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Security Council Reform Update 2015: Similar Scenarios, Same Positions, New Outcomes?

Original Article found at Center for the UN Reform Education

Security Council Reform Update
originally published 12 January 2015

The Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on reforming the Security Council (SC) have not led to any significant results on SC expansion since the IGN officially began in 2009. The IGN replaced the equally unsuccessful Open-Ended Working Group on the topic, established in 1993. Procedural maneuvering by those who oppose adding new permanent seats is often blamed for this vexing standstill. However, sufficient political will to compromise among some of the key players may be equally, if not more, responsible for the lack of progress. And while the main focus has been on changing the composition of the Council to make it more representative of contemporary realities, efforts to make the Council more accountable, effective, and transparent are of equal or greater importance to a large section of UN Member States.

At this stage, only one quarter of the UN’s membership appears to be actively engaged in the IGN, in spite of the many efforts to create momentum during the last few years by those who stand to gain the most from expanding the Council’s membership. This update describes recent developments and the latest positions of the various groupings.

The 68th Session - PGA John Ashe

Early on in his term, John Ashe from Antigua and Barbuda, President of the previous (68th) session of the General Assembly, did his best to push the slow-going IGN along. He established an Advisory Committee on Security Council reform in the fall of 2013 which produced a non-paper that many Member States hoped would replace the compilation/negotiations text. Since 2010, Member States have not been able to agree on which revision of the compilation/negotiations text - Rev2 or Rev3, each about 30 pages long - should have preference. Nor has there been agreement on how to streamline either of these long texts.

The Advisory Group’s non-paper - six pages long - failed to receive wide acceptance as a shorter negotiation text. Some countries thought that the non-paper could be the basis for the negotiations, but others felt it could merely guide the meetings, as it was not a definitive text produced by the whole membership. It did not help that Africa did not seem to have a common position on accepting such a shorter text. Reflecting the intensity of discord that he must have experienced after establishing the Advisory Group, Ashe noted at a press conference in late December 2013 that he did not expect Security Council reform to happen anytime soon.

The simple roll-over resolution drafted by Ashe to continue the IGN was adopted at the closing plenary on 7 September 2014, but did not make any reference at all to the Advisory Group’s non-paper, confirming the widespread understanding that Ashe did not really regard it as his non-paper. Nevertheless, G4 countries continue to call it the PGA’s non-paper, with Brazil still promoting it as a possible negotiation text. Calling it the Advisory Group’s non-paper is problematic as well, as one member of the group unsurprisingly dissented.

According to rumors, India had threatened to ask for a vote at the September 2014 plenary, but it was widely regarded as a bluff. Member States are aware that holding any votes in the SC reform process runs the risk of a large number of the Member States abstaining; or adopting a ‘non action’ procedural decision; or even of just not showing up unless provided with enough time or motivation to get clear instructions from their capitals. Moreover, initiating and losing such a vote is a risk that few career diplomats are willing to make or feel they can really afford.

Some powerful countries insist that this reform process should be done through consensus. Others believe that “more than the required majority” will be necessary, in line with decision 62/557’s phrase “widest possible political acceptance.” Decision 62/557 reflects the political compromise that was achieved during intense deliberations in the Open-Ended Working Group before the IGN started. Brushing this compromise aside may not be as easy as some believe.

In accordance with UN Charter provisions, amendments on the composition of the Security Council require the approval of 2/3rd of the membership present and voting. But, in this case, a resolution from 1998 (A/RES/53/30) stipulates that reform of the Security Council should be carried by 2/3rd of the whole membership: currently 129 out of a total of 193 (possibly somewhat less if any countries have lost their right to vote in the General Assembly for not paying their dues on time). Moreover, the Charter stipulates that any amendments have to be ratified by 2/3rd of the membership, including the five permanent members, before they come into effect.

Under the terms of 62/557, five issues are officially part of this reform effort: expansion, the right of veto, regional representation, size of the Council and working methods, plus the relationship of the Council with the General Assembly. These issues are a strange mixture: some require amendments to the Charter, while others do not. Moreover, some of those that do not involve a Charter change are already included under a different agenda item, namely “the Revitalization of the General Assembly,” where they have been under discussion for over 20 years.

Chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiations, Zahir Tanin (2009-2014)

In July 2012, Afghan Permanent Representative Zahir Tanin, who chaired the deliberations for six sessions, had asked the membership if he could produce a more concise text. Tanin’s 2012 request had greatly upset the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) grouping at the time, although the UfC did not seek to have Tanin replaced. (See more on the make-up and positions of key groupings below.) By the end of the 68th session, however, the Group of Four (G4) and some others had clearly lost patience with Tanin. The G4 contends that a Chair should just provide a shorter text, and need not ask for permission to do so. Apparently the G4 believes a shorter text would more readily facilitate a narrowing down of positions - through straw polls, for instance. Moreover, the G4 had hoped that Tanin would indicate in his assessment that a strong majority of the membership favored expansion in both categories: new permanent and new non-permanent seats.

But Tanin, correctly it seems, always made it clear that Member States subscribe to different versions of expansion. The possible variations are indeed manifold, including among others these scenarios: new permanent members with veto rights extended immediately; or extended with the caveat that those veto rights would (voluntarily) not be used until a review would take place; permanent seats without veto rights; longer-term seats that could become permanent seats after a review; longer-term seats that could be renewable through re-elections, creating de facto or semi-permanent seats; longer-term seats that could be immediately renewable only once without an interval; longer-term seats that would not be immediately renewable; non-permanent seats (or some of them) that could be renewable; additional two-year non-permanent seats besides new permanent seats, or only adding non-permanent seats. Complicating any assessment is the understanding that while some Member States publicly support one position, privately they indicate they could consider other options depending on how the reform process plays out.

At this time, it is not impossible for new creative options for expansion to be added - there is after all no final text on the table. When you add the questions as to whether veto rights should be limited in some way or whether new permanent seats should be nominated by regions - and perhaps represent their regions rather than serve in their national capacities - the complexity of reaching a decision becomes even more evident. Nor can the desire of many Member States for the Security Council to effectively change its working methods - so that it will be more transparent and accountable - be easily dismissed. For many countries this reform effort should be about efficiency as well as improved representation. Some Member States fear that a Council large enough to accommodate all aspirations - including recent proposals from the Arab Group, East Europeans, and small island states - could make reaching decisions in the Council even harder than it currently is.

The long run of Tanin’s chairmanship has been remarkable - no other Chairs of such important reform negotiations since 2005 have continued beyond one session. Undoubtedly, the loss of his experience could easily result in the replay of earlier scenarios that have run into obstacles before.

President of the 69th General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, and new Chair of the IGN, E. Courtenay Rattray

Sam Kutesa, President of the 69th General Assembly (PGA), did not reappoint Zahir Tanin as Chair. Instead, he approached at least a handful of Permanent Representatives to replace Tanin, but each politely declined to take on this demanding role. However, the Permanent Representative of Jamaica, E. Courtenay Rattray, accepted the challenge. It is worth noting that Jamaica is part of the L69 grouping and that Raymond Wolfe, Rattray’s predecessor, had played a very active role in the IGN, often closely echoing India’s stances in his statements.

Rattray now has the difficult task of being perceived as truly neutral, rather than as a champion of the most recently formulated goals of the L69 group. And as the foreign minister of Uganda, one of the countries that coordinates the African position in the C10, Kutesa probably has had a particular stake in the outcome before he became PGA. When he appointed Rattray, he said he hoped “Member States would move to text-based negotiations.” How Kutesa expects that to happen has not been publicly expanded on, to the Center’s best knowledge. What has been obvious for years is that the African group as a whole is reluctant to agree on any text that does not contain all the nuances and linkages of the common Ezulwini Consensus. This is one of the reasons that there is a great deal of internal and external pressure on African countries to revisit their common position.

