UN Security Council reform: a story of growing German frustration

Published: 30 September 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

Germany regards the Security Council as “the most important organ of the United Nations for guaranteeing peace and security worldwide.” Following its admission to the organisation on 18 September 1973, it was elected six times to a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Council. However, from the 1990s Germany aspired to become a permanent Council member. Together with three other aspirant countries – Brazil, India, and Japan – it formed the Group of 4 (G4) which worked for Security Council reform, including an expansion of both permanent and non-permanent members. The G4 advocated adding six new permanent members to the Council (two seats each for Africa and Asia and one seat [i.e., Germany] for the Western European and Others Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Group respectively).  In addition, they supported four or five non-permanent members (one seat each for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and one or two seats for Africa). Although the item “Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and other matters related to the Security Council” was first included in the agenda of the General Assembly in 1979, and although the World Summit of Heads of State and Government in 2005 supported “early reform of the Security Council” as an essential element of the overall effort to reform the United Nations, there was no progress on Security Council reform. The intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) which were conducted in an informal plenary of the UN General Assembly since 2009 produced no tangible result.

Germany hoped to use its term as a non-permanent Council member in 2019-2020 to make progress in its attempts to become a permanent member. On 22 January 2019, Germany gained formal support for its aspirations from France when the two States agreed in the Treaty of Aachen “to continue their efforts to conclude intergovernmental negotiations on the reform of the United Nations Security Council. The admission of the Federal Republic of Germany as a permanent member of the Security Council is a priority of Franco-German diplomacy.” Commenting on the French support of Germany’s aspiration to a acquire a permanent seat on the Security Council, the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated:

“The issue of the permanent status of Germany in the UN Security Council will not be addressed in the bilateral French-German format. Such a decision must be made by the UN General Assembly following intergovernmental talks held in New York with the participation of all UN members. […] Russia’s principled position on UN Security Council reform is to expand the representation of developing African, Asian and Latin American countries.”

Russia thereby implicitly rejected both Germany’s and Japan’s pleas for permanent Council seats as this would require an increase in the number Western European and “developed” Asian States.

The IGN continued to be treading water. There was little to no progress, with delegations repeating their well-known positions. In February 2019, the G4 restated their support for an expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories of membership, including appropriate representation of Africa in both categories. While advocating that the new permanent members should have the same responsibilities and obligations as current permanent members, the G4 were prepared to agree that new permanent members should not exercise the veto-right until a decision on the matter had been taken during a review, to be held 15 years after the reform come into force. In order to no longer go round in circles, the G4 called for consolidation of the various proposals into one document and finally starting text-based negotiations.

Asked about the state of the UN Security Council reform, Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, said in an interview on 25 March 2019:

“The current composition of the Council no longer reflects the reality of our world. Primarily, that involves the 54 African states that do not have one permanent seat. However, other actors are not appropriately represented either.

We still firmly believe in [a permanent seat for Germany] and have formed an interest group together with Brazil, Japan and India. It is correct, however, that progress has currently stalled. Certain countries are blocking movement on this question. In first place here is China, which thwarts even the smallest advances and is fundamentally against any kind of reform. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping up the effort.”

As in previous years, the foreign ministers of the G4 met on 25 September 2019 during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York and “reiterated their strong commitment to an early and comprehensive reform of the Security Council”. But they also had to note that “more than 10 years after the beginning of the IGN, no concrete result has been achieved.”

Since no progress could be made in New York, the G4 engaged in exercises of self-assurance. During a visit to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement that read in the relevant part:

“The two leaders underlined the steadfast efforts of the G-4 and other reform- oriented countries and groups in moving towards initiation of text-based negotiations on the Security Council reform to be initiated during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. Both countries reiterated their full support to each other’s candidatures for a permanent seat in a reformed and expanded UN Security Council. Reforming the Security Council is central to safeguarding and strengthening the multilateral rules-based order. The lack of representativeness of the Security Council at the heart of the international order for international peace and security affects the legitimacy of its decisions and its effectiveness. In light of the global challenges we are facing, we need strong, legitimate and effective United Nations.”

