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A modest proposal for shaking up the Security Council reform debate

The stagnant politics of the U.N. Security Council reform campaign are well known: While mouthing niceties about the need for reform, the current permanent council members have little interest in advancing the process. Meanwhile, the broader U.N. membership -- which would have to approve any reform -- cannot agree on a plan. The four leading aspirants for permanent seats (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan -- known as the G4) are viewed suspiciously by another group of states, who argue that they only want to expand the council's oligarchic structure rather than fundamentally alter it. 

In essence, that's where the process has been stuck for decades. Along the way, the prospects for reform have ebbed and flowed. In 1997, a Malaysian diplomat introduced a plan that won significant support but ultimately succumbed to divisions in the General Assembly. In 2005, a High-Level Panel launched by Kofi Annan developed several possible reform packages and spurred serious negotiations on a draft resolution. In 2009, negotiations formally shifted from an open-ended working group to an intergovernmental track. But that procedural change meant little in practice, and negotiations have sputtered since then.

For all the rhetoric about the urgency of reform, there's no sign that anything will change. So what might move the process forward? There's one simple but dramatic step that U.N. members seeking reform could take: stop endorsing the council's current structure through their votes. Every fall, the General Assembly elects new non-permanent members to the council. For the most part, these elections are regional deals, with decisions made long in advance of the formal voting (some regional groups even assign their slots more than a decade in advance). But the entire U.N. membership must vote, and no country can be elected without securing two-thirds support in the assembly.

Refusing to engage in the annual Security Council election process until there is reform would be a modest and proportional act of disobedience. There would be a significant collective action problem, of course, and states would have to pledge in advance to abstain. But if that cooperation could hold, the manuever might radically change the landscape. With a large bloc of states withholding votes, no new members could be elected, and the council would face an institutional crisis. Large-scale abstention could force the permanent members to engage in the reform debate in a way they have mostly avoided to this point. Even more important, it would compel the competing blocs within the General Assembly to settle their differences and forge a plan that could win the two-thirds necessary to amend the charter.

There is precedent for the use of voting power in the assembly to force council reform. In 1963, the assembly voted to increase the non-permanent seats on the council from six to ten. A few years later, the permanent members all acquiesced by ratifying those amendments. Why? In large part, they agreed because newly decolonized states in Asia and Africa implicitly threatened to use their voting power to stuff the council with their members and exclude states from eastern and western Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. As a U.S. State Department official wrote at the time, the U.S. "would do better to acquiesce in enlargement than fight it." 

If U.N. members are serious about forcing Security Council reform, they should stop complaining -- and then stop voting every year to endorse the body's current structure. The fact that they are not prepared to do so says something important about political realities at the United Nations: Many members ostensibly in favor of reform prefer the council they know to a reformed council they don't.

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