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Why reforming the U.N. Security Council has become imperative

By Brahma Chellaney
Professor Emeritus at the Center for Policy Research
February 24, 2023
Japan, with a pacifist Constitution, has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II. And it has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid and a vocal promoter of global peace. So, having recently started its two-year stint as a new nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Japan may seem to be credibly placed to push for U.N. reform and a greater focus on international peacekeeping and human rights.

In reality, Japan has assumed Security Council membership for a record 12th term at a time when new geopolitical divisions are roiling the world. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has warned of “colossal global dysfunction,” declaring, “Our world is in big trouble.” The specter of global dysfunction seems real, with the U.N. increasingly marginalized in international relations. The U.N. is a mere bystander on the war in Ukraine, although that conflict has spawned global energy and food crises and greater international divisiveness.
A row of flags outside the UN
International roles have changed over the past 80 years, it is time for the UN Security Council to evolve
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 quickly became a kind of proxy war between Russia and the Western powers, igniting a new Cold War. The invasion, and the Western strategy of seeking to bleed Russia on Ukrainian soil, promise to reshape international geopolitics and geo-economics.

The conflict, meanwhile, has set in motion greater militarization among Western allies. Germany, a pacifist-leaning country like Japan, is to boost its defense spending to 2% of GDP and accept a military leadership role it earlier shunned. Britain, having already surpassed the 2% GDP figure, is aiming to double its defense spending by 2030. The U.S. recently hiked its already-mammoth military spending by 8%. And Sweden and Finland are joining a reinforced NATO.

Even Japan is overhauling its pacifist security policy, which capped defense spending at about 1% of GDP and shunned offensive capabilities. Japan is to embark on its largest military buildup since World War II by doubling defense spending within five years, boosting it to one of the world’s largest, and arming itself with preemptive counterstrike capabilities to hit enemy bases.

The advent of international conflict and greater militarization since last year underscores the new challenges to peace, stability and continued prosperity. In fact, the current international crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War.

The U.N. in crisis

From peacekeeping to humanitarian work, the U.N. can be proud of its achievements over the decades. U.N. peacekeepers, for example, often go to volatile, conflict-torn areas where no one else is prepared to go, putting their lives at risk. The number of attacks on peacekeepers has increased.

The U.N. has a central role to play in developing an international order in which the rule of law is firmly established. Developing such an order demands adherence, as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pointed out, to the basic principles enshrined in the 1970 U.N. General Assembly-adopted “Friendly Relations Declaration,” including replacing “rule by force” with “rule of law” and refraining from any attempt to change the territorial status quo by force or coercion.

Unfortunately, the powerful Security Council, which has been entrusted with upholding international peace and security, has failed to act on critical issues as it has become increasingly hamstrung by the sharpening geopolitics. A broader crisis in the United Nations, meanwhile, is undermining its vitality at a time when the international community needs the U.N. more than ever.

At the heart of the Security Council’s paralysis is its structure, established at the end of World War II, which gives veto rights to its five permanent members. In disregard of the U.N. Charter, the permanent members, which are all nuclear-armed, often seek to advance their own individual interests, not the collective interests of humankind.

In this light, international law remains powerful against the powerless but powerless against the powerful. This is apparent from the U.N. inaction on issues ranging from Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine to China’s detention of more than one million Xinjiang Muslims in what is the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era.

Kishida has rightly reminded the world that, “The United Nations does not exist solely for the benefit of the great powers,” urging that, “We must reform the United Nations and strengthen its functions.” Several international initiatives in recent years have sought to encourage voluntary veto restraint by the five permanent members as part of long-pending Security Council reforms.

Security Council reforms are essential to tackle a host of growing challenges the U.N. faces, from the increasing politicization of the subject of human rights to complex mandates and uneven political support for international peacekeeping. Such reforms can also help Japan’s dual push to bring nuclear disarmament back on the international agenda and for the U.N. to promote human security, including through the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Reform of the Security Council has long been overdue. The 1940s-era structure of the Security Council does not jibe with today’s realities. Yet the reform of the Security Council has been debated endlessly without any concrete action. It is past time to begin text-based negotiations to reform the Security Council.

Without reform, the Security Council will become increasingly dysfunctional. As Kishida has stressed, it is “precisely because we stand at a watershed moment in history” that the U.N. system needs to be revitalized and made more credible and relevant through reform.
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