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The UN Security Council in an Era of Great Power Rivalry and India’s options

Brookings India, in partnership with the University of Chicago Centre in New Delhi, hosted a roundtable discussion on “The UN Security Council in an Era of Great Power Rivalry and India’s options” on Friday 13 February. The discussion featured Dr. David Malone, Rector, United Nations University (UNU) and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Ambassador Shyam Saran, Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), and was moderated by Dr. W.P.S. Sidhu, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings India.

The UN Security Council in the post-Cold War era

It is easy to assume that on account of global tensions, such as those between Russia and the West, and some tensions in Asia, the UN Security Could is dysfunctional. In reality however, the Council can agree on most issues more than 90 percent of the time, and can reach agreement on what needs to be done. This possibly because the Council’s business today focuses primarily on Africa and secondarily, to a much lesser degree, on the Middle East, which is the more contentious region.

Since the end of the Cold War, which was marred by vetoes on almost every issue, the permanent five (P-5) members i.e. United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France, learnt to work together and as a result the numbers of vetoes have declined substantially. This has been a major change in the working of the Council.

The 1990s and 2000s saw some shocks in the relationship between the P-5 with the first significant one being the sanction regime in Iraq, which produced adverse humanitarian consequences. More recently, the Council differed over Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. However, despite these differences P-5 members were able to work together; for example, when chemical weapons were used in Syria, the United States and Russia acted together to address the problem.

In the post-Cold War era three developments have been noteworthy for the Council: the rising saliency of regional organisations; the emergence of an international criminal justice system; and the growing role of NGOs.

  • The salience of regional organizations: After the Cold War the United Nations had become hyper-active on peace and security issues. Consequently, it was overburdened and established operational partnerships with regional organisations. This has resulted in a significant shift in international relations.
  • Emergence of an International Criminal Justice system: While a majority of UN member states do not subscribe to the International Criminal Court – including P-5 members – the Security Council nonetheless created two international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The Council has also supported other criminal tribunals for other countries; hence, international criminal justice has become a reality. However, how well it will work remains to be seen. The system has some difficulties, for instance, it is very expensive to conduct trials at a high level of quality.
  • Growing role of NGOs: NGOs were always salient on humanitarian actions, however, they have increasingly become more active in security issues because humanitarian actions and human rights have become part of security as well. One crisis in particular which brought the role of NGOs to the fore was the genocide in Rwanda. At the time the Council claimed ignorance of the situation in Rwanda. The crisis was brought to their notice by various NGOs who had been working in Rwanda. This established NGO credibility.

Security Council reforms

UN Security Council reforms have been called for by many nations, who argue that the framework set up after the Second World War is not relevant today. Reforms have broadly been discussed under the three main headings: working methods; the veto; and the enlargement of the Council.  The workings methods of the Council have been very opaque and autocratic, however, this has drastically changed through the reform exercise and continues to be worked on. On the issue of the veto, however, while there have been discussions on its removal the problem remains that the permanent members can veto any changes to the UN charter, resulting in the continuation of the veto. The issue of the enlargement of the membership of the Council was first organised in 1993 by Singapore and gained popularity amongst other nations. Council reforms gained momentum when a high level panel for reform of the United Nations system, including the Security Council, was set up by the UN Secretary General. The panel laid out forceful reasons for the reform of the Security Council in its report released in December 2004. The panel recommended the addition of both permanent members and non-permanent members.

The panel proposed two models for reform: Model A called for six new permanent members who would be distributed according to regional groupings – Asia Pacific, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. The model also recommended three additional non-permanent members. Model A clearly mentioned that neither of the members would have veto powers. However, most schemes which have been suggested for the inclusion of more permanent members on the council have failed to have an impact. Another reason being that smaller countries still need to be convinced that they have an interest in seeing a change in the Council especially with more non-permanent seats. However, it remains a challenge.

Model B, which has become salient again today, recommended altering the UN Charter to allow for a set of semi-permanent members who would enjoy a term of more than 2 years and would be eligible for immediate re-election once their term was up. This category would be different from the non-permanent members, therefore, creating another level of membership. However, once again, neither of these members would have veto powers.

Since these recommendations in 2004 nothing more has happened with regards to membership for countries like India. However, with the United States’ public support recently there is some hope. It is an important step forward, though not enough to open the way for India to put forth its candidacy for permanent membership status.

The longer it takes to reform the Security Council, the greater the danger of it becoming irrelevant. With the changes in the international power structure, the significant security business of the world will start to be transacted elsewhere, as it will require the leading powers such as India, that are not in the Security Council. Hence, the longer the reforms take, aspirants will leave and be forced to form their own organisation.

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