Back in New York, Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Heusgen, resorted to a fairy tale theme to vent his frustration over the lack of progress in the IGN. Speaking on behalf of the G4 he stated on 25 November 2019:

“I am starting to feel like Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, but her tales were clearly more exciting and colourful than ours. She would not have survived until dawn by asking for text-based negotiations and the extension of membership in both categories.

We are not Scheherazade, but underperforming on our task comes with a high price, too. By procrastinating on the reform of the Security Council, we risk seeing that body lose its authority and the legitimacy of its decisions. And just in case “procrastination” sounds too harsh, we have been stuck in this process for decades now, with the only change being in the name of the format. Contrary to the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, which teaches that slow and steady wins the race, we find ourselves not one step closer to the finish line than we were last year or several years ago.

To this day, we have proven incapable of reforming the United Nations principal organ for maintaining international peace and security. To this day, we have not succeeded in getting closer to text-based negotiations despite an overwhelming majority of States Members of the United Nations having asked for them. So far, we have collectively failed to address one of the most relevant issues in the multilateral system today. Defending the multilateral system on Sundays and then blocking the reform of one of its central organs from Monday to Saturday will no longer do the trick. […]

Over time, the intergovernmental negotiations have appeared ever less capable of moving beyond the mere repetition of well-known positions. Much like Little Red Riding Hood, we have been repeatedly and collectively led off the path by those who do not want us to reach our goal. We cannot waste any more time picking flowers in the meadows while grandmother is at risk of being devoured.

The intergovernmental negotiations’ quest for consensus allows a select few members of the General Assembly to successfully put a spoke in the wheel of Security Council reform. But those who prefer moving in circles rather than in a linear fashion owe the rest of us a convincing answer to the question of how they want to ensure that the Security Council is equipped to deal with the complex challenges the world faces today on questions of international peace and security. […]

We can find our way if we do not continue to drop breadcrumbs that are eaten by the birds and instead finally use little stones to guide us through the forest. That is easy; let us simply put what we have into a text. […].

We should not waste any more valuable time. […] Over the past decade in the intergovernmental negotiations, we have called out all the names we could think of to break the spell forcing us to go in circles. It is time we said ‘Rumpelstiltskin’.”

The German call for text-based negotiations, however, went as unheard as the demand that the IGN should be guided by the decision-making requirements and working methods laid out in the Charter of the United Nations and in the rules and procedures of the General Assembly.

During the next meeting of the IGN in February 2020 it was business as usual. The G4 called  again for “a single, inclusive and holistic document” as a basis for text-based negotiations, supported a permanent African seat on the Council, and generally questioned the current IGN format. Germany’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations aligned himself with the G4 statement and then added:

“As pointed out at the General Assembly in November, Germany is growing increasingly frustrated with what we would call the lack of real progress in the IGN process. […]

The Security Council is losing credibility and authority more and more these days. But this is the Security Council we have – and we need to make it work more efficiently and keep it relevant. It is essential to managing, solving, preventing conflicts. This is why it urgently needs to be adapted to the realities of the 2020s, both when it comes to regional representation and when it comes to giving those countries a permanent voice which contribute most to the United Nations, be it financially or otherwise.”

In a statement to the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2020, on the occasion of the high-level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated Germany’s aspiration to become a permanent Security Council member, saying:

“[T]he Security Council is all too often deadlocked when clear decisions are called for. We need reforms. The United Nations must continue to develop in order to be in a position to master the global challenges of the 21st century. Germany stands ready to continue to shoulder responsibility, and would be pleased to do so in an expanded Security Council.”

Despite the Heads of State and Government at the meeting committing “to instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council”, no progress was made.  In keeping with the traditional ritual, the foreign ministers of the G4 met on 23 September 2020 during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, albeit virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a joint press statement, they once again called for text-based negotiations and expressed concern at “the lack of any meaningful movement forward” in the IGN on Security Council reform. Ministers lamented that the IGN lacked the necessary openness and transparency and was constrained by flawed working methods. They called for the IGN to be guided by the decision-making requirements and working methods laid out in the UN Charter and in the rules and procedures of the General Assembly.

