Online Exclusive 10/23/2012 Blog

Elected Security Council Members: Power, Process, Purpose


This is the season when the UN General Assembly becomes something of a diplomatic pageant, as the candidates for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council vie with each other for what in many respects is the biggest prize of all: a seat at the table. For 2013 and 2014, five countries—Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea, and Rwanda—join Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo as non-permanent members of the UNSC, the latter five of which have one remaining year to serve.

Candidate countries engage in long and drawn-out campaigns to garner promises of support when it comes to the vote—promises that are undeclared and sometimes unfulfilled. While capitals produce pamphlets showcasing their countries contribution to the UN, their domestic publics tend to focus on the mundane materiality of the anticipated costs and benefits of membership.

“Why bother?” This question is frequently posed in national newspapers and on blog sites. Below we set out a number of answers to this question, and in so doing, reveal several under-studied aspects of non-permanent members’ role: their agenda-setting power, the influence they are able to exert over the Permanent Five (P5), and whether it is meaningful to consider the Elected Ten (E10) as a grouping with a shared identity and common purposes.

The first and most obvious point to make about the E10 is that it is the “other” to the P5. These global powers have, by virtue of Article 23 of the UN Charter, a double privilege: a permanent place at the table, and decisive influence that is given to them by their veto power.

By comparison, he non-permanent members are hardly ever noticed outside of the small world of international diplomacy, with the only notable exception being when the U.S. scrambled for votes in support of the 2003 Iraq War—a state of affairs which catapulted the E10 to global prominence.

Nonetheless, when they are prepared to work hard and innovate, non-permanent members can leave an indelible mark on the Council. During its stint on the Council in 1999-2000, Canada pioneered two critically important initiatives that not only improved the effectiveness of the Council, but also contributed to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Through its activism on the Angola sanctions committee it introduced the notion of “naming and shaming” states that failed to comply with the Security Council’s demands. This led to a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness of the sanctions regime targeting UNITA; it also created a precedent followed by other sanctions committees.

Since then targeted financial sanctions and asset freezes have proven to be highly effective tools. Canada also championed the adoption of the protection of civilians as a thematic agenda item. Thanks to this initiative, the Council continues its ongoing consideration of the issue, which has helped prompt the UN to mainstream protection in its peacekeeping and humanitarian missions and place demands on combatants.

Today, so-called “Arria formula” meetings—developed and championed by Diego Arria, Venezuela’s permanent representative to the Security Council in 1992-1993—are a standard part of the Council’s agenda. These meetings allow Council members to informally seek the advice of nongovernmental organizations on particular issues. The Council’s first discussion of the crisis in Darfur, for example, was an Arria formula meeting.

It is also worth remembering that when they act together, the members of the E10 can enjoy their own veto. For even if the P5 find a consensus, they still require four additional votes from the E10, as resolutions require nine affirmative votes to pass. In theory, therefore, it is possible that the E10 could block even the most determined joint action by the P5 if they so chose.

But even if blocking the P5 is an unlikely scenario, the combined power of the E10 members should not be underestimated. It is worth remembering, for example, that in 2011, as the Security Council debated action over Libya, the E10 included several so-called “rising great powers”: Brazil, India, and South Africa, and Germany, the EU’s indispensable state. India, in particular, sought to use its E10 status to pursue the policies and purposes of rising powers.

How does the weight of the newly elected E10 members compare? Of the five successful candidates, three are pivotal to the security and prosperity of their region—Argentina, Australia, and the Republic of Korea. It is possible that they will find common cause in progressive middle power agenda-setting, such as over arms control and disarmament, development, and the R2P framework for atrocity prevention and response.

In terms of the process of selection, it is useful to be reminded of the “brief” (in both meanings) that is given in the UN Charter. When selecting candidates seeking to join the E10, the 193 UN member states that are eligible to vote are instructed to give “due regard” to the contribution of the candidate states to “the maintenance of international peace and security’ and also ‘to equitable geographical distribution.”

The latter criterion ought to be straightforward given the regional blocs. Yet there are many anomalies in the groupings—anomalies that are perhaps unavoidable given that geography and history are often poorly aligned. Israel and Australia, for instance, are in the so-called West European and Others Group, which is why Australia found itself in a highly competitive three-cornered contest with Luxembourg and Finland. The defeat for Finland in the current round is a surprise given its historic contribution to peacebuilding going back to the Helsinki Accords of 1975.

Over the years, there have been dozens of proposals for reforming the voting system to ensure that the votes reflect these criteria. Some have suggested that membership ought to be conditional on contributions to the UN’s peacekeeping operations. That might rule out Australia, Finland and Luxembourg, who together contribute fewer peacekeepers to UN missions than does Fiji. Others have argued that states found to have poor human rights records ought not to be permitted to stand. Here it should be remembered that the Rwandan government was on the Security Council at the time of the genocide, suggesting that E10 membership provides opportunities to diplomatically cover-up barbaric policies at home.

But whose standards would be taken as the guide? One rather instrumentalist proposal suggested that a state’s financial contribution to the UN should be taken into account, and that states with significant financial debts to the UN ought to be barred from standing. According to the most recent budget figures, this would rule out Japan. Of course, by that standard the United States would have had a hard time getting on the Council for much of the 1990s.

Clearly, formal prescriptions about the criteria for membership are not desirable as they would produce harmful effects for the UN and international society more broadly. Nonetheless, informal pressure might be brought to bear if states and societies are given easy access to information about the qualities that a potential E10 candidate country brings to the table. For example, a repository of data that presented an index of global citizenship explicitly tied to UN benchmarks would assist the calibration and transparency of this aspect of the criteria. Among other things, such a dataset would need to include: peacekeeping contributions, financial donations, aid programs, compliance with international law, human rights treaty ratifications (including of the International Criminal Court), and information about conduct that is consistent with extant Security Council resolutions.

Even with more and better quality information about where different countries stand with respect to a basket of UN policies and rules, elections to the Council and to other UN organs and committees are still likely to result in anomalies. But at least those voting in the General Assembly would be making an informed decision about a candidate country’s past record; and let us not forget that knowledge is power.

Alex Bellamy is Professor of International Security at Griffith University, Australia. Alex is Director of the Human Protection Hub at Griffith, and Director (International) of the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P.

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations, University of Queensland, Australia. Tim is Director (Research) of the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P.