Africa’s quest for reform of the UN Security Council is a challenging diplomatic dance

Africa’s quest for reform of the UN Security Council is a challenging diplomatic dance
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)

African countries comprise 25% of the UN General Assembly, and five of the current 11 peacekeeping operations worldwide are in Africa. The sheer size of Africa’s population is another consideration, while more than half of the council’s business focuses on Africa.

With the approach in September of the highly anticipated United Nations (UN) Summit of the Future, the call for UN reform continues to resonate globally, including across Africa.

During the meeting of the G20 foreign ministers in Rio de Janeiro in February, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva repeated his intention to use Brazil’s G20 presidency to campaign for the reform of the UN.

Indeed, the time has come for reforming or replacing the UN and some of its major institutions, such as the Security Council. This change should also encompass the transformation of the Bretton Woods Institutions.

As far back as 2000, the Lomé Declaration raised concerns that the overdue reform of the Security Council and the bid to align the council’s membership and functioning with contemporary demands had not been realised. 

African leaders further argue that the global powers have consistently failed to give the same level of attention to conflict management in Africa as in other regions. 

The peacekeeping efforts by Africans, as outlined under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, do not receive adequate financial and logistical support.

The voting procedure, a principle guiding peacekeeping actions or passing resolutions at the council, has been the most sharply debated and criticised aspect of the UN’s course of action. 

Despite the mounting pressures from the global community and powerful countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan, India and Africa’s major powers, the five permanent members (P5) continue to activate their veto power at will, dominate proceedings at the UNSC, monopolise the Penholder position, and refuse to expand the permanent membership of the council.

The P5 – made up of Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – is undaunted by the 2015 High-Level Panel report that recommended substantive reform of the council due to the growing failures of peacekeeping missions and peacebuilding efforts. 

Regrettably, there is only a 20% implementation rate of recommendations in UN reform reports.

Furthermore, while addressing the African Union (AU) Committee of 10 Heads of State and Government on the council reform in November 2023, the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, highlighted the organisation’s efforts and the 12 years of activities undertaken by the C-10, including support from some UN members. 

Faki emphasised the need to continue reinforcing the push for reform and maintain a unified African agenda with a common voice. The limited representation of Africa in the council restricts the AU’s ability to deliver effective and concrete conflict resolution.

Regarding peacekeeping missions, Faki stressed the importance of reforming the outdated, obsolete and inefficient doctrines governing these missions. He presented several reasons for demanding two permanent memberships of the council and an additional three non-permanent memberships.

African countries comprise 25% of the UN General Assembly, and five of the current 11 peacekeeping operations worldwide are in Africa. More than half of the council’s business focuses on Africa. The sheer size of Africa’s population also bolsters Faki’s demands.

Additionally, Faki maintains that Africa’s recent full membership in the G20 is an international acknowledgement that should logically lead to full membership in the UN Security Council. 

Clearly, being a member of the G20 does not automatically guarantee inclusion in the council’s “golden circle”; however, South Africa and the AU should leverage their G20 memberships and use all forms of diplomatic instruments to make a case for African inclusion. 

African leaders must advocate for recognising Africa’s legitimate demands for change, emphasising the democratic nature of these demands and highlighting the council’s current dysfunctionality, including its inability to ensure global peace and security.

The current political, ideological and security landscapes have presented two narratives to justify the push for a reform agenda. Proponents of expanding permanent membership argue that issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestine conflict underscore the urgent need to reform the global security agency.

Conversely, the current P5 members perceive their veto power as strategically essential for managing these conflicts and preparing for potential future inter-state wars.

Altering the status quo in the council will indeed be challenging. 

There is also a suggestion that council reform “is not on offer and not even on the table”. If this is true, African states, supported by the AU and the three African representatives on the council (A3), must remain steadfast in pushing the agenda onto the table.

The exclusion of African countries as permanent members of the council translates to diplomatic arrogance by the P5. It is sheer hypocrisy for the promoters of democratic values and equity to insist on the complete exclusion of a continent with a population of about 1.3 billion people and hosting about 30% of global mineral resources.

It is the height of Africa’s marginalisation in global governance and a reminder of the aggressive dismissal of Africa’s place in the prevailing international economic and geopolitical order.

Some of the opposition to UN reform makes a note of the “powerful African bloc” in the council. 

Despite the renewed collaboration between the leadership and agencies of the AU and the UN, and the growing perspectives that the A3 has become a major bloc in the council, its influence has continued to be overshadowed by global powers, particularly the P5.

Malte Brosig and Markus Lecki’s study, titled “The African Three (A3) at the UN Security Council: Translating Agency into Influence?”, extensively examines the A3’s influence and voting patterns at the UNSC over the past 22 years, revealing enhanced coordination. 

However, this has only yielded a partial rather than a full, significant improvement in direct influence. Thus, the calls for reform or transformation are significantly overdue.

Sincerely, what kind of reform is necessary? Which African countries are best suited to fill the gap? Why focus solely on securing permanent membership positions, thus maintaining the current status quo and veto power structure? 

Why not consider abolishing permanent positions or removing the veto power clause, which often undermines efforts to maintain peace and security?

Additionally, given that most African countries still rely on P5 members, how would this dependency affect their role if they were to become permanent members? Are these countries prepared to accept the responsibilities and consequences of permanent council membership?

Furthermore, some African nations aspiring to this position have not yet successfully addressed regional and continental responsibilities. 

While African actors should persist in advocating a comprehensive overhaul of the UN institutional framework, dislodging the P5 from their entrenched positions on the council will require more coordinated efforts and sophisticated diplomatic strategies. DM

Dr Adeoye O Akinola is Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, and the Institute for Global African Affairs, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bee Man says:

    I don’t see any African country as deserving of a permanent member on the SC, and this can never just become so through default. There are no handouts in that department…. it’s the real world, so first earn your stripes!
    Maybe an invitation to such position may then come available at some point in the future. Life is not fair. Get over it

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