Rattray reportedly earned a great deal of respect for the way in which he recently chaired the First Committee. And while he is relatively new to the IGN - he became Permanent Representative for Jamaica in June 2013 - he has probably received clear messages from the various groupings by now on how they would like to see the IGN develop, including comments on process as well as substance. In a letter dated 17 December 2014 to all Member States, Rattray explained he was reaching out to various players, inviting all Member States to contact his office if they would like to meet, before he would communicate his next steps. It is likely that as soon as he formulates possible steps forward, he will run into some of the oft-played out scenarios and obstacles. Creating fresh approaches while also appearing neutral will be a huge challenge. At this time it is unclear if the current PGA will try to push the Chair in a particular direction, or will be relatively hands-off. Some recent PGAs have started out with a real desire to find a solution, but lost interest later in their term because of the obvious complexities and intense pressures from the various groupings.

Text-based Negotiations

PGA Kutesa would like Member States to move to text-based negotiations. This is hardly a new idea. In December 2009, a large group of 138 countries signed a letter requesting the Chair to “present Member States ...a text with options to serve as a basis for negotiation.” 30 African countries had signed the letter. The UfC then wrote to the Chair that it agreed to a “document for the continuation of intergovernmental negotiations.” The text that was distributed on 10 May 2010 was actually called the “negotiation text” by Tanin. But because of opposition from various groupings about either Rev 2 or Rev 3 - plus the strong reservations from China and Russia about any text whatsoever - what was initially called a negotiation text is widely considered more of a compilation of positions.

If the new Chair would draft his own shorter text - by abridging Rev2 or Rev3, or by creating a synthesis from existing texts and new information received - there is a real danger that many Member States - apart from outright rejection - would insist on having their original positions put back in, even in an integral manner again rather than re-arranged in sections as was done for Revision 3.

In view of the risks, one of the key questions to ask at this time is whether a shorter text would really facilitate the negotiations. For instance, is there presently enough political will to bring about convergence among Member States for a particular outcome to be reached, following give-and-take negotiations? But without an agreed text, one insider claims, convergence cannot be efficiently pursued.

Membership on the Council was expanded from 11 to 15 in 1965. However, this expansion only entailed adding non-permanent members, a solution that did not significantly challenge the privileges and prerogatives of the five permanent members. Fifty years ago, less than a dozen countries (including permanent members) voted against the resolution setting the expansion in motion. This high level of agreement must have persuaded all permanent members to ratify the outcome, but dissent is much more intense this time around.

Current Positions

The Group of Four (G4: Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) advocate for a new permanent seat for each of its members, as well as two such seats for Africa. The official stance of the G4 has been the same for a long time, although five years ago, Brazil, Germany and Japan seemed open to exploring compromise models such as longer-term seats, especially if they could transition into permanent seats at a later stage. But India did not concur. At present, the G4 is believed to be lobbying many capitals with its own non-paper that has the following elements on expansion and the right of veto:

“Membership of the Security Council shall be enlarged in both categories, new permanent members and new non-permanent members.
Member States should continue discussion on the use of the veto in certain circumstances and, in this context, the following voluntary offer is made.
New permanent members would as a principle have the same responsibilities and obligations as current permanent members. However, new permanent members shall not exercise the veto-right until a decision on the matter has been taken during a review, to be held 15 years after the coming into force of the reform.” (The non-paper also has brief language on the other issues listed in decision 62/557.)

Any new permanent members would technically have all the privileges of the existing permanent members but would agree not to use their veto rights for 15 years. Does this mean that a Charter change would have to take place creating additional permanent members with veto rights that could be reversed during a later review - and if successfully challenged - result in another Charter change removing their veto rights? [See herefor an analysis of the complexities in case of a review]

It seems doubtful that those countries who are willing to have new permanent seats added to the Council - but without veto rights being extended - would accept such a convoluted and risky solution. Because reversing earlier decisions during a review must be extremely difficult, it is quite likely that in such a case, some of those countries might end up preferring longer-term and renewable seats.

