Follow Us:

Sans reforms, the UN brand suffers

Chapter VII of the Charter set out a clear logical progression or escalation in a possible Council response varying from Article 40 to the final stage along the line of escalation with the use of force, the basis for which is provided in Article 42. However, the envisaged process of response of the Council was done away for sheer practicality


The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the premium forum in international politics. Through its decisions, mandated operations and enforcement actions, the UNSC directly influences the present and future state of international peace and security. Under the UN Charter, the UNSC is designated as the custodian of International Peace and Security. The founders envisaged that “Five Policeman” in the post-war era should be enabled to act as the net-provider of security, while the members of international community would be the consumers of security.

Chapter VII of the Charter set out a clear logical progression or escalation in a possible Council response varying from Article 40 to the final stage along the line of escalation with the use of force, the basis for which is provided in Article 42. However, the envisaged process of response of the Council was done away for sheer practicality. And since the end of the Cold War, the previously under-utilized Council became hyperactive – dealing with multiple situations across four continents.

The world has changed beyond recognition since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. But the United Nations refuses to reform or more aptly the permanent five members of the Security Council China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States always argue for the retention of their veto, thus blocking any major reforms.

However UN Reform does not start and end with expansion of Security Council membership and the addition of new categories of membership or additional permanent members with or without veto power. It should be remembered that every member-state of the UN signed on to the Charter has tacitly accepted the inequality embedded in the design of the Security Council. The world was presented with a stark choice at San Francisco in 1945 between “an organisation with great power privilege” and “no organisation at all”. Thus, 75 years later, the abolition of the veto still remains a flight of fantasy.

Since the end of the Cold War, these reform debates, contorted by politics, have circled endlessly without any prospect of conclusion. With the creation of the Openended Working Group, the debate became formalized and plans for reforms subsequently proliferated. In general terms, reform is aimed at improving performance. Perhaps the most recited argument for an expanded UNSC is that the Council does not reflect contemporary power realities and should therefore be reformed to reflect the so-called new realities of the 21st century.

The old adage “Whether elephants make love or war, the grass gets trampled” is an expression that applies to the concern held by many smaller countries. Their fear is that even if six new permanent seats are created; they will be cut out of decisionmaking. Moreover, power in international politics is not a constant. The rise and fall of emperors throughout history is testament to this fact. The once powerful are no longer powerful and once weak are now strong. A Reformed Council will not represent the end of history. In 20-30 years, new emerging countries such as Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea and Turkey will ask the question: Why are we not in the Council?

In this context, an alternative proposal made by the SecretaryGeneral in 2005, although unattractive to the membership is considered to be more effective – a fouryear renewable membership, as the wider membership of the UN has the opportunity to assess each elected Council member’s performance.

Let us be clear that we do not live in an ideal world. Let us also understand the reality that the Council cannot be expected to be impartial, apolitical and democratic. This is not to say these expectations are not good or worthy, but they are based on an idea of the Council that does not exist in reality. During the 1990s, the Council began to intervene in a particularly traumatic and complex series of internal conflicts.

Over the past 75 years the Council has proven to be remarkably innovative, but at the same time also made significant blunders failing to learn from its past mistakes. In Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia, the Council adopted responses that were later proved to be wholly inadequate. But it remains the goto forum in a time of crisis and is likely to remain so well into the future. These abject failures have damaged the creditability of the Council and tarnished the UN brand. At the heart of criticism is the notion that UNSC has failed to act swiftly and effectively and occasionally failed to act at all to contain international crisis of which Syria is an example. These criticisms are valid. The UNSC is hyperactive, reactive, selective and imperfect.

Since the late 1990s, there have been many calls for reforms of the United Nations. However there is little clarity or consensus about what reforms might mean in practice. The range of opinion extends from these who want to eliminate the UN entirely, to those who want to make it a full-fledged World Government.

The United Nations marks 75 years of its existence in 2020. This landmark year is the most opportune one for undertaking decisive action on Security Council reforms. The case for reform is overwhelming. Nobody should think that designing a new UN would be easy. But the alternative is a declining UN in a messy interconnected world. An increasingly unrepresentative, anachronistic Security Council speaks with diminishing authority. It is able to debate the issues that matter only because important actors are missing. A better Security Council would be able to get more done. Alas! the consensus ends there.

A need for reforms suggests that there is something wrong with the UN which needs correction and fixing. It is fair to say that UN does a lot of things which are right. One can be proud of peace-keeping operations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time there are moments of powerlessness when the UN is dysfunctional, crippled and cannot resolve situations. People have increasingly begun to question its effectiveness in fulfilling its duties. The perception is that UN is ineffective at peace-keeping. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously called the UN, “the only fire brigade in the World that has to acquire a fire engine after the fire has started.”

Let us make the 21st Century less violent and the UN should be equipped with necessary tools by reforming it. There is a need to mobilize international civil society and global public opinion to carry forward a vision for a just and fairer world. Its strength is evident from the fact that when the United Nations passes a Resolution, it is seen as speaking for humanity, thus giving it unique legitimacy. The 192 member states should embark on a reform agenda for the Security Council which will make the UN an accountable, transparent and democratic decision-making body, an organization fit for facing challenges and threats of 21st Century successfully.

I would like to quote Ambassador Krishnan Srinivasan, former Foreign Secretary of India, who as a co-panelist with me at a symposium on “UN Needs Restructuring” held on 25 June 2010 at Kolkata made following striking and interesting observations: “In India, whether the UN needs Restructuring or Reform is always a loaded question. In India, any discussion on UN reforms and restructuring however turns exclusively on one question only and that is of expanding the UN Security Council to include India as a permanent member because of its population, its democracy, contribution to UN Peace keeping etc. I was the Indian Foreign Secretary in 1994 when India for the first time formally proposed its inclusion as a permanent member. …We in India see our case as self-evident but I frankly think when it comes it will come when our stature as an essential country, whose voice is required, is respected and is recognized by everyone.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has forthrightly and even in harsh words, which can hardly be faulted, expressed India’s frustration. Addressing a special session marking 75 years of the UN, he called for reform of its outdated structure pointing out that in the absence of comprehensive changes, the world body faces a “crisis of confidence”. India has been at the forefront of demanding reform of the UN, particularly of its principal organ, the Security Council for decades, staking its claim as one of the world’s largest economies with a track record in promoting a rule–based international order. However any structural reform can be realized only if the UNSC’s five permanent member recognize the deep peril the UN faces and support the reform process, an act that will require looking beyond their own interests for the greater good of the world and its peace building architecture.

The writer is the Vice President of the Indian Federation of United Nations Associations, New Delhi and Ex-Chairman, MAKAIAS, an autonomous body under Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India.