Global Cooperation

Does the UN Security Council need reform?

Jakkie Cilliers
Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies
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Global Governance

The world is changing, but not the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Established by 51 countries 70 years ago, the UN now has 193 member states that coexist, compete and cooperate in a world that is very different from the situation in 1945.

Beyond a threefold increase in the global population, the rapidly changing world of the 21st century is characterised by a diffusion of power (away from states); an accompanying shift in relative material power and influence from the West to the East; and an ongoing transition from a brief period of unipolarity to multipolarity.

Transnational threats such as terrorism and cybercrime are straining national capacities, while globally armed conflict has been rising for several years; reversing the sharp downturns seen after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Yet we are stuck with a global peace and security governance architecture from the first half of the previous century. Greater multipolarity does not imply instability, but the global transitions that accompany these and other shifts in power are inherently disruptive. In short, in the years ahead, the world will need an effective and legitimate UNSC.

In the years that lie ahead, the world will need an effective and legitimate UNSC.

There is near unanimous consensus on the need for the UNSC to be reformed, but progress is rendered impossible by power politics. After the 1965 enlargement of the non-permanent members of the UNSC from six to 10 members, reform has been on the agenda since Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s appointment as secretary-general in 1992, but has delivered nothing. Meantime, the roles and influence of civil society organisations in global governance has expanded.

A new campaign by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) called Elect the Council advocates that civil society should bring its weight to bear on the task of major structural and procedural reform that would make the UNSC representative, allow it to retrieve its legitimacy and relevance, and enhance its effectiveness.

The ISS proposes a global initiative in which civil society and ordinary citizens use the power of an interconnected world to advocate for a specific set of fair and equitable proposals to amend the UN Charter. Our goal is to consult and develop a detailed set of proposals and then to establish a broad-based global partnership of civil society organisations. This partnership will work with states to ensure action by two-thirds of the members of the UN General Assembly, including the permanent five (P5) members, to reform the UNSC in line with the global norm of elected representation.

It is not possible to reform the UNSC without amending the UN Charter – and while only member states can effect such an amendment, they have repeatedly proven themselves unable to grasp this nettle on their own. In accordance with Article 109 of the UN Charter, Elect the Council will advocate for a simple majority of members of the UN General Assembly (currently 97 out of 193 members) and a vote by any seven members of the UNSC, for a General Conference of UN member states to amend the UN Charter. The amendment would subsequently need to be ratified by national legislatures as set out in the Charter.

Member states have repeatedly proven themselves unable to grasp this nettle on their own.

Civil society have not been actively engaged in UNSC reform to any meaningful extent, but the global village effect and the marked increase in new forms of instability (terrorism, cybercrime, events in Syria, etc.) demand new approaches. We do not intend to advocate for a commitment for reform – nominally that already exists – but rather on the precise modalities of such reform.

Consultation is important, but this cannot be an open-ended process and like member states, civil society will need to compromise in search of a common position based on principle. Our initial proposals are set out on the Elect the Council website. They are based on a formula of one five-year member per 24 countries, and double the number of five-year members to be elected for three-year terms. This gives a UNSC membership of 24 (similar in total to both option A and B contained in the 2005 report by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, titled In Larger Freedom), consisting of eight countries elected for five years, and 16 countries elected for three years.

The two distinct terms of membership – for three and five years respectively, based on minimum criteria – will allow for global powers and regional leaders to be re-elected on the five-year ticket, while the three-year category of membership would ensure flexibility and representativeness. We are currently looking at additional proposals that would encourage a transition from permanent seats and veto rights to normal elections and majorities.

The first version of our proposals also sets out a detailed position on the development of rules of procedure, voting, transitional arrangements and next steps, and is now open for comment at

By balancing fairness, transparency and efficiency, a new lease of life can be provided to an institution that will be tested as globalisation and shifts in power take their toll.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jakkie Cilliers is the Executive Director and Head of African Futures and Innovation Section at ISS Africa.

Image: Members of the United Nations Security Council vote. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

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