Does Size Really Matter?: The S5 and Security Council Reform

The United Nations has been a dual-track system since its birth. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, those subjugated demanded a world where true equality of nations was held paramount. Meanwhile, the victors who shouldered most of the burden during the past six years required a post-war system where their security needs were held paramount. The Charter of the United Nations reflects that uneasy balance, one that has been challenged since before the ink was dry on the recommendations of the Dumbarton Conference in 1944.

This discord, the push and pull between the General Assembly’s notion of equality and the special prerogatives granted to the UN Security Council, has cropped up many times over the last six decades. The most recent confrontation has the mighty Permanent Five taking on…the Small Five. The Small Five, or S5, is composed of Jordan, Costa Rica, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland and have come out swinging against the lack of transparency among the members of the Security Council. Their efforts have been chronicled by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch (after a fruitless attempt to pull together more information myself several weeks ago).

Despite the attempts of the P5 to keep the S5 from pressing forward with their draft resolution to further open up the processes of the Council, a vote of the full General Assembly is scheduled to take place tomorrow. According to the Swiss Mission, the draft is likely to receive a ringing endorsement from the Assembly. Considering the majority of the proposals contained in the draft, this isn’t a huge surprise. In all, the draft can be seen less in the context of the large states versus the small, as framed by Lynch, but as the continuation of an ongoing battle for political standing within the United Nations structure between the Council and the General Assembly, and in turn the Global North and Global South.

When the United Nations first came into session, it was assumed that the General Assembly would remain on equal footing with the Security Council, given the broad swath of issues under its purview via the Charter. As the membership of the Assembly and the UN as a whole expanded during the years of decolonization, however, the importance of the Assembly began to paradoxically shrink. The weight granted to it by the United States in the face of Soviet obstinacy in the Security Council during the 1950s had become too much of a liability with the large influx of post-colonial states. The General Assembly took on a position more and more in line with the principles of the Global South, from whence the vast majority of its members hailed. This was the face of the United Nations presented for the majority of its existence, as the US and USSR deadlocked the Council on the majority of major security issues.

After the thaw of the Cold War in the early 1990s, a resurgent Council leapt back into the fray, wielding its considerable authority under Chapters V, VI, and VII of the Charter with greater force, and use of force, than at any point in history. This return to form knocked the General Assembly from its pedestal, and onto the back-burner of the more pressing issues of international peace and security. Since then, a renewed clamor has sprung up surrounding the need for widespread reform of the Council, which had waxed and waned since the last major expansion of the Council in 19 63.

As noted in Lynch’s article, however, there is dissent among those states outside of the P-5 on how to best achieve that reform as “another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote — saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council”. What makes their dissent unsurprising in the context of a struggle between the GA and UNSC, is that the Uniting for Consensus group was first established in opposition to the Group of Four (Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan). Each member of the G4 has a counterpart in the Uniting for Consensus group seeking to prevent them from attaining a new form of regional hegemony. In short, the dissent among GA members is comparable to lower-income Americans being against raising taxes on the wealthy, in the hopes that they’ll one day join the ranks of the latter. Reformation of the Council to add in new seats requires amending the Charter, an act that is veto-able in the Security Council; it only makes sense for those who want to become permanent members themselves to have an interest in not offending the P5.

And so the S5 is pressing forward with their recommendations, the majority of which shift the balance of the Council’s functions to allow more participation by the states without seats. In particular, the issue of keeping peace is brought up several times throughout the annex, first in the context of providing a greater say for the chairs of the country-specific Peacebuilding Commissions during informal consultations of the Council. The inclusion of the Peacebuilding Commission chairs would indeed foster a more cohesive practice when it comes to developing missions and deployments to the countries in question. Such consultations would be particularly welcome in states like Guinea-Bissau that relapse into conflict. However, the informal consultations of the Council were first developed precisely so that no outsiders would be privy to the discussions; formal meetings of the Council are open to the public, and thus the informal consultation was developed to hash out positions and engage in the sausage-making of diplomacy outside of the limelight. In the current set-up any leak can be attributed to one of fifteen missions; accepting more players to the game increases the likelihood of spillage of private words in the eyes of Council members.

Likewise, the draft calls for more participation in informal meetings by those states who have contributed police officers or troops to peacekeeping missions. Such a proposal would be in line with the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter. Chapter VII, Article 43 called upon Member States to make available a negotiated number of armed forces to the UN Security Council at all times. Article 44 then gave those Member States a seat at the table in discussing just how those forces would be used. Without the implementation of Article 43, Article 44 became a moot point, which carried over into the usage of volunteered forces in modern-day peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions. However, the stigma against outsiders still pervades.

