Restoring the Waning Legitimacy of the Security Council

posted in: Policy Analysis | 2

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the most powerful institution of the United Nations (UN) and is entrusted with the primary responsibility to maintain global peace and curtail acts of aggression. The post-Cold War era has been characterized by rising power and involvement of the Council, as it has expanded its jurisdiction by reinterpreting sovereignty and challenging the hitherto sacred norm of non-intervention in domestic politics of the states. There has been a paradigmatic shift in notions of sovereignty from the traditional Westphalian idea to an idea of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ that adds human rights as a fundamental pillar of state sovereignty. Failing to uphold the human rights of citizens, a state may, under this modern interpretation of sovereignty, become an object of intervention by the Council. However, such interventions are often based on geopolitical calculations of the global powers, especially the permanent five (P5), who hold permanent representation and critical veto power in the Council.

While, on the one hand, the powers of the Council have multiplied due to the reinterpretation of the idea of sovereignty, on the other, its legitimacy faces challenges on account of its opaque working structures and the use of vetoes by P5 states. The evolution of power dynamics in world politics during and since the Cold War era has not been reflected in the UNSC. The same period has witnessed an exponential increase in the membership of the General Assembly, but the Council remains frozen in time. The steady rise of economic powers like Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India has led to a disparity between the institutional composition of UNSC and the real dynamics of world politics. The Council no longer represents the new economic and political reality at the international high table. In addition, the current structure of the Council is skewed against the developing world, as developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America enjoy limited representation.

Due to the growing disparity between the current structure of the Council and contemporary political reality, calls for reform have been loud and clear. However, the Council has failed to address such calls because of its skewed institutional structure and the limited constraints placed on the power of the P5. Articles 108 and 109 of the UN charter give the P5 power to veto any amendment to the charter, including amendments pertaining to reforms of the UNSC. Furthermore, the position of the P5 is not unanimous vis-a-vis inclusion of new states. While there is a consensus that reforms are necessary, the P5 disagree with respect to the inclusion of specific members. For example, any proposal for inclusion of India as a permanent member is likely to be opposed by China, despite support from other members. Thus, the geopolitical calculations of P5 states accentuate the already skewed institutional mechanisms in place. Far-reaching and inclusive reforms, therefore, seem very unlikely without the combined effort of an overwhelming majority of countries in the General Assembly.

A change in the status quo demands diplomatic leadership at the global level, as there is a need to mobilize the countries in favour of the reforms agenda. Such leadership has been provided by the G4 countries comprising of India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil. The G4 has championed the cause and proposed an inclusive plan to reform the structure of the Council such that the developing nations of the world achieve greater representation at the highest level. Specifically, the group has asked for an expansion of permanent seats by six, including the G4 and two representatives of African states, as well as the expansion of non-permanent seats by 4. The African Union and various developing countries have therefore rallied behind the G4.

Proponents of reform have also argued that the current structure of the UNSC will have ramifications on its effectiveness in the long run, as the Council will face depletion of legitimacy as more and more members become disenfranchised with its opaque power culture. Eventually, the G4 believes that the veto power must be phased out in the larger interest of the international community. Thus, the group has also proposed a novel and practical innovation by agreeing to forfeit the veto power and demanding only permanent representation in the council. This movement is gathering steam, as the G4 has garnered support for its reform efforts from more than two-thirds of the members of the UN.

The Security Council needs to adapt to the dynamic reality of world politics and is, therefore, in urgent need of reforms. First, the Council must become institutionally flexible as to be able to adapt to such changes. Second, since the permanent members are reluctant to share their privilege, emerging powers must calibrate their approach to highlight deficiencies and inconsistencies in the current process. A council that remains frozen in time will find it difficult to command legitimacy in the future. The tussle between new and old powers represented by G4 and P5 respectively will eventually pave the way for meaningful reforms. A challenge to the legitimacy of the Council is necessary to enhance its credibility in the long run.


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Rakshit Mohan is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. His specializations are International Affairs and International Political Economy. He has previously interned at Carnegie India, New Delhi and has a keen interest in Indian foreign policy and Indian politics. He has published articles with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Maritime Executive.

2 Responses

  1. Aditya Thakur

    The latest example of UNSC not being able to enforce some effective measures in preventing the ‘genocide in Myanmar’s – as touted by UN itself is one in line of many to come if UNSC is not expanded to give it a more comprehensive authority.