Zelensky’s adapt or die message should spur Security Council reform

When Ukraine’s bold President Volodymyr Zelensky told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to question its own purpose, he put the spotlight on a thorny geopolitical issue that stands in the way of international peace and security. The UN has been impotent over Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and alleged war crimes because the aggressor wields a veto over UNSC decisions.

The council was established in 1945 to maintain international peace, but its composition has failed to evolve over nearly eight decades of changing global economic and political dynamics. The veto power of the five permanent members of the council (P5) – Russia, China, the United States (US), France and the United Kingdom (UK) – is an outdated legacy from the end of World War II. Today it retards the council’s ability to do its main job.

Current global security threats include not just violent conflict but climate change, pandemics, cybercrime, bioweapons and nuclear terrorism. The need for change has never been more urgent as the world emerges from COVID-19 with the planet facing an environmental tipping point and an autocratic nuclear state committing war crimes in Europe.

In his 5 April speech to the UNSC, Zelensky described how Russian soldiers had executed whole families and tried to burn their bodies. He spoke of civilians raped, tortured and shot, blown up by grenades or crushed by tanks, with throats cut and tongues torn out. This was akin to terrorism, he said, by a permanent member of the UNSC with the power to provoke a global food and energy crisis. Russia had turned its veto into a right to kill.

When it was needed most, the UNSC had little to offer because one member state said no. ‘So where is the peace the United Nations was created to guarantee?’ Zelensky asked. ‘It is obvious the key institution of the world simply cannot work effectively.’

If UN reform had come earlier, war could have been avoided, he said. He called for a global reform conference in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, aiming to pass to future generations a UN that can guarantee peace and respond preventively to security challenges.

Without comprehensive change, including the end of permanent seats and associated veto rights for select states, the UNSC risks fading into irrelevance. There is a commitment to reform, but it has met with resistance from the P5, who are unlikely to vote to diminish their own power.

Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine are not the only reason the P5 should be prevented from obstructing the entire global security architecture. The US under Donald Trump rode roughshod over international consensus. China is no democracy and increasingly threatens its region. After Brexit, the UK is becoming irrelevant globally, while France may yet elect a populist president with unpredictable consequences.

A reformed UNSC fit for purpose would have seen Russia’s invasion condemned by the global community, with a binding decision on sanctions and at least the deployment of an observer mission. Through the mission’s reports, Russia would be held to account for its international crimes; and other global powers would be forced to think more carefully about their own military adventures.

Ukraine is just one of many conflicts in which the UNSC has underperformed and faced strong criticism. In Yemen, the US has supported Saudi Arabia to counter Iranian influence in the region. Russia propped up the Assad government in Syria and consistently opposed UNSC resolutions tabled by the West. Some clashes don’t even make it onto the council agenda, such as disputed Kashmir, with Pakistan working through China, and India countering them through both Russia and the US.

African countries have learnt from previous global interventions, such as the mission creep that followed the UNSC’s imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011. This is probably among the reasons that 17 African countries – the largest number of abstentions from any region – withheld their votes on the 2 March UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although deeply divided on the Ukraine crisis, African countries are united on the need for UNSC reform. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa says the war has exposed the council’s inability to maintain peace and security, and its current formation is outdated and disadvantages developing countries.

He is right, but the African position, known as the Ezulwini Consensus, isn’t a solution. It was adopted by the African Union in 2005 to block a previous effort at reform, then championed by India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. But it hardly offers a UNSC fit for the future.

One solution proposed by Kemal Dervis and José Antonio Ocampo, former government ministers who served in senior positions in the UN system, is to make it possible to overturn a P5 veto through a big double majority, such as two-thirds of member countries.

Liechtenstein and 37 others have recently tabled a resolution at the General Assembly that would automatically trigger a meeting of the assembly when a permanent UNSC member uses the veto. But since the proposal is only for the duration of the current Assembly that ends in September, it hardly qualifies as reform.

The Elect The Council initiative at the Institute for Security Studies is more considered and recognises that global powers must be included in a reformed UNSC. It proposes a category of states, or coalitions of states, that have 3% of global population, 5% of global GDP and which contribute 5% of the UN budget. They would automatically be included in a new UNSC, with enhanced voting powers but no veto.

Elect The Council suggests that regional powers qualify for renewable three-year terms and that each region elects rotating members. The reformed council would ensure proportional representation for all parts of the world. No state would have a permanent seat or veto power, and the changes would be phased in over 18 years, during which time the current P5 would remain members with enhanced voting rights but no veto.

Zelensky has put UNSC reform on the agenda with an urgency prompted by a superpower’s invasion of a sovereign state and the threat of an expanding conflagration. From crisis may yet come opportunity. Russia’s aggression is the impetus needed for radical change that makes the UNSC more legitimate, effective and able to play a greater role in global peace.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, ISS and Chair of the ISS Board of Trustees

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS