Germany, Japan are Still ‘Enemies’! That’s How Outdated the UN is

73 years on, UNSC reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 and not of today, writes Shashi Tharoor.

5 min read
Delegates to the UNSC listen to US President Harry Truman in San Francisco in April 1945. 

The problem of reforming the United Nations Security Council is rather akin to a malady in which a number of doctors gather around a patient; they all agree on the diagnosis, but they cannot agree on the prescription.

Germany, Japan are Still ‘Enemies’! That’s How Outdated the UN is

The diagnosis is clear – the Security Council reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 and not of today. When the UN was founded that year, the Council consisted of 11 members out of a total UN membership of 51 countries; in other words, some 22% of the members were on the Security Council. Today, there are 193 members of the UN, and only 15 members of the Council – fewer than 8%. So many more countries, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the membership, do not feel adequately represented on the body.

The composition of the Council also gives undue weightage to the balance of power of those days: Europe, for instance, which accounts for barely 5% of the world’s population, still controls 33% of the seats. And the five Permanent Members (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China) enjoy their position, and the privilege of a veto over any Council resolution or decision, by virtue of having won a war 63 years ago. (In the case of China, the word “won” needs to be placed within inverted commas.)

So clearly the Security Council is ripe for reform to bring it into the 21st century. The UN recognised the need for action as early as 1992, when the Open-Ended Working Group of the General Assembly was established to look into the issue, in the hope of having a solution in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the world organisation in 1995. But the UN has missed not only its 50th anniversary, but even the 70th, which happens to be today. Left to their own devices, member states will be arguing the merits of the case well past the UN’s centenary.

Indian delegates at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. (Courtesy: UN)
Indian delegates at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. (Courtesy: UN)

UNSC is Ripe for Reform

The problem is quite simple: for every state that feels it deserves a place on the Security Council, there are several who know they will not benefit from any reform. The small countries that make up more than half the UN’s membership accept that reality and are content to compete occasionally for a two-year non-permanent seat on the Council. But the medium-sized and large countries which are rivals of the prospective beneficiaries deeply resent the prospect of a select few breaking free of their current second-rank status in the world body. Many are openly animated by a spirit of competition, historical grievance or simple envy. Together they have banded together into an effective coalition to thwart reform.

The bar to amending the UN Charter has been set rather high. Any amendment requires a two-thirds majority of the overall membership, in other words 129 of the 193 states in the General Assembly. An amendment would further have to be ratified by two-thirds of the member states, including the existing permanent members whose clout would be diluted. That has proved to be a tall order indeed.

Finding an Acceptable Formula

How do you find a formula acceptable to two-thirds of the countries and not unacceptable to the Perm Five? Who would an amendment put on an expanded Security Council? Obviously, states that displace some weight in the world and have a record of making major contributions to the UN system.

Japan and Germany are the second and third largest financial contributors to the UN (though the Charter, drawn up in 1945, still calls them “enemy states”, since the UN was set up by the victorious allies of World War II). But when they began pressing their claims to permanent seats, the foreign minister of Italy wisecracked, “what’s all this talk about Japan and Germany? We lost the war too.” (And neither China nor South Korea is keen on Japan, with its record of atrocities seven decades ago, being rewarded today.)

Germany, Japan are Still ‘Enemies’! That’s How Outdated the UN is

Adding these two to the Council would, of course, further skew the existing North-South imbalance, so they would have to be balanced by new permanent members from the developing world. In Asia, India, as the world’s largest democracy, its fifth-largest economy and a long-standing contributor to UN peace-keeping operations, seems an obvious contender. But Pakistan is unalterably opposed.

In Latin America, Brazil occupies a place analogous to India’s in Asia, but Argentina and Mexico have other ideas (especially since Brazil, unlike the rest of the continent it inhabits, is Portuguese-speaking, not Hispanic).

And in Africa, how is one to adjudicate the rival credentials of the continent’s largest democracy, Nigeria, its largest economy, South Africa, and its oldest civilisation, Egypt?

But I do still believe the Security Council has to change sooner or later. The best argument for reform is that the absence of reform could discredit the United Nations itself. Reform is essential, because what merely looks anomalous today will seem absurd tomorrow. Imagine in 2020 a British or French veto of a resolution affecting South Asia, with India absent from the table, or of one affecting Southern Africa with South Africa not voting: who would take the Council seriously then?

Germany, Japan are Still ‘Enemies’! That’s How Outdated the UN is

Future of World at Stake

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” American diplomats like to say. But to much of the rest of the world, the Security Council is indeed “broke”, and the more decisions it is called upon to take that affect many countries – authorising wars, declaring sanctions, launching peacekeeping interventions – the greater the risk that its decisions will be seen as made by an unrepresentative body and therefore rejected as illegitimate.

The United Nations is the one universal body we all have, the one organisation to which every country in the world belongs; if it is discredited, the world as a whole will lose an institution that is truly irreplaceable. It’s not just about India. The future of the world body is at stake.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(This story was first published on 24 October 2016. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of UN Day on 24 October, and assesses why the Security Council needs to be revamped.)

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