The efficacy of the UN Security Council has long been questioned, and the chorus of calls for change is growing louder day by day.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most vocal advocates for restructuring of the UN’s top decision-making body, leading the charge with his mantra that “the world is bigger than five.”
At the heart of the debate lies the use – or rather misuse – of the veto power held by each of the five permanent Security Council members – the US, UK, France, China, and Russia.
Each of them has, at one point or another, used that decisive vote to block moves they believed threatened their interests, paying no heed to the greater good or larger public benefit.
It has left the Security Council toothless and quite incapable of fulfilling its purported aim of maintaining global peace.
At this week’s 77th UN General Assembly, US President Joe Biden, among other leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, brought up the issue after Erdogan.
Biden called for expanding the Security Council’s membership, saying permanent seats should be granted to nations in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
So is it a case Türkiye and the US seeing eye to eye? Are Erdogan and Biden pushing for the same thing? Not quite, according to some experts.
Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said Biden’s announcement has created a “stir among diplomats at the UN.”
“I think the US was responding to a widespread sense at the UN that Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted deep flaws in the Security Council,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“The US does not want to look like it is defending a fundamentally flawed body even though it enjoys a privileged position in the Council,” he said.
The US was hoping to win some “diplomatic goodwill” with this gesture, Gowan argued, but added that Washington does not have “a detailed model of reforms” needed.
According to Kadir Ustun, the executive director of the Political, Economic and Social Research Foundation (SETA) in Washington, Biden was “frustrated” with Russia’s position at the UN Security Council following the war in Ukraine, which led him to call for reform.
The UN reform, he said, has been an “unrealized goal” for several decades.
“In the past, the P5 (permanent five) countries used the UN Security Council to create common action against ‘belligerents’ in the international system such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq among others.
“At the same time, there has been no meaningful action on a number of issues if one of the P5 countries wouldn’t see it in their national interest such as on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands,” he asserted.
‘No easy consensus’ on UN reform
Many countries, including Türkiye and the US, have demanded reforming the Security Council. However, experts see differences in approaches between Ankara and Washington in this regard.
The Turkish president has proposed a rotating membership system thus all countries would get a chance to be a member at some point. His US counterpart, on the other hand, raised the need for increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent representatives of the UNSC.
Gowan said Erdogan has always been a strong critic of the power of the permanent five members of the Council.
“The US is willing to talk about reform, but we should recognize that Washington will ultimately defend its power position in the body, whatever structural changes are possible,” he said. “So there is an opportunity for Erdogan to advance his ideas, but there is no easy consensus.”
Can permanent members give up veto power?
Among the five permanent Security Council members, Russia has been the most frequent user of the veto right, with 120 vetoes so far. It is followed by the US with 82 vetoes, most of which are related to resolutions critical of Israel. China used its veto power many times, siding with Russia on the civil war in Syria. The UK and France have not used their veto power since 1989.
Biden told 77th UN General Assembly that the US should “refrain from the use of the veto, except in rare, extraordinary situations.”
But will the countries give up their veto power, which has been a serious challenge in reform initiatives?
According to Ustun from SETA, an Ankara-based think tank, great powers are unlikely to give up this power, as they have “used it in their favor on a number of issues such as Israel and Syria.”
He, however, stressed that a “comprehensive reform of the UN system will need to address the veto power and inclusion of all countries.”
Gowan believes that the US could make “non-binding political commitments” about limiting its veto use but is never going to give up its basic veto power, especially on Israel-related issues.
Security Council expansion ‘quite probably impossible to agree upon’
As the US is in favor of increasing the permanent seats for other nations, Gowan opined it would be “highly political contentious and quite probably impossible to agree upon.”
“There are so many complications, such as tensions between China and Japan, and India and Pakistan over their relative power at the UN,” he said.
“I actually think that it may be easier to work on other issues, like agreeing a code of conduct on the P5’s use of the veto, which would not necessarily require Charter reform,” he said.
“However, Russia may simply refuse to engage in that discussion of the veto. I think China would be marginally more willing to do so,” he added.
Although SETA’s Ustun voiced support for “a comprehensive reform of the UN system,” he still thinks the expansion of the members “would definitely make a big difference if the UN Security Council structure is broadened and made much more inclusive.”