Science & Technology

Eight is the Magic Number

The United Nation Security Council is no longer fit for purpose: it represents an international order that is over 70 years old. Vesselin Popovski offers a new vision for the UNSC which will result in a more representative, and more effective council.

The UN Security Council is no longer fit for purpose. A bold claim, given that the UNSC has been a lynchpin of the international order since the end of World War II — but, then again, World War II ended over 70 years ago. The world has changed, but the Security Council has not. Reform has been debated continuously over almost 25 years, but with precious little progress achieved. There are two main obstacles — the reluctance of the current permanent members to implement changes, and the divided opinions of the rest of the countries in the world not so much over whether to implement changes but how to. The last time the UNSC was reformed in 1965 the permanent members were also reluctant, but the rest of the world united behind the need to expand its membership, and four seats were added from 11 to 15 in the Security Council.

I propose a simple and attractive model for a new Security Council — I call it 8 + 8 + 8. It includes 8 permanent, 8 semi-permanent and 8 non-permanent members, and in the middle category the semi-permanent members serve 8 + 8 + 8 years in renewable seats. 24-year tenure is convenient as each member of the Security Council can hold the presidency of the Council for two years.

The permanent members are the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the US. The renewable seats are taken by a group of powerful countries, such as Germany, Britain, France, South Africa, Nigeria, Italy, Canada, Egypt, Mexico, Argentina, Pakistan, Indonesia and others, who promise to contribute more budget, mediators, peacekeeping and other seconded personnel in return for a seat at the table. European and African countries can all enjoy the permanent collective representation offered by the EU and the AU having permanent membership.

Put simply, everybody wins with 8 + 8 + 8. The USA, Russia and China retain their much-vaunted permanent membership and receive more support, including budgetary and military support, from more countries and regional organizations, who work together to share the burden of international peace and security. Aspiring members such as Brazil, India and Japan get a permanent seat, as there will be more room for them, given large regional entities such as the EU and AU can speak for their members at Council. European and African regional powers should be happy, having not only longer renewable seats, but also a further voice from the EU’s and the AU’s permanent seats — certainly a much stronger role compared to the current system where they enjoy only occasional two-year non-renewable seats.

There is a 24 years transitional period built into the 8 + 8 + 8 plan from 2020 till 2044 to smooth the process and build confidence. For example, in 2020 Britain, France, Germany, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Egypt and Pakistan become the first semi-permanent members for 8 years. In 2028, four countries, perhaps Italy, Indonesia, Mexico and Canada, replace four of the eight semi-permanent seats; and in 2036 the four who leave in 2028 return to replace four who would have served 16 years.

In 2044 the transition ends and 8 semi-permanent members are elected out of group of 16 candidates. In addition to the listed above 12 countries, four are added to make 16, and every 8 years — in 2052, 2060 ,and so on — elections are held to choose 8 nations from a list of 16 candidates who apply or re-apply for the next 8 years’ membership. Naturally, some countries serving 16 or 24 years already may choose to take a break and not run, reducing the actual competition and raising the chances of others. The fact that the semi-permanent members pay more contributions to the budget, to peacekeeping and other needs of the UN, will also prove to be a factor, insofar as countries will need to balance how often they would like to be in the Council with how much they want to — or indeed, are able to — pay. And the best part: the final decision as to which countries will compete for renewable seats will be taken in 2044: the UN can take its time.

With the 8 + 8 + 8 plan, every region gets what’s on its wish-list. Africa gets the permanent AU seat, plus one or even two other nations as renewable members. Currently, Africa has no seats on the council whatsoever.

Asia receives two new permanent members — India and Japan — and plenty of semi-permanent members — Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea, and so on. By 2044 ASEAN may have become integrated enough to become a collective member too. This results in more power for Asia than any other proposal that has been made so far, filling the current gap in Asian representation.

Latin America receives a permanent seat for Brazil, but Argentina and Mexico may decide to rotate their semi-permanent membership every 8 or 16 years, adding a second constant Latin American seat. This in fact is more representation than Latin America is currently pushing for.

Crucially, the current permanent also benefit. The USA, Russia and China lose nothing, they remain full permanent members — the only change they will notice is that they will end up paying less money after a large group of new contributors joins the Council.

A question arises how will the regional organizations choose to vote. This is a challenge, but a constructive one, as it will help the AU and the EU to integrate further and fulfill their own promise to demonstrate common leadership on security and defense. The AU and the EU may opt for decision-making via a simple majority vote, un-obstructed by veto, or they may well find another satisfying formula. The new composition where the EU will sit together with a group of European semi-permanent and non-permanent members and the AU will do much the same with African states can offer the necessary flexibility and dynamism. The 8 + 8 + 8 plan will bring about a step-change instrumental not only for the UN, but also for the AU and the EU.

The evergreen issue of the veto can also be resolved. The new permanent members can volunteer to refrain from veto and set a good example. Even if an old member continues to use veto, it will constantly face the opposition of two large regional organizations — the AU and the EU — plus many more powerful members around the table, rendering unilateral action too costly. 8 + 8 + 8 changes also the perception of the Council: it does no longer reflects privileges from the past, rather responsibility for the future. The Security Council will no longer the club of victors from World War II, rather, it will be an open and constructive forum where members follow not their narrow national interest but rather serve the wider global interest.