Will the UN Security Council ever be reformed?


The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, recently said the key to India becoming a permanent member of the UNSC is “not to touch the veto.” But why would New Delhi and other aspirants accept such a position?

Of all the international institutions created in the aftermath of World War II (WWII), none matches the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in power and global influence. It is regarded by many as the “most powerful international institution in the history of the nation-state system.”      

Having experienced the devastating effects of two world wars, the international community focused its efforts on the containment of inter-state conflicts, and the UNSC was charged to ensure global peace and security. To that end, it has the power to make decisions that other countries are obligated to accept and implement.

A seat at the horseshoe table at the UNSC’s chamber in New York City came to be seen as a marker of a country’s global stature and significance. The chamber is adorned by a giant oil canvas mural, which depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes of WWII. Surrounding the image of the phoenix are scenes of hope for a new world being rebuilt after the war which is bereft of conflict and human suffering.

For critics of the UN, these lofty expectations are seldom met. There is no dearth of troubled spots across the world where the UNSC has struggled to prevent bloodshed or effect positive change, be it Rwanda and Bosnia or, more recently, places like Syria.

It’s not uncommon to blame the UNSC’s failures on its structure and the composition of its membership. Since it came to life in 1946, the council has had the same five permanent members (P5) – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – that enjoy the power of veto. The ten non-permanent members are elected for two-year terms and do not command the same authority and prestige as the permanent ones.


This duality turned the UNSC into a highly distinct and privileged body, conferring a special status to the P5 members. Unrepresentative, obsolete and not reflective of the geopolitical realities of the 21st century are some of the complaints frequently heard about the council’s composition. It is increasingly seen as run by a handful of P5 states, which mostly set its agenda.

No agreement

Many argue that there is no justification for the UNSC to have the UK and France in its permanent membership club but not countries like India, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria and South Africa. Those aspiring to join the privileged clique like India say their continued exclusion negatively affects the legitimacy and effectiveness of the council.

In theory, governments worldwide, including those of the P5, have repeatedly stated that they are in favor of some kind of reform, but efforts in this direction have been stymied by their inability to agree on how the UNSC should be changed.

The lack of agreement is compounded by the disinterest of the current permanent members to entertain any proposal that could erode their coveted special status in the preeminent international institution.

Still, this hasn’t prevented aspirants from reinforcing their efforts to achieve expansion of the UNSC membership. India, Japan, Germany and Brazil have even formed a grouping (G4) to support each other’s bids for permanent seats. They invoke terms like representativeness, accountability and equity to support their candidacies.

But their bids have elicited opposition from their regional rivals – Pakistan opposes India’s candidacy; China and South Korea are against Japan’s bid; a host of European nations do not support Germany becoming a permanent member and Latin American countries like Argentina are not in favor of a seat for Brazil.

Besides sharp divisions over who should become new permanent members, there is also no agreement on how to overhaul the council’s structure, what its aggregate size should be and how much representation each region of the world should be accorded. The most sensitive issue, though, is the question of veto.

No veto?

On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, even went as far as saying that the key to India becoming a permanent member of the UNSC is “not to touch the veto.”

“(This reform of the UN Security Council) is much more about the veto. The permanent five (members of the UNSC) have the ability to veto. Russia, China, UK, US and France and none of them want to give that up. So the key to getting India on the Security Council would have to be not to touch the veto,” Haley said at an event organized on the US Capitol by the advocacy group India-US Friendship Council.

She also identified Russia and China as the two global powers against changes in the current structure of the UNSC.


“Why should India care about joining the UNSC as a permanent member if it cannot have the veto? Haley’s comments reveal where the US currently stands on the subject,” Sumit Ganguly, India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington, told DW.

Ganguly, who is a visiting professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College for the year 2017-18, stressed that these are his personal views and do not reflect the view of the US Army or the US Department of Defense.

The analyst noted that Haley’s remarks will be viewed “with much dismay” in New Delhi, especially among members of the foreign and security policy establishments, as Washington previously appeared to declare its support for India’s claim.


For hopeful candidates like India, representation on the UNSC is a recognition of their significance on the world stage. It is seen as augmenting their global prestige and clout. But they have so far not managed to garner the support needed to amend the UN Charter in favor of their permanent membership.   

Opponents of the expansion argue that the move could potentially lead to making the UNSC even more unwieldy and indecisive than it already is, and may not result in a global body that is more responsive to security problems worldwide.

Some of the key questions, experts say, that have to be considered before any expansion of the UNSC include:

– Would the enlargement of the UNSC to include countries like India, Germany, Japan and others markedly improve the body’s ability to act effectively and ensure peace and security in the world?

– If another group of permanent members are added to the UNSC, would it increase the council’s legitimacy or undercut accountability by reinforcing privilege?

– Would merely expanding the UNSC qualify as a reform of the body?

Given the complexities involved, observers see little scope for any reform of the UNSC membership in the foreseeable future. “I think that the chances are quite slender, especially given the intransigence of China and Russia and the likely covert opposition of France and the United Kingdom,” said Ganguly.



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