During the General Assembly’s annual debate on Security Council reform on 16 November 2020, the representative of Brazil, speaking on behalf of the G4, declared that “the Council is slowly losing its credibility, authority and legitimacy. The only way we can change that is by reforming it.” He noted that “the intergovernmental negotiations are being used not to enable real negotiations but to prevent any concrete outcome.” This was also shown by the fact that the coronavirus pandemic was used as a welcome excuse not to hold any meetings of the IGN since March 2020. During the same debate, the German Permanent Representative also took to the floor, again using a fairy tale theme to express his frustration:

“Once upon a time, in a world very different from today’s, the United Nations was created. Since then, more countries have entered the scene, as have more people and new challenges, and we need to adapt the institutions that we have built in order to ensure their continued relevance and legitimacy and reflect those new realities. In September, our Heads of State and Government therefore reiterated their long-standing call for reform.

As I did last year, I will take up a fairy-tale theme for my speech and refer to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Like Grimm’s prince, we need to urgently muster the courage to cut through the thick rose-hedge of cluster discussions, general statements and repetition of positions and finally enter the palace to kiss Sleeping Beauty to fulfil the task given to us by our Heads of State and Government. We must, to quote those Heads of State and Government, instil new life into the discussions on the reform of the Security Council. […]

By merely stating repetitions of issues, we run the risk of turning this process into a vehicle for maintaining the status quo, and we cannot accept that. We will not accept seeing our carriage turn into a pumpkin again at the arrival of summer in the next rollover decision. […].

Just like the entire palace staff waking up in the fairy-tale after 100 years of slumber, we need to wake up to an open, inclusive and transparent process with webcasting, record-keeping and the application of the rules of procedure of the General Assembly. It must not take 100 years for us to do so. Forty years of deliberations are more than enough. At the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly, it is time to infuse the United Nations with new vitality, with reforming the Security Council as a central element.”

There was, however, no sign of Sleeping Beauty being kissed awake and the curse that seemed to hold the IGN under its spell remained unbroken.

Twelve years of IGN have produced nothing but endless debate. In fact, the IGN have become a convenient smokescreen for those States who want to block any expansion of Security Council membership. The acronym “IGN” has come to stand for ineffective or inconsequential government negotiations, rather than for intergovernmental negotiations. It was thus probably no more than calculated optimism, when Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, taking stock of Germany’s two-year term on the Security Council, declared before the Federal Parliament:

“We have shown over the past two years that we are capable of filling a seat on the UN Security Council in the long term. We therefore want not only to stand for a non-permanent seat again in eight years’ time, but also seek to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council before that date.”

Leaving aside whether, in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition, a permanent German seat on the Security Council is at all realistic, the question remains whether such a seat would be justified. While a good case can be made for additional African, Asian, and Latin American and Caribbean seats in order to make the Council more representative, one may ask whether it really needs another member from the Western European and Others Group which, with three permanent and two non-permanent members, is already overrepresented on the 15-member Council. The picture becomes even more imbalanced if one considers that most members of the Eastern European Group are now members of the European Union and thus have in fact politically joined the Western European and Others Group. Even if “equitable geographical distribution” of Council membership were only a secondary consideration, it is still one that weighs heavily on the Council’s legitimacy.

Nevertheless, when non-permanent members of the Security Council are elected due regard is specially to be paid, “in the first instance, to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the organization.” If that criterion were also applied to the selection of new permanent Council members, Germany would have a good case for permanent membership. In 2020, the country was the fourth largest contributor to the United Nations’ regular budget behind the United States, China, and Japan. Germany also made major voluntary contributions to the work of the organisation in the area of stabilisation and humanitarian assistance, development cooperation and sustainable development, making it the second largest contributor (based on regular and voluntary contributions taken together).

When it noted that the “Security Council is all too often deadlocked when clear decisions are called for”, however, Germany itself provided the best argument against any increase in the number of permanent Council members, especially if equipped with the veto right. It did not say what leads it to believe that the situation would be any better with ten permanent members than the current five. Any increase in representativeness will most likely lead to less effectiveness. The international community is not served by the most legitimate Security Council decisions which are never taken.

Category: United Nations

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  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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