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February - March 2005


Political News

Sweeping Proposals for Restructuring the UN Security Council

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, had commissioned in 2003 a panel of “wise men” to recommend the overhaul of the top decision-making body of the UN – the Security Council – and also entrusted it with the task of proposing: “How can we best protect ourselves against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction? When is the use of force permissible – and who should decide? Is ‘preventive war’ sometimes justified or is it simply aggression under another name? And in a world that has become ‘unipolar’, what role should the UN play? ”

The Secretary General felt that an international consensus on how to make the world a more secure place was still some way away. In fact, things have, if anything, got worse in the last few years. In his own words: a moment of global solidarity against terrorism in 2001 was quickly replaced by acrimonious arguments over the war in Iraq which turned out to be symptomatic of deeper divisions on fundamental questions like, “Is state sovereignty an absolute principle or does the international community have a responsibility to prevent or resolve conflicts within states – especially when they involve genocide or other comparable atrocities?”

The panel, comprising 16 distinguished men and women drawn from all parts of the world and from different fields of expertise – political, military, diplomatic, economic and social – was asked to assess the threats facing humanity today and recommend how the UN needs to change, in both its policies and institutions, in order to meet the threats.

Kofi Annan announced on December 2, 2004 that the Panel had delivered its report entitled “A More Secure World – Our Shared Responsibility”. The Secretary General went on to declare that the Report’s recommendations were the most comprehensive set of proposals for forging a common response to common threats. It reaffirmed the right of self defence, guidelines on the use of force to help the Security Council deal more decisively and proactively - both with mass atrocities inside states and nightmare scenarios such as those combining terrorists and weapons of mass destruction - agreement on a definition of terrorism which had eluded the international community till now, and proposals to prevent nuclear proliferation and improve bio-security.

The Report’s most attention-grabbing recommendation was the call for an expansion of the Security Council to 24 members from 15. Unable to agree on one proposal, the Panel suggested two options, both aimed at broadening the membership of the Security Council to reflect the realities of the contemporary world, thus rejecting what existed at the time the world body was founded nearly 60 years ago.

The Security Council has 5 permanent members - the US, Russia, France, Britain, and China all wielding veto powers - and 10 non-permanent members elected to two year terms.
One proposal would add 6 new permanent members – the likely candidates being India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Egypt and either Nigeria or South Africa – and 3 new two year term members. Under this proposal, the veto power remains limited to the original permanent 5 and does not extend to the 6 new permanent members.

The other proposal envisages a new tier of 8 semi-permanent members chosen for four year terms and 1 two year term member to the existing 10.

The Secretary General is expected to fine tune the proposals by March 2005. Thereafter these would be taken up at a Summit Meeting of the Heads of Government before at the next session of the UN General Assembly in September 2005.

The new makeup of the UNSC would require an amendment to the UN Charter, which requires approval of the General Assembly by a two-thirds majority of the 191 member states, including the 5 permanent members, and ratification by the legislatures of their governments.

The critical issue of the legitimacy of the use of force – a source of bitter dispute and tension at the UN in 2003, when the US was seeking Security Council authorisation to go to war in Iraq, lay at the heart of the debate initiated by Kofi Annan. The panel identified that a new security problem had arisen because of the nature of terrorist attacks “where the threat is not imminent but claimed to be real: for example the acquisition, with allegedly hostile intent, of nuclear weapons-making capability”. The report said that, if the arguments for “anticipatory self-defence” in such cases were good ones they should be put to the Security Council which would have the power to authorise military action under a set of 5 guidelines, viz. 1) the seriousness of the threat; 2) the proportionality of the response; 3) the exhaustion of all alternatives; 4) the balance of consequences, and 4) that it has a reasonable chance of success.

The panel report said: “In a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of non-intervention on which it continues to be based, is too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted.”
In other words the Report outlines a new vision for “collective security” in an era of cross-border terrorist groups who can lay their hands on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
One problem remains: the limits on the use of preventive military action could prove unacceptable to the Bush Administration which has rejected what it calls a “global test” before acting to defend itself. The consequences of possible US opposition to the proposals are yet unknown.

Indian Reaction
Reacting to reports from the UN that India will be a candidate for elevation to a permanent seat in the re-structured UNSC but will not have a veto, External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh speaking in India’s Upper House, Rajya Sabha on December 2, 2004 said “Without a veto I do not think it will be acceptable to the country”. He said that India would wait for the report of the Secretary General on the UN reforms adding that the UN is aware of India’s views. The Minister said that India was working closely with the other three candidates Japan, Germany and Brazil in this regard.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was on a three-day visit to India from December 1-4, 2004, declared that Russia strongly supports India’s case for a permanent seat with veto power in the UNSC.

Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, who was on tour of South America at the time the news broke of the UN report, objected to India’s candidature for the UNSC seat. He said : “Pakistan is of the view that we need to take a holistic view of reforming the UN and re-structuring the Security Council. Pakistan is against the creation or increase in the centres of power and privilege by increasing the number of permanent members in the SC because we feel that this goes against the principle of sovereign equality of nations.”

Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was host to the Pakistani President, added his voice of dissent saying that Mexico backed incorporating regional representation into the UNSC.
The UN consists of 191 members and up until September 2005 when the General Assembly will once again be in session celebrating its 50th anniversary, the debate on restructuring will go on. We have to wait for decision time to come.

The full version of this article can be found in the print edition.

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