It goes without saying that the membership of an international organization charged with upholding peace and security (the UN Security Council) should fairly reflect the nations on whose behalf it purports to act. Likewise we should expect that a forum for the world’s major industrialized democracies (the G8) should be so constituted that these democracies are fully represented. Otherwise the legitimacy of such organizations will always be called into question. Despite this, the claim is often made that both organisations fail to meet these criteria. To consider whether such an allegation is valid, we will examine the purposes for which these organizations came into existence, and then consider whether their present membership allows such purposes to be achieved.
Historically, the United Nations owes its existence to the alliance between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union (now Russia) during World War Two. The allies called for the establishment of a world body that would settle international conflicts and prevent war. In 1945, 50 nations gathered in San Francisco and approved the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter embodied the deepest hopes of all mankind for a lasting peace. In addition to the General Assembly, 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 victorious powers of World War 2: 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.
In addition to the permanent members, the UN Charter provides for the election by the General Assembly of ten other members for two year terms beginning on January 1st, with five replaced annually. The elected members are chosen by regional groups and their membership is confirmed by the General Assembly. Three members are chosen by the African states. Latin America and the Caribbean chose two members, as do Western Europe and Other, Asian and other regional blocs. (The Western Europe and Others bloc includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, temporarily, Israel, whose membership of the Asian group was blocked by some Arab states). The Eastern European countries choose one member. One member is an Arab country, chosen alternately from the Asian or African bloc. In 2008, the elected members are: Belgium, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Panama, South Africa and Vietnam.
The Security Council may investigate any dispute or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute. More broadly, it can decide what measures are necessary where there are threats to peace, or breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression. In such circumstances the Security Council can recommend action 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. All decisions of the Security Council require the affirmative vote of nine of the 15 members but the five permanent members hold the power of veto over any such decision. The veto does not extend to procedural matters.
The call for reform
Because of the UN Security Council’s power and influence in the international arena, its democratic credentials have been much criticized. Whereas the General Assembly represents all nation states, Security Council membership reflects a world that has long disappeared. The permanent members, World War Two allies, still remain in place and are regarded by some as a self-serving, anachronistic oligarchy.
“The Security Council reflects the global power structure of 1945, when most of today's nations were still under colonial rule. In 1965, under pressure from a growing membership, the UN added four new elected members to the Council, bringing its total membership to 15. But the five principal World War II allies clung to their privileged status. They remain "permanent" and have the power to veto any Council decision. This arrangement makes the Council both undemocratic and ineffective. The veto-wielding permanent members (P-5) prevent many issues from reaching the Council's agenda and they often selfishly bar widely-agreed and much-needed initiatives. Despite the ten elected members, the Security Council remains geographically unbalanced and seriously unrepresentative”.
The need for more equitable representation and for an enlarged membership of the Council have not succeeded through want of trying. The UN General Assembly discussed these matters in 1979, 1993 and again in 2007. There is wide agreement that the Security Council should be reformed and enlarged but there is sharp disagreement on detail.
There is no agreement on whether there should be an increase in the number of permanent or elected members or both, or by how many. During a plenary meeting of the General Assembly, the current president, Srgjan Kerim, in 15 June 2007, supported the view that the Security Council should be more representative, more efficient and more transparent in order to strengthen the legitimacy of its decisions. Few would disagree with that. The risk, however, is that an enlarged, more democratic Security Council might become more cumbersome and ineffective. A quick and decisive response to an international crisis would be expected but not delivered.
Amid the clamour for reform, the claims of the so-called G4 group stand out. In 2004 at the UN General Assembly, Germany, Japan, Brazil and India launched a bid for permanent seats on the Security Council. Their declaration was "based on the firmly shared recognition that they are legitimate candidates for permanent membership in an expanded Security Council and for that reason they support each other's candidature." They also stated: "The Security Council must reflect the realities of the international community in the 21st century", reasserting the widely shared view that the broadening of representation on the 15-nation council would strengthen the moral authority of decisions taken by the group.
Although the G4 have been excluded from permanent membership, they have all been regularly chosen as elected members by the regional groups to which they belong. If the Security Council is to continue to be composed of both permanent and elected members, the economic and political importance of these countries makes their case for permanent membership overwhelming. Germany is the world’s third largest economy and the third largest contributor to the UN’s budget. Japan has the second largest economy in the world and is the second largest contributor to the UN budget. Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, with the biggest population and land area, is a major contributor to the UN regular budget, and is rapidly becoming a major economic power. Furthermore, the Latin American continent has no permanent Security Council representative at all. India is a nuclear power and is the world’s largest liberal democracy with the second largest population in the world. It has the world’s fourth largest economy in purchasing power and is the second fastest developing economy in the contemporary world. Furthermore, all G4 states have contributed considerably to UN-mandated peacekeeping missions.
