UN Security Council: new members but little change
The recent election of new members of the United Nations Security Council brought some good news, with democratic Slovenia beating authoritarian Belarus. But this was the only competitive vote, with four other new members handed a walkover by their regional groups. The lack of competition robs civil society of an opportunity to expose states’ human rights records and advocate for commitments from successful candidates. It’s far from the only problem with the Security Council, as Russia’s use of its veto to block action on its invasion of Ukraine has repeatedly made clear. It’s time to listen to civil society’s ideas for Security Council reform.
Elections were recently held to choose five new members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council – although it’s something of a misnomer to call this an election.
UN member states are organised into five regional blocs – Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and Others – and candidates from each can put themselves forward for a Security Council seat. The Council has 15 members, five of them permanent – China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA – with the other 10 serving two-year terms, five of which are replaced each year.
This time four of the five blocs had opportunities. Rotating off at the end of this year are Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates, and they’ll be replaced by Algeria, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Slovenia and South Korea. But only one of those five states had to win a vote. In the Eastern Europe group, Slovenia went head-to-head with the worst possible candidate: the authoritarian state of Belarus.
Fortunately sanity prevailed and Russia’s staunchest ally wasn’t able to claim a place on the body charged with maintaining international peace and security. In the secret ballot, Slovenia won 153 votes to Belarus’s 38. Many states clearly used the opportunity to send a message to Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko – who has jailed around 1,500 people and closed down hundreds of civil society organisations since stealing the presidential election in 2020 – and to Vladmir Putin.
Russia undermines Council’s credibility
Belarus’s presence could only have further bolstered Russia’s position – but thanks to the UNSC’s structure, Russia can still wreak havoc even if it had no allies. Russia, as one of the permanent five, has veto power, and has predictably used it to block any Security Council action over its invasion of Ukraine. It has been able to do so even though the invasion is a clear breach of the UN’s Charter, which prohibits the use of force against the ‘territorial integrity or political independence’ of another state. There’s also a clear conflict of interest between its involvement in the war and its Council role, which under the current rules should cause it to abstain from voting.
Instead, the UN has been forced to take the issue to the UN General Assembly, in which all UN member states are represented. While this has passed resolutions calling for an immediate Russian withdrawal and an end to the fighting, unlike Security Council votes these are non-binding.
Worse, Russia has instrumentalised its Security Council role as part of its propaganda war, using Council sessions to spread disinformation. Recently, its UN representative claimed at the Council that Ukraine rather than Russia was responsible for the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. And this is no one-off. Last year Russia’s response to growing evidence of atrocities committed by its forces in Bucha and other towns near Kyiv was to call for a Security Council session to discuss ‘criminal provocations of Ukrainian servicemen and radicals’. It used another session to spread disinformation that Ukraine is developing biological and chemical weapons with US assistance.
Russia’s absurdly untenable double role – as both an instigator of conflict and a leader of a body supposed to resolve it – has generated fresh momentum for reform.
Russia even chaired the Security Council this April, since the presidency rotates monthly between members. In what appeared deliberate provocations, it used its leadership to hold a debate on the UN Charter – the very agreement it has breached – and convened a session where Maria Lvova-Belova – a Russian official who, like Putin, is subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant over the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia – was invited to speak.
Russia last held the presidency in February 2022 – when it chose to launch its invasion during a Security Council session. It seems determined to rob the Council of any remaining credibility.
Competitive elections needed
The fact that Slovenia was able to contest Belarus’s attempt to win a Council seat at least shows the importance of holding competitive elections; Belarus had expected to stand as an unopposed candidate until Slovenia put itself forward in December 2021. This meant that both states were required to face the scrutiny of a debate held in May, where the issue of Belarus’s support for Russia’s war predictably came up.
But elections are still the exception rather than the norm, both for the Security Council and Human Rights Council, which saw competition in only two of five blocs last year. Most of the time the regional groups agree on a common candidate to run unopposed. In the Latin America and Caribbean region, for example, there’s been only one competitive Security Council vote since 2007.
This deprives civil society of what should be a vital opportunity for advocacy. When elections are competitive, civil society can work to expose the human rights performance of candidate states, make calls for those with better human rights records to prevail and advocate for commitments from states if they’re successful.
Civic space matters for Security Council members because it gives people an opportunity to ask questions of their governments, hold them to account and advocate for alternatives. If states with more open civic space are elected to the Council, it opens up opportunities for greater civil society engagement and scrutiny over the decisions states take on peace and security issues. But when the new members take their seats at the start of 2024, only one of the Council’s 15 members, Switzerland, will have open civic space.
Among the five recently chosen, there should be particular concern about Algeria, given the state’s ongoing criminalisation of activists, protesters and journalists. Around 300 people are currently estimated to be in jail for exercising their fundamental civic freedoms. In promoting its unopposed candidacy, Algeria emphasised its credentials in combating terrorism – but it uses anti-terrorism laws to lock up peaceful activists.
The current way of doing things also tends to the serve the more powerful voices within regional blocs. It’s rare for a Caribbean state outside Latin America to serve on the Council, and no Pacific Island state has ever been part of it – even though they’re on the frontline of climate change, a driver of conflict that’s been on the Security Council’s agenda, and despite the fact that the region is increasingly coming under the geopolitical spotlight as China and the USA compete for influence.
The push for reform
Civil society has long called for UN reform, and Security Council reform as part of that, to make the UN more democratic, effective and accountable. This has led to some positive steps, such as dialogues with civil society organisations convened by some of the rotating Council presidents, where civil society is able to put questions. Reform ideas are backed by the UN Secretary-General. But much more action is needed.
The current war in Ukraine is by far from the Council’s first big failure. It’s stood by and done nothing during Syria’s 12-year conflict. But Russia’s absurdly untenable double role – as both an instigator of conflict and a leader of a body supposed to resolve it – has generated fresh momentum for reform.
The veto powers of the permanent five are clearly a big problem. The USA has consistently vetoed resolutions on Israel, while Russia has vetoed action on conflicts it’s involved in, usually with China’s support. Several reform proposals therefore focus on reforming the veto. Many of these advocate for the introduction of greater restraint in veto use, with much more clarity on when vetoes are unacceptable.
Beyond this, there’s a need to democratise the Council. For many states, this means expanding its membership or adding more permanent members, with powerful states such as Brazil, India and Japan keen to join the elite. Last year US president Joe Biden endorsed the idea of expanding membership and the US government’s plans appear to be proceeding, albeit with many obstacles ahead.
It’s certainly the case that the world has changed a lot since the post-Second World War status quo reflected in the Council’s permanent membership, to the exclusion of global south states. But adding more states on its own won’t do anything to enhance democracy and accountability. Civil society scrutiny is vital and any proposal on Security Council reform is deficient if it doesn’t open up opportunities for civil society to play a bigger role. Regular competitive elections wouldn’t solve all the problems – but they’d be a start.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should commit to holding competitive elections for UN Security Council positions with built-in civil society engagement.
UN Security Council permanent members should commit to moderating their use of vetoes.
Proposals for UN Security Council reform should expand opportunities for civil society to engage with the Council.
Cover photo by Eduardo Muñoz Alvarez/VIEWpress via Getty Images