Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

United Nations Council Reforms - Myth or Reality

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Suresh Kumar Goel
    Venue: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai
    Date: November 03, 2017

The end of cold war in 1991 raised expectations of International community that the United Nations would be enabled to perform its primary function of maintaining International peace and security which was the primary raison d’tre when it was founded in 1945 after the end of the second world war. For practically four and a half decades the work of United Nations had been impacted by the power contest between the two super powers namely the United States and the USSR.

The work of the United Nations had been entrusted to several principal organs namely the General Assembly, Security Council, ECOSOC, the Trusteeship Council and the International Court of Justice. The General Assembly was considered to be the first among the five since it was the only body with universal membership of the United Nations and reports of all other principal organs were presented to the General Assembly.

The Security Council was however on entirely different footing, being the main organ entrusted with the responsibility on issues relating to international peace and security. It also reflected the power architecture prevailing at the end of the World War II. The victors and their proxies including the US, the UK, USSR, France and China were permanent members with veto powers. Other members called non-permanent members had a term of two years at one time without consecutive re-election. The veto power gave over riding authority to permanent members to take decisions even against majority.

Expectations of a more effective United Nations gave rise to the demands of the majority of the United Nations in 1991 for reforms which included mainly the reforms and restructuring of the Security Council including expansion in membership in both the permanent and non-permanent category as well as review of veto powers, revitalization of the General Assembly providing for greater powers to receive full reports from other principal organs including the Security Council and making recommendations even on the issues relating to international peace and security, greater focus on developmental agenda of the United Nations etc. The expansion in the membership of Security Council was to reflect the changed realities of much higher number UN members in 1991 as compared to 1945 and greater contribution from non-permanent members in UN activities in maintenance of international peace and security through its peacekeeping operations.

The 1991 was also witness to rise of emerging powers such as China, India and Asian tigers, primarily in economic areas but also in the political and strategic influence they exercised.

The expectations of UN reforms were soon belied and in fact stymied because the end of Cold War did not lead to democratization of the United Nations. The permanent members which were the most influential members like a cabinet, obviously would not want to relinquish or dilute their hold on the power structures resulting in the process of Security Council restructuring and expansion having dragged on for almost three decades. The changed realities have made such restructuring even more of a stark need of the hour.

The work of the General Assembly which before 1991 had functioned effectively in eradicating colonization in the world and apartheid in South Africa, seems to have become even more marginalized than before. Even the areas such as humanitarian assistance and developmental agenda have been linked to international peace and security leading to new ideas and resolutions such as R2P providing the security council with unprecedented authority even in area which were traditionally the preserve of the GA or ECOSOC. Constitution of International Criminal Court provided the Security Council with further leverages to guide work of other UN agencies.

The experience has shown that the essential dynamics of international relations continues to be impacted by the competitive power equations and thus the attempt to keep the real power in the hands of the permanent members. The democratization of the United Nations and thus the reforms would continue to elude the members till such time as the emerging powers such as India are involved in the effective decision making in organs where it matters such as the Security Council.