If the case for G4 permanent membership is so compelling, why is there opposition and from where does it come? Those whose right to permanent membership is questionable certainly show no signs of surrendering their seats. However, they do support expansion. For example, Britain, France and Russia all support G4 permanent membership. Opposition to individual G4 states membership will often be the result of regional rivalries. For example, Italy and the Netherlands favour an additional EU seat alongside France and Britain rather than a permanent seat for Germany. Argentina and Mexico, important countries in Latin America are suspicious of their powerful neighbour, and oppose Brazilian membership for the extra power and influence a permanent seat would confer. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan opposes India’s membership but China has veered from opposition to support for India, as relations between them have improved economic ties between the two countries have strengthened. But historical enmities have caused China, along with North and South Korea, to oppose permanent membership for Japan.
There are some who argue that Security Council reform goes far beyond the issue of membership (see
www.globalpolicy.org) but the visible anomalies of the current membership arrangements perhaps push the issue into undue prominence.
The UN Security Council is not the only international body whose democratic credentials are called into question. The spotlight often turns on the exclusive club known as the G8.
The G8: what is it for?
The global recession which followed the 1973 oil crisis led to the idea of a forum for the world’s major industrialized countries. In 1975 the French government invited the heads of government of the United States, West Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Japan to a summit. The six leaders agreed that they would meet every year under a rotating presidency. This Group of Six (G6) was joined by Canada in 1976 and G6 became G7. Since 1977, the president of the European Commission has also been represented at summits. Following the end of the cold war and the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia, the successor state, began to attend meetings with the G7 and in 1997 became a member. The countries of the G8 represent about 65% of the gross world product and a considerable proportion of the world’s military power and active nuclear weapons. Although Russia is a member of what is now called the G8, the G7 Finance Ministers meet four times a year to develop common approaches on international economic and financial policy issues. Over the years the agenda has broadened to include microeconomic issues such as employment and e-commerce. The foreign ministers issue statements and reports on such matters as terrorism, nuclear safety and non-proliferation, human rights, arms control and regional security.
The G7 and G8 meetings are intended to be informal, and so there is no permanent secretariat or budget. The host government for the year provides the necessary facilities. However, these summits are high profile occasions that create a media and security hullabaloo wherever they are held. Unsurprisingly, G8 gatherings attract lobbying by advocacy groups as well as street demonstrations by activists.
G8: what is wrong with it?
Like the UN Security Council, the G8 has been subject to considerable criticism. One area of concern is its legitimacy as an institution. Its informal origins mean it has no constitution to guarantee openness of its activities or procedures. Indeed, its style does not conform with democratic practice and it behaves more like an exclusive club. Local leaders and non-governmental organizations, who may know about and be affected by the issues discussed at G8 summits, are merely spectators on the sidelines. This then leads to the question: how representative of the world’s population is G8? It is not hard to find anomalies in the composition of its membership. China and India, whose populations exceed those of all the G8 countries, do not seem to have been invited. Meanwhile, Russia belongs, although its democratic credentials are at the most primitive stage and its economy is smaller than the economies of Brazil, India and China.
Over the years concerns have been expressed about the G8’s effectiveness in the international arena. It has been alleged that its macroeconomic agreements have had a detrimental effect on the global economy and that it has failed to make sufficient progress on environmental issues.
Even where there is progress, the commitments it makes, such as the Kyoto Protocol, have no binding effect on member states.
As the G8’s agenda has expanded over the years alongside the growing technological sophistication of media coverage, the summits have become a forum for lobbying, campaigning and protest. This, combined with the fear of terrorist attacks, has compelled the host nation to resort to strict and sometimes excessive security measures. At the 2001 summit in Genoa, for example, Italian paramilitary police shot and killed a protester and others were beaten up.
The UN Security Council and G8: the Future
A more representative membership is only one of the many and varied challenges facing both organizations. At present a threat to both organizations comes from the American right. Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate and academic Robert Kagan are proposing a “league of democracies” be formed from around the world to bypass both UN Security Council and the G8 in responding to humanitarian crises. They perceive that ‘undemocratic’ countries like China and Russia stand in the way of decisive action by these organizations.
They deny any intention to circumvent the UN and G8, claiming that the league would act only in situations where the UN and G8 had failed to do so.
Opponents of the proposal disagree. Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, asserts that the effect of the proposal, whatever its motives, serves only to undermine established international institutions.
The legitimacy conferred by a more representative membership would surely enable the UN and the G8 to defend themselves more robustly against those like the neo-cons who seek to render them irrelevant.
Peter Crisell. BA