The African Group/C10

Although the African Group puts a common position forward in the IGN, it hides the same kind of internal divisions found in the other regions. There are self-nominated candidates (South Africa and Nigeria, among others); those that oppose them, including competing large countries and disgruntled neighbors; some that insist on veto rights to be extended as long as veto rights exist; some that are willing to compromise to bring about convergence with the G4; some that want African permanent seats to be accountable to their region, in which case every Council decision might have to go through the African Union in Addis Ababa, giving the whole region a veto; some that prefer longer-term rotating seats rather than new permanent seats; some that have little to gain and are quite indifferent at this point, etc.

In 2005, South Africa and Nigeria tried to bring about a convergence with the G4 that would allow a final decision on veto rights to be postponed until a future review took place. Resistance to this idea from parts of the African Union was intense and the Committee of 10 was established to act as a focal point on SC reform and to explore convergences with other groupings. The C10 represents the five African regions and consists of Algeria, Congo Brazzaville/Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Libya, Namibia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia.

The Ezulwini Consensus asks for two permanent seats with veto rights for Africa - to be elected by the AU - and a total of five non-permanent seats for their region. And while the US insists on knowing which countries would be picked, the African Group has not felt a need to agree about specific candidates because real negotiations have not taken place thus far in the IGN. And there is always the risk that Africa will get just one permanent seat, or that the solution of longer-term and/or renewable seats would turn out to be the only viable outcome. Hybrid options, such as a permanent seat for Africa plus longer-term seats for Africa and other regions, are not being explored, although many Member States recognize that Africa especially should benefit from expansion.

In 2012, a growing convergence between the C10 and L69 seemed to be taking place after the L69 grouping changed its position to include veto rights for new permanent seats to be extended immediately. However, efforts to agree on a common resolution fell through. Suspicions that L69’s new position was a mere ploy to break up the African position were rife at the time and some L69 members would openly admit that the 2012 L69 draft resolution was just an effort to create momentum. It seems that most of the 11 African members of L69 are willing to be more flexible about veto rights, belonging to the South African and Nigerian camps. Moreover, the 2012 L69 and 2013 CARICOM draft resolutions included the promise of a dedicated non-permanent and cross-regional seat for small island states, which could further complicate matters.

Last year, South Africa tried to bring about a high-level retreat to reconsider the Ezulwini Consensus. It failed, reportedly because the C10 was not properly consulted. At a meeting held in Kenya in November 2014, the C10 recommended “the holding of an Extra-Ordinary Summit of the AU specially devoted to the issues of the Security Council Reform.”

The P2 (permanent members France and the UK) also publicly favor new permanent seats for the G4 and two African countries. However, its stance differs significantly from that of the G4. The P2 would like to create a new category of longer-term seats that could become permanent seats after a review. Again, any relevant Charter amendments would be rather complex. And the extension of veto rights is left undecided.

France - and maybe the UK - is willing to voluntary refrain from using the veto in matters involving mass atrocities. It appears that none of those seeking new permanent seats have actively joined this stance, even though it could make extending veto rights more palatable to many. After all, it is the use of veto (or threatening to do so) that has made concerted Security Council action impossible at times. Interestingly, the AU’s founding principles include the notion of non-interference, with the exception of situations involving genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The P3 (permanent members China, Russian Federation, and the US) publicly favor moderate expansion with some new permanent members, but they do not agree on which countries exactly, which might be intentional by making it even harder to find a solution. The P3 is unlikely to agree to the extension of veto rights or to leave it to the rest of the UN membership to elect new permanent members. Some sources indicate that the P3 is increasingly willing to consider longer-term seats, but are reluctant - or feel no need - to actively promote such a solution while Member States remain intensely divided. Probably, the status quo is the P3’s preferred option.

The Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group is opposed to adding any new permanent seats. Instead, they have advocated for adding only non-permanent seats or a new category of longer-term seats. Currently, this grouping is believed to favor possible terms of three or four years that could be immediately renewed once without an interval. In 2005 - during intense negotiations at the World Summit - it was reported to be willing to accept 10-year seats. Its members consist of regional rivals of the G4 and others espousing principled objections to permanent seats. Like any grouping it experiences internal divisions, with some being more flexible than others. It has a core membership of about a dozen members (Italy is the focal point and others are believed to be Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Malta, Mexico, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, San Marino, Spain, and Turkey) and China and Indonesia take an active part in this grouping as well. It has come across as a grouping that uses procedural obstacles to stall the negotiations. To be fair, the African Group and some permanent members have often shared their objections on how to proceed. Besides the core group of the UfC, between 20-30 other Member States privately endorse the idea of longer-term and/or renewable seats. Some of these don’t like the strategies the UfC employs in the IGN process. Possibly - as long as the G4 overplays its cards or when it would renege on promises made thus far - support for longer-term and renewable seats may significantly increase.

L69. This grouping of developing countries consists of 40 Member States: G4 members Brazil and India, 11 African countries, plus small island states, CARICOM members and a handful of Member States from Latin America. At the IGN, Pacific small island states and CARICOM often make separate statements, but their membership largely overlaps with that of L69.

Interestingly, at a C10 meeting held in Oye last year, the C10 recommended that no African country should belong to any other grouping, but whether this has been acted upon is unclear to the Center at this time.

L69 was the name of a draft resolution that forced the IGN to start and its endorsers remained active, apparently regularly meeting at India’s Mission. The original L69 resolution called for expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories, without specifically referring to veto rights. In 2012, however, the L69 announced at the IGN that it agreed to veto rights extended immediately. Since 2012 - after convergence with the C10 fell through - the grouping continuous to have some proponents that firmly believe in veto rights for new permanent members and also includes many that have been willing to be more flexible, in line with the G4. It seems likely that the G4 is lobbying the members of this grouping to endorse the principles of their 2014 non-paper.

Besides the above groupings, the Arab group has proposed having its own permanent seat, the East Europeans have advocated for a second dedicated non-permanent seat for themselves, and small island states would like a cross-regional non-permanent seat. These demands complicate those of the G4 and African groupings.

ACT promotes better working methods of the Council. ACT (Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency) comprises over 20 countries that have joined the group by invitation, with Switzerland as focal point. It concentrates on the working methods of the current - not expanded - Council, reflecting widespread skepticism that Security Council reform will happen anytime soon. Arguably, pressure from ACT and the former group S5 has already contributed to improved working methods, but much remains to be achieved. As a group it is not currently active in the IGN. ACT is believed to experience internal divisions similar to the other groupings.

Will 2015 be any different?

Can the reform process change in 2015 thanks to a new Chair, a new PGA, and with a significant Summit and UN anniversaries around the corner? Or will the same old scenarios - with some slight variations - play out in very much the same way in the end?

The G4 - the most active player in this process - clearly wants a shorter text for the IGN and the chance to reduce it even more by means of straw polls until a framework resolution will emerge that will allow moving the deliberations from informal meetings to a plenary where a solution can be voted on. But if this was easy to achieve, would it not have already materialized? It seems that any support for new permanent members is conditional on many unresolved issues: veto rights extended/limited or not; sufficient improvements in working methods; when and how would any new permanent members be chosen; can the demands of the Arab Group, East Europeans, and small island states be reconciled with those of the G4 and Africa, etc. And when it comes down to it, how many Member States are willing to stand up to the five permanent members, especially the powerful P3, for the direct benefit of only the G6 (G4 plus Nigeria and South Africa) - for a solution that cannot easily be revisited?

Adding SC reform to the agenda of the Special Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2015 has met considerable resistance. And the idea of convening a separate high-level meeting on SC reform around the same time has not garnered much support thus far. Potentially, both would create a deadline for the negotiations and get capitals re-engaged, possibly allowing for a ‘replay’ of efforts made during the 2005 Summit. Compared to Kofi Annan, however, it seems that the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is considerably less keen to mix a wide variety of agenda items to be resolved at the same time. Especially for a Summit intended to determine the post-2015 development agenda.

Maybe, the new Chair can create new dynamics without being seen as partial. According to our sources, Rattray is understood to be “agnostic” and genuinely committed to move the process along. It will be interesting to see how much space he will get from the various players to do his job as Chair.

[For detailed description of Security Council reform efforts since 2005, see the Center’s 2013 publication]