UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama’s support for India’s bid for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council put the spotlight on the failure of the United Nations to reform its most powerful body.
Despite widespread agreement that the Security Council needs to reflect the 21st century world – not the international power structure after World War II – the 192-member General Assembly has been unable for three decades to agree on a reform proposal.
The gridlock was evident during a debate Thursday: Supporters of three rival proposals to reform the council showed no signs of budging.
Since 1979, the U.N. has been talking about expanding the 15-member Security Council. But every proposal has been rejected, primarily because of rivalries between countries and regions more concerned about their own self-interests than the improved functioning of the United Nations.
The Security Council is powerful because it is responsible for maintaining international peace and security and can authorize military action and impose sanctions, so membership is coveted.
The five permanent members – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – have veto power, so their unanimous support is essential for any reform to be adopted. The 10 non-permanent members represent all regions of the world and are elected for two-year terms.
Many countries on Thursday called for compromise to try to reach agreement on a proposal to reform the council’s composition.
“What we need is political will from all of us, large and small, developing and developed, permanent and non-permanent, in order to achieve the result that could garner the widest possible political acceptance,” Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said, speaking on behalf of the 118-nation Nonaligned Movement of mainly developing countries.
But supporters of the main rival reform proposals showed no signs of budging.
The so-called Group of Four – India, Japan, Germany and Brazil – pressed their case for permanent seats.
Meanwhile, the Uniting for Consensus group of middle-ranking countries, led by Pakistan and Italy, reiterated their opposition to any new permanent seats and their strong support for an expansion of non-permanent members.
And African nations demanded that the U.N. rectify the historic injustice that left Africa as the only continent without a permanent seat by giving it two permanent seats with veto power and five non-permanent seats.
On a visit to India earlier this week, Obama endorsed India’s bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council, saying the nation of a billion people had a “rightful place in the world” alongside China. The U.S. has supported Japan’s bid for a seat for years.
In the General Assembly debate, Russia and the United States made clear that they oppose any change to the current veto power arrangements.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo said the United States is open to “a modest expansion” of the council’s members, but named no names.
China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong said “top priority” in expanding the council should be given to developing countries, especially from Africa, and to more representation from small and medium-size countries.
He stressed that there has to be “a package solution,” saying a piecemeal or step-by-step expansion would lead “nowhere.”
Stewart Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Program on International Institutions and Global Governance, said Obama’s support of a seat for India was “a bold foreign policy stroke.” But he noted that Obama didn’t provide a strategy to achieve Security Council reform.
“The president should follow up on his dramatic announcement by launching a comprehensive plan for Security Council enlargement, based on clear criteria for permanent membership,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said in an interview that Obama’s statement didn’t change “the fundamental dynamics in the negotiations.”
“We have a membership that is largely divided down the middle,” she said, half supporting the Group of Four and half Uniting for Consensus. “There isn’t clear momentum in one direction or another. There’s some degree of paralysis.”
Next year’s Security Council could offer a preview of what an expanded council might look like because it will have a unique membership of global powers and important emerging countries.
India, South Africa and Germany – powerhouses in Asia, Africa and Europe – won two-year terms that will put them on the council at the same time as Brazil and Nigeria, key players in Latin America and Africa.
“Certainly the United States and others will be looking very carefully at how those aspirants comport themselves on the council,” Rice said.