Russia’s war in Ukraine spurs renewed calls for UN Security Council expansion

Russia’s war in Ukraine spurs renewed calls for UN Security Council expansion
The UN Security Council holds a meeting at the United Nations Headquarters on 24 August 2022 in New York City. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

Russia and China remain opposed to new members, such as South Africa and other BRICS members, seeking permanent membership.

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has revived the perennial debate about the need to reform the United Nations (UN) Security Council, including permanent representation for Africa. But has the conflict also increased the likelihood of change? The council was conceived in warfare — can it also be reformed by warfare?

Russia is one of the council’s five veto-wielding permanent members. Its unprovoked Ukraine invasion and vetoing of any Security Council condemnation or action against it prompted renewed calls for a more democratic and effective council at September’s UN General Assembly annual meeting. The broader impotence of the council in trying to end the war added to these calls.

Newly elected Kenyan president William Ruto led the African charge, saying Kenya remained “firmly committed to reforming the Security Council to make it a more effective, representative and democratic global institution.”

United States (US) president Joe Biden strongly resuscitated America’s reform proposal, emphasising the need for a permanent African seat on the council. Biden said that to “defend the sovereign rights of smaller nations as equal to those of larger ones; to embrace basic principles like freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and arms control,” the time had come for the Security Council to become more inclusive. 

The US supported increasing the numbers of both permanent and non-permanent seats on the council, he said. “This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.” Permanent members should refrain from using the veto, “except in rare, extraordinary situations,” Biden added.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had told Biden a few days earlier in the White House that, “The absence of representation of 1.3 billion people from Africa in the United Nations Security Council remains a blight in the global democratic order.”

French president Emmanuel Macron also declared at the General Assembly that peace could only be attained if the council welcomed new permanent members. And the five permanent members (P5) would also need to agree not to use their veto powers in the event of mass atrocities, he said. 

The United Kingdom’s (UK) ambassador to the UN, James Roscoe, likewise stated last November that: “We support the creation of new permanent seats for India, Germany, Japan and Brazil, as well as permanent African representation on the Council.” Like France, he said the UK agreed not to use its veto to prevent a UN response to a mass atrocity. 

Of the P5, that leaves just Russia and China still opposed to expanding permanent membership. Interestingly, they are part of the BRICS formation whose three other members — South Africa, India and Brazil — all want permanent Security Council seats.

The great irony of BRICS is that its purported reason for being is to campaign for more representative global governance. And yet it has never explicitly supported the aspirations of South Africa, India and Brazil for Security Council membership. 

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Following its summits and other meetings, BRICS’ statements include words like those used after its foreign ministers met last week on the General Assembly sidelines. The statement said China and Russia reiterated the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and support “their aspiration to play a greater role” in the UN. A “greater role” yes, but permanent membership of the Security Council? Apparently not. 

China doesn’t want to open those doors because Japan would probably be among the first to walk in. The US also favours giving a permanent seat to Germany. So both China and Russia fear that an expanded Security Council permanent membership would increase the majority against them — though it might also add Brazil, India and some African country, whose affiliations are less certain.

One could argue that there’s also a measure of hypocrisy in the reform proposals of the US, UK and France (P3), since all three want to retain the veto while likely not extending it to new permanent members. It is, after all, from their vetoes that the P5 ultimately derive their power in the Security Council. 

If they succeeded, the P3 expansion proposals would help to democratise the council. But they would not have deterred Russia from invading Ukraine in 2022. So, back to the drawing board, it seems.

Elect the Council proposes to end both the veto and permanent membership in favour of a proportional system of elections (for three-year tenures) to an enlarged and reformed council, bound by four technical criteria for candidacy. Elect the Council is an international campaign to reform the Security Council based at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.

Recognising the reality of disparate national power, it also provides for the automatic inclusion of global powers — or country coalitions acting in concert within the council — which have enhanced voting rights but no veto. Instead, all council decisions will require an affirmative two-thirds majority of votes cast. 

Yet the practical problem would remain: how to get that proposal past the vetoes of the P5. If they don’t want to give up their vetoes in an expanded permanent membership, why would they do so for a fully elected council? And even if the P3 are more flexible than before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia and China are now likely to be more rigidly opposed to reform. 

However Jakkie Cilliers, architect of Elect the Council and Head of African Futures and Innovation at the ISS, believes that Russia’s war in Ukraine might create the opportunity for ‘just enough’ expansion of the Security Council to regain some of the credibility lost in recent years. 

“It all depends on what happens with the war,” he adds. If Russia loses, and as a result, perhaps Putin also loses power to a democratic revolution, “new things may emerge.” Especially if China, feeling isolated, backs down from contestation with the West. 

One can only hope, though, that it won’t take a direct and decisive confrontation to rearrange the Security Council seats, which were assigned in that order by World War 2. With nuclear weapons at the disposal of the antagonists — which Russia has already threatened to use — that confrontation might not rearrange the seats so much as destroy them all. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.


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  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Peter, this debate of expansion of the UN Security Council is an old debate that one had when was in Nepad. Jackie Cilliers knows the opposition from Russia and China and China even said that the UN Security Council is not a board of directors. The rationale for this was three – fold then, firstly was the notion of regime change by the US and its unilateral actions in invading other countries. The second was the manner in which conflicts in Africa were treated without representation by the UN Security Council. The third, was that you had India a big country that is a nuclear power that is outside the Council that could help developing countries from blackmail and Germany a major economic power that was excluded in the Council at the formation of the UN as a belligerent. The expansion was of the UN Security Council was within the framework of the UN reform including the “Duty to Protect”. This has become controversial as it became the basis of NATO aggression against Libya and the murder of a head of state as well as Syrian invasion by the US and no fly zones. Jan Egeland the former UN Under Secretary – General for Humanitarian affairs explained the origins of the UN Security Council as giving a stake to countries who could start wars to guarantee peace that was seen as a shortcoming of the League of Nations. The reality is that the belligerents are in the UN Security Council and the issues you are raising were raised at its formation to no avail.

  • Pet Bug says:

    At least one article in DM dealing with issues beyond our own navels!
    It’s shocking that no SA media house managed to report and comment on the Russian land grap under Arms of another sovereign country today.
    However, also no report in DM on how SA voted at the UN the resolution condemning the annexation of Ukrainian areas today.
    Could someone let us know SA position on resolution S/2014/189, vetoed by Russia.
    Thank you.

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