On the final day of his trip to India last month, Gordon Brown made public his belief “that India should assume its rightful place in the deliberations of the world including membership of the UN Security Council”. A few days later, Labour MP Keith Vaz tabled a motion in the Commons arguing that “it is only right that India be given a seat at the United Nations Security Council to reflect its international position.” The British government’s pronouncements reflect a growing sentiment that as the largest liberal democracy in the world, with an economy rapidly growing in size and importance, India should be recognised as a major political player and granted access to the elite club of the veto-wielding permanent members.
The current Security Council membership consists of 5 permanent members (the ‘P5’) and 10 non-permanent members serving 2-year terms. The Council was formulated to reflect the post-war balance of power, which, reformists argue, has undoubtedly shifted since the Council was last altered in 1954. In recent years, 2 reform proposals in particular have gathered momentum. Kofi Annan’s plans in 2005 suggested either expanding the Council to include 6 new permanent and 3 new non-permanent members; or creating 8 new members of a new class, on a non-permanent basis, serving 4-year terms, and 1 more non-permanent member serving the traditional 2-year term. Alternatively, a group led by Argentina, Italy, Canada, Colombia and Pakistan, called ‘Uniting for Consensus’, advocates an increase in the number of non-permanent members from 10 to 20.
However, only permanent members hold the crucial veto power. The US has typically been open to reform of the Council to include additional permanent members, but without the veto power held by the current P5. This is a transparently self-interested policy: any additional veto power dilutes that of the current P5, who of course wish to maintain their elite status. Veto power effectively enables the holder to perpetuate unpopular policies; both its own and those of its close allies. However it is increasingly difficult to justify the power balance of the P5: Europe is represented by both France and the UK, while Latin America remains entirely without representation, and India’s population of over a billion people, likewise.
What should be the selection criteria for a new permanent member? India’s claims are based on its enormous population and economic growth, as well as its position as a founding member of the Security Council, and a reliable supplier of peace-keeping troops. Despite these factors India has not held even a non-permanent seat on the Council since 1992. Japan and Germany point out that they are, respectively, the 2nd and 3rd largest contributors to UN budgets, and both occupy prominent economic positions in international politics. Brazil is the most populus country in unrepresented Latin America, and has its largest GDP; Africa also has no permanent seat, despite being the continent which contains more UN member states than any other.
Claims have also been advanced for a Muslim nation holding a permanent seat, as 1.2 billion Muslims are currently unrepresented on the Council. Opponents argue that veto power, in the hands of a Muslim nation, would render the UN less powerful in the Middle East. This is ironic given the US’s persistent veto of resolutions pertaining to Israel. Furthermore, damage to the UN’s credibility in the region may already be too extensive, given the unpopular US-led invasion of Iraq, explicitly lacking in UN support. This leads one to the conclusion that any reform must surely address the worrying lack of consequences for the violation of a Security Council resolution: basically none, evidenced by the inertia and frustration that followed the escalating crisis in Darfur.
Prime Minister Brown’s proposals bring into sharp focus the need for decisive action on UN reform. His predecessor, Tony Blair, tacitly admitted (and arguably exacerbated) the growing impotence at the UN, by supporting the US in their war in Iraq, contrary to prevailing UN opinion. Gordon Brown’s outspoken approach is admirable in comparison, and by tackling the issue head-on he may succeed in forcing the issue at the infamously bureaucratic UN. However, the US’s trigger-happy veto tendency (since 1984 they have exercised their veto power on more occasions than every other permanent member combined) only demonstrates the extent to which they dominate the UN.
Perhaps the best chance the UN has to reform its Security Council will come with the appointment of the new American President later this year. It seems likely – indeed, hopefully certain – that the next President of the world’s only Superpower will be markedly more internationalist in his or her outlook. If this is the case then it is to be hoped that the UN can be reformed in order to regain a level of respect and authority in the international arena. As for India, it has certainly made a strong case, powerfully supported by one of the P5, for its inclusion in the elite veto club of the Security Council.
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This post was written by Tom Bangay