The S5 should be well aware of the difficulties that enacting such changes in the working practices of the Security Council would bring, for two reasons. First, they have had some successes in the past in having the Council become more open in its deliberations. Second, as seen in the Chart below, three of the members of the S5 have served on the Security Council, two of them within the last decade.

Country Years Served
Costa Rica 1974-1975 1997-1998 2008-2009
Jordan 1965-1966 1982-1983 X
Lichtenstein X X X
Singapore 2001-2002 X X
Switzerland X X X

They must thus be well aware of the jealousy with which the Security Council guards its ability to set its own rules. The Council is so devoted to ensuring that its rules never change, that they have been operating under their Provisional Rules since 1945; the set has never come to a vote for fear that they would be forced to change. And as United Kingdom Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant stated, the ability of the Council to set their own rules is enshrined in Article V of the Charter.

The above provisions are likely to be begrudgingly supported, though, should they pass overwhelmingly. Less likely to be acceded to are those in the final paragraphs, as they would shift the most autonomy away from the Council while granting the most oversight to the General Assembly:

19. Explaining the reasons for resorting to a veto or declaring its intention to do so, in particular with regard to its consistency with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and applicable international law. A copy of the explanation should be circulated as a separate Security Council document to all Members of the Organization.

20. Refraining from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

21. Establishing a practice, in appropriate cases, of declaring, when casting a negative vote on a draft resolution before the Council, that such a negative vote shall not constitute a veto in the sense of Article 27, paragraph 3, of the Charter.

The sole reason the United Soviet Social Republic was persuaded to join the United Nations was the assurance of its veto power in the Council. As I’ve stated before, while ugly, its uses are in fact in line with international law, as the Charter stands above near all international law. Dealing with the actual proposals themselves, the last point is easily explained away as a rephrasing of the principle of the abstention. While technically not a vote in favor as described under Chapter V of the Charter, abstentions have long since come to be accepted as an appropriate way for a Permanent Member to express dissent with the current text of a resolution without exercising the veto.

The other two are much trickier to handle in a way that would both do credit to the spirit of the request and protect the privileges of the Permanent Five. An option that could be taken, should this resolution pass, is in the first instance to give the Assembly too much of a good thing. I’m certain that, for example, should the United States feel the need to veto yet another resolution on Israel, that it could produce a tome of a document for the General Assembly, which nobody will read. Or, barring that, deliver a single paragraph of reasons behind the vote. The suggestion is vague at best, and unlikely to constrain the threat of veto by Permanent Members, let alone the actual usage.

The case remains strongest for the second of the three suggestions, which recommends that the veto not be used in the instance of a draft tabled dealing with genocide or mass atrocities. While normally the United States and the other Western members of the P5 would be in favor of such a suggestion, the inclusion of it with other recommendations dilutes its purpose and causes them to stand in lockstep with Russia and China over protecting their right under the Charter. While the attempt to produce political pressure on the Council is indeed admirable, it is unfortunate that this paragraph will ultimately be ignored by the Council.

The General Assembly and the Security Council are two sides of the same coin in international affairs. On the one side, you have the ideal state of being, where all states are equal in their sovereignty and their role in international affairs. On the latter, you have a much more realist view, with strong states doing as they will, and weak states doing as they must. The struggle for the United Nations between these two competing ideas is unlikely to be solved by this draft resolution. The S5, acting as the proxy of the General Assembly, aren’t the Lilliputians that they’re pegged to be. But in this instance it’s the Security Council that will most certainly refuse to be tied down.

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4 Responses to “Does Size Really Matter?: The S5 and Security Council Reform”

  1. It often seems to me that liberalism in international relations is realism in disguise. Small states look to constrain the actions of big, powerful states through liberal institutions like the UN because they cannot constrain them another way. Power is zero sum in this context – less power for the big 5 means more power for others. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist though that I see everything in those terms!

    Also if provision 20 above was enacted then I imagine the P5 states would still use their veto and claim that the actions the resolution in question was aimed at preventing were not genocide or crimes against humanity in the first place. Or would it be up to the General Assembly or some other body to define that?

    • Good question on provision 20. It’s unclear on how that would be defined, whether it be by the Genocide Convention, or by a ruling by the ICJ or ICC. In any case, that provision would directly tie into number 19, which would have the issuer of the veto have to explain their vote to the General Assembly. Which, now that I think about it, is kind of redundant as all Council members give statements after the vote on a resolution, whether it passes or fails. The only new stipulation would be that they’d have the cite the Charter and international law for their justification. In any case, it will be extremely difficult for the Assembly to get the leverage they’re looking for out of these measures.

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