UN Security Council Reform: The Urgent Need to Decolonize

Despite progress in addressing poverty, the UN and its various organizations continue to struggle to secure more funds to support their missions in areas like public health, peacekeeping, and education. The impact of colonialism persists despite the end of direct colonization, evident in structures like the UNSC that perpetuate inequality and hegemony of certain countries. Decolonizing the Security Council requires a commitment to addressing the historical injustices and power imbalances that have shaped its current structure. This involves not only reforming the composition and decision-making mechanisms but also re-evaluating the Council’s role in addressing conflicts and promoting peace and security in a way that reflects the interests and perspectives of all member states, particularly those that have been marginalized in the past.

Over the years, many UN member states have consistently pushed for expansion of the UNSC beyond the current five permanent members, who were major players in World War II. More recently, there has been growing demand to include emerging global powers like Turkey, Germany, and India, as well as increased representation for Africa. There is also a call to reduce the veto power of the P5 to avoid deadlock on important global issues. Despite various reform efforts by the UN, they have been viewed as merely cosmetic by many observers.

Initially designed to promote a global balance of power and avoid unilateral decisions, the veto power granted to the permanent UNSC members has become a tool that primarily benefits the powerful nations. The P5 can strategically use their veto to promote their own national interests and foreign policy goals, highlighting a subtle and systemic continuation of colonial practices.

The composition of the UN Security Council mirrors the current global power dynamics, with the US, Europe, Russia, and China holding dominance, while other members operate within or between these spheres of influence. With independence movements leading to the freedom of around 80 former colonies in its 75-year history, the UN’s permanent members no longer accurately represent the world’s key populations as they once did in the colonial era. The P5 now only make up a small fraction of the UN’s member states and oversee a minority of the global population. Despite efforts to include nonpermanent members on the UNSC, a Eurocentric bias persists.

With 10 non-permanent member states vying for additional UNSC seats and investing significant funds in lobbying efforts, European and Western nations collectively hold 47% of the total seats, despite representing only 17% of the global population. Moreover, only wealthy nations that can afford to compete at the highest levels are able to secure and retain seats on the council. For instance, Japan has been a member for 22 years, closely followed by Brazil at 20 years. In Africa, Nigeria has had a seat for just a decade.

Following the upheavals in global politics and the emergence of colonies as independent nations after World War II, the permanence and veto power of the P5 on the UNSC have served as a tool for former colonial powers to maintain their influence in global affairs. This evolution reflects a shift from direct colonization to a more subtle and enduring form of dominance on the international stage. The Council’s inability to prevent genocides, resolve conflicts, and address crises largely stem from the P5’s influence on decisions and resolutions, which prioritize protecting their strategic interests through maintaining alliances, sanctions, selective interventions, or avoiding disruptions to the global balance of power.

Despite significant changes in the demographic composition of the UN membership, economic distribution has not evolved at the same pace and may have even worsened, exacerbating economic inequality. This situation prompts an important query: Is the UN perpetuating a global system rooted in inequality and exploitation, or striving to liberate the world from such constraints? This fundamental question has been considered by alternative economist Arturo Escobar in his acclaimed work, “Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World.” Escobar critically explores why decades of UN development initiatives, loans, and aid have only marginally improved the well-being and happiness of the developing world.

Escobar contends that the current system is rigged, highlighting a paradox within the UN where the proposed international order can only function if nations relinquish their sovereignty, ultimately challenging the very foundation of the international order. Importantly, he contrasts how the P5 retain their autonomy, while weaker states are required to comply with UN directives under the guise of development, ultimately influencing the power dynamics in favor of the P5.

While Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people continue in the guise of combating terrorist groups, the suffering of innocent civilians remains unnoticed by many as the global powers fail to pass a resolution in the UNSC for a lasting ceasefire, hostage release, and humanitarian aid. The US vetoed such a resolution on December 18, 2023, marking the 45th time since 1945 that it has used its veto to shield Israel from critical decisions due to strategic alliances, foreign policy goals, and international influence. The conflict born from colonization is now perpetuated by ongoing colonial practices in the contemporary world.

As the UN navigates challenging problems such as climate change, public health, and conflicts in the coming 75 years, it is evident that the organization will encounter a widening gap in representation and economic diversity. The UNSC, established to facilitate cooperation among major powers rather than ensure global democratic representation, initially disregarded colonial legacies and ethical obligations, complicating its mission from the outset.

The call for the decolonization of the UN Security Council demands a fundamental review of its structural setup. Advocates like Hannah Ryder, Anna Baisch, and Ovigwe Eguegu propose abolishing permanent membership, transitioning all 15 UNSC seats to temporary positions subject to re-election every five years. This would ensure continuity while preventing prolonged dominance, promoting equal opportunity for each seat through non-regional competition. They suggest that the ability to veto decisions on behalf of others, a privilege of the Security Council, should be earned transparently based on demonstrated responsibility and capability.

Nevertheless, the ambitious overhaul of the UNSC faces substantial obstacles as the P5 members are unlikely to endorse reforms that challenge their entrenched powers and hegemony. The enduring presence of coloniality in the frameworks of global governance, particularly evident in the power dynamics of the UNSC, underscores how the echoes of past colonialism still profoundly impact and mold today’s international relations landscape. This dynamic hinders the advancement of a genuinely fair and all-encompassing international order.

Regardless of the shape reforms may assume, one thing remains clear: if unchecked unaccountability and inequality persist for nearly another 80 years, then there may be nothing left to protect.. A robust, more flexible, and democratic UN is one of the only ways that potentially offer a collective solution to the challenges that lie ahead.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
A thought leader and youth activist with main focus areas being Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Development Justice and Advocacy. A member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP).