Time for UN Reform

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 9 2020
Focus Time for UN Reform

By Michael Gregson

The United Nations has seen better days. Like many aging institutions, it is a bit rickety and creaks at the joints. There wasn’t much to celebrate when it marked its birthday in June. There were no parades or fireworks. The anniversary was barely noticed as it struggles to maintain relevance and a meaningful role in an ever divided world. 

Seventy-five years ago in San Francisco, 50 countries signed the charter that created the United Nations – it was another 10 years before Sri Lanka joined and started its fractious relationship with the world body.  

Thanks largely to decolonisation, its membership has grown to 193 and unlike its short lived predecessor, the League of Nations, it has survived for now, 

But it is in trouble. It is beset by internal problems, by the global struggle to cope with the rise of China, and most of all by the neglect and hostility off the country that was its chief architect and sponsor, the United States.

UN Security Council Problems

The UN is bureaucratic and infuriating. The Security Council gives vetoes to Britain and France, much diminished powers since 1945, but no permanent membership to Japan, India, Brazil, Germany or any African country. 

The United Nations Security Council has several significant problems. First, the membership of the Security Council has changed very little since its inception in 1945, even though the number of UN member States has almost quadrupled since then and the relative power of member States has changed significantly. The only change in membership has been the addition of four non-permanent seats in 1965. African States call the under-representation of Africa a ‘historical injustice’ which needs to be corrected.

The differences between permanent and non-permanent seats produce a highly unequal and inefficient Security Council. The five permanent members (P5) – Britain, France, United States, Russia and China – possess permanent seats and have the privilege of the veto.  

The five permanent members accounted for more than 50 per cent of the world’s population in 1945, but today they constitute 26 per cent of the globe’s population. Without China, the other four permanent member states account for just 7.8 per cent of the world’s population.

The economic and military strengths of China and the US argue in their favour for retaining permanent seats at the UN’s top table. Less for Russia for its faltering economy, but vast nuclear arsenal.  The case for Britain and France is even weaker. Two second tier economic and military powers only hanging on because they happened to be on the winning side in the Second World War. 

The world and its problems have moved on. It is no longer reasonable for Europe to claim two seats. The European Union, however, is now an economic superpower up there with the US and China and is entitled to a place on the Security Council. Britain, especially after Brexit, has no such claim.  But being stripped of its place its breakup, with Scotland demanding independence and a united Ireland outside of the UK increasingly on the cards. That would leave a rump nation of England and Wales, which could have no realistic claim of a place on the Security Council. 

The UK already struggles to maintain its position as an “independent’ nuclear power to justify its place as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. It is ruinously expensive at the best of times and is utterly dependent on imported American missile technology. It will be even less affordable in the post Brexit world – and its vital submarine bases could end up under control of an independent Scotland. Losing its place on the Security Council would be a face-saving way of abandoning its status as a declared nuclear power and save billions. 

Security Council outline for the future

So, perhaps we can now see a possible outline for the future shape of the Security Council: China, the United States, the European Union, possibly Russia and new members representing South Asia, Latin America and Africa. 

The choice of nations to represent those regions is fraught with difficulties. In terms of size, India might be South Asia’s choice and Brazil Latin America’s. Their neighbours would probably disagree. The question of Africa is even thornier, with no obvious on the top table would be a blessing in disguise for a greatly diminished UK. There is no guarantee the United Kingdom will even exist in a few years’ time. Brexit has encouraged candidates.  But whatever emerges, reform is coming. 


By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 9 2020

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