promotion of international financial stability, and seeks to address issues that go beyond the responsibilities of any one organization. As from this year summits of heads will be held annually. However, the group has no permanent secretariat or staff.

With the G20 growing in stature since the 2008 Washington summit, convened to find solutions to the world economic crisis, its leaders later announced that the G20 would replace the G8 as the main economic council of wealthy nations. The G20, by contrast, is inclusive and provides a voice for countries hitherto excluded by the traditional organisations of global governance. If the older organizations were no more than quaint relics of a bygone era, there would not be much of a problem. But, they too have an essential role to play in global governance that is weakened by their lack of representativeness. They continue to provide too great a voice to Europe, which is diminishing in economic clout relative to the rising power of Asia and Latin America. By leaving significant voices out, the legitimacy of international organizations is impaired and compliance with their decisions is reduced.

There is no ideal solution to the representation problem. As President Obama said at the G20 Pittsburgh summit in 2009: "There is no doubt that we have to update and refresh and renew the international institutions that were set up in a different time and place. What I've noticed is everybody wants the smallest possible group, the smallest possible organization, that includes them. So, if they're the 21st largest nation in the world, they want the G-21, and think it's highly unfair if they have been cut out."

President Obama’s assertion of support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council was made during the week of the G20 summit in November 2010. His choice of forum served to highlight the difference between the G20 and the other leading international bodies. In effect, it was to challenge the old organisations to come into line with the G20. After all, the G20 dealt effectively with the international economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 because it involved the largest economies and regional powers. In that respect, it reflected the evolving power dynamics of the contemporary world.

Although we may regard the G20 as providing a better template for global governance, we should not forget that the G20 has no legal authority and can only make decisions by consensus. The possibility of deadlock is always there where members disagree, as other international organisations have experienced over the years. That anomaly would be resolved if G20 became merged with the UNSC as a UN body. But the G20 is still well placed to press change on the slower-moving institutions. For example, its members agreed in October 2010 that the voting rights of the IMF should be changed to give a greater voice to the emerging economic powers.

An organisation representative of global economic power may still be criticized if its members are guilty of human rights abuses. The G20 and its members have a worse record on human rights than countries outside the organization. Such was the accusation leveled by Amnesty International in its 2010 annual report on human rights abuse. According to the report, 42% of the G20 countries have political prisoners, while for other countries the figure is 30%. Acting Secretary General, Claudio Cordone, said that such a situation was inadmissible for the states staking a "claim to global leadership". He said that seven states of the G20 had not signed up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the legal body under which crimes can be prosecuted anywhere in the world. Cordone added that the U.S., China, Russia, India, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia had not confirmed their willingness to participate in the international judiciary and had "deliberately undermined international justice efforts."

Yet the challenges that the G20 corporately confront, lie in the area of world finance and economics. The UNSC faces global insecurities. In answer to Amnesty International one could equally argue for example (which we do not), that any of the hundred least democratic nations on earth (WORLD AUDIT DEMOCRACY TABLE) should be disqualified from the existing UNSC, which would remove Russia (136th) and China (120th) from permanent membership of that body! How useful would that be for world governance?

The roles of different international institutions like the UN Security Council, World Bank and IMF can only be improved by reform, but each has a vital and distinctive function. For example, the UN Security Council alone has the capacity and the legitimacy to deploy peacekeeping troops to difficult areas of the world.

The proposition here is that the G20, with its authority on financial and economic matters, should combine with the five strong UNSC permanent membership, who have had that role and experience of conflicts for more than half a century, providing a much more representative group of the world’s most important nations, to make a substantially better ‘Executive Committee’ for the UN itself.