Cambridge University United Nations Association [CUUNA]

UN Security Council Reform

How to enhance the legitimacy of the UN: a model for UN Security Council Reform

By Jule Goikoetxea

The UN’s most important executive organ is the Security Council (SC), whose reform has become a highly controversial issue over last decade. In this article I shall propose a new composition aimed at better satisfying the calls for an equitable representation and distribution of power within the SC, which would further enhance its legitimacy.

The Council was set up to be an effective mechanism for maintaining international peace and security; but the latter, as the UN itself claims, may involve issues as diverse as preventive measures to avert an imminent war; promoting human rights; and economic and social development. Consequently, perceptions of illegitimacy may arise both from failure to use authority effectively as in Kosovo or Iraq and from the abuse of authority, as in Liberia or Afghanistan. Thus, criticisms have arisen because it seems that some interventions and sanctions are imposed in line with the interests of the great powers of the Council (US, Russia or the UK), which is an expression of the failure of the SC to use authority effectively. I should say that this unequal treatment arises mainly out of the inequitable representation and, hence, distribution of power within the SC, vis-à-vis the current power realities on the international scene.  

Indeed, in December 2004, the Secretary General's High-Level Panel affirmed that the composition of the Council reflects neither the real international influence of states, nor the size of their contribution to the UN, and called for a more equitable representation. Japan and Germany are not permanent members but their contributions are the second and third largest respectively, after the US’. Other states like India and Brazil have cited not only their population but also their large contribution to peacekeeping operations around the world. Therefore, it is reasonably argued that any reform should increase the involvement in decision-making not only of those who comprise large populations but also of those who contribute most to the UN financially and militarily.

US President Obama chairing a meeting of the UN Security Council in 2009 (Credit: UN Photo/Erin Siegal)

However, reflecting new power realities does not mean that representation on the SC would be democratic, since one indicator of these power realities is economic power, which still remains unevenly distributed. The Permanent members of the SC – US, China, Russia, UK and France – are still some of the largest economies in the world. That is why representation should be understood by reference to the new power realities and not to democratic representation. As the Secretary-General’s report (Annan, 2005:168) and the High-level Panel (2004) acknowledged, legitimacy comes from efficiency and effectiveness as much as, or more than, from equity. Moreover, both reports endorse the Responsibility to Protect doctrine which means “a more proactive, interventionist stance by the Council in cases of egregious mistreatment of a population” (Luck, 2005:6). Consequently, the key question is over whether the proposal of the Panel (2004) to add nine members would broaden the scope for Council action, making it more efficient and effective, or alternatively whether it would make the Council a democratic organism. And it seems that it would achieve neither of these goals.

Currently the five permanent members have veto power and represent 1910 million people. The non-permanent members were expanded to ten in 1965 and are elected for two-year terms. At least four non-permanent members must vote in favour of a resolution for it to pass. Five of the non-permanent seats are allocated to Africa and Asia, two each to Latin America and Western Europe, and one to Eastern Europe. Model A (proposed by the High-Level Panel in 2004) provides for six new permanent seats, with no veto being created, and three new two-year-term non-permanent seats. Model B provides for no new permanent seats but creates a new category of eight four-year renewable-term seats and one new two-year non-permanent seat. In my opinion, both models over-represent Europe and under-represent Asia and Africa insofar as they give the same number of seats to each of them. These enlargements would reproduce the current distribution of power between member states – mainly, because the permanent five would be the same and, furthermore, the stability of the Council would be highly precarious due to either its reduced permanent membership (Model B) or the large number of non-permanent members (Model A), which implies a continuous turnover of actors and hence the impossibility of making or agreeing on long-term strategies.

Based on what has been said about the root causes of the Council's perceived illegitimacy, I think the solution depends on a more equitable distribution of the permanent and semi-permanent seats. A reform that introduced more equitable representation would make the Council not more democratic per se, but more balanced. In order to change the balance of power among the member states, the new representation would have to establish another relationship whereby the great powers on the one hand, and the medium-sized and small ones on the other, would hold one another in check, thereby guaranteeing a more equitable distribution of power. This would balance some states' vulnerability to being intervened in or having sanctions imposed on them against others'. It would thus offset the amount of clout, not just belonging to the great powers in relation to the smaller ones, but also of the great powers amongst themselves.  Although the SC's legitimacy comes from its member states, it has been shown that the principle whereby states agree to hand over part of their sovereignty does not apply equally. Some states are, de facto, more sovereign than others – which is, in my opinion, what has led the SC to be seen as illegitimate: unrepresentative and abusive at times, ineffective at other times.

An alternative Model I: New Permanent members with veto power

 New Permanent members with veto power

Population (mill.)

Contribution to Regular Budget (RB) and to Peacekeeping Operations (PO)

United States


2nd  (RB)



5th   (RB), 13th (PO)

European Union


1st   (RB)



3rd  (PO)



10th   (RB)

For information related to RB and PO see: <> (2009)

An alternative Model II: New members of the SC without veto

Permanent Members

Population by state and region (mill.)

Contribution to RB; and Peacekeeping (PO)

Permanent seats




2nd (RB)






15th (RB up to 2007)

19th  (PO)




Semi- Permanent



Semi -Permanent seats on a rotation basis

Four-year alternating- term seats: example




Indonesia (ASEAN)



580 (ASEAN)

1st  Pakistan

20th  Indonesia













Nigeria (African Union- AU)

South Africa (AU)

Egypt (Arab League)

969 (AU)

4th Nigeria

14th SA

16th Egypt 

















Latin America:






6th Mexico (RB)

26th Argentina (PO)











Non-permanent Membership


Population (mill.)


Two-year term (non-renewable)


Non-permanent seats


Total seats



All but semi-permanent members





Asia and Pacific


All but semi- and permanent members







All but EU and Russia





Americas and Caribbean


All but semi- and permanent members





<> (2009) and Population Reference Bureau (World Population Data Sheet, 2008).

In this new composition the permanent members with veto power would represent 3479 million people. However, the ability to act would not be impaired and therefore efficiency would remain the highest priority along with representation of current power realities.

India’s inclusion is justified by its population and contribution. It is the third largest contributor of troops to the UN after Pakistan and Bangladesh (>, 2009). Furthermore, it is the world's twelfth largest economy and the fourth largest in terms of purchasing power parity.

The EU is the largest financial contributor to the UN regular budget, funding over two-fifths of UN peacekeeping operations and providing around half of all UN member states' contributions to UN funds and programmes (ibid.). Through the establishment of the EU's common foreign and security policy in 1992, EU Member States have enhanced the coordination of their actions within international organizations and have undertaken to maintain common positions in such forums in order to give greater impact to their collective weight in the world. As the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy becomes a daily reality, the activities of its members who sit on the SC increasingly take account of the EU's political positions.

As regards those members without veto power, I propose three kinds of membership: permanent, semi-permanent and non-permanent. Remember that the contribution of peacekeeping forces to the UN is along with population and financial contribution one of the main criteria for gaining a permanent or semi-permanent seat. The new composition would affect the distribution of power that currently dominates the SC, redistributing it more equitably and in order to ensure stability non-permanent members are being reduced, while the permanent and semi-permanent ones increase – although introducing a rotation system in order to strengthen regional representation. Africa, for instance, would have two semi-permanent seats whereby South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt would defend not just their own interests but also the common regional interests that are at the same time shared by the countries that make up the African Union. The tendency of semi-permanent seat holders to defend their common regional interests would be boosted by the fact that it is the interests of a particular region, and not of a particular country, that would have a permanent presence on the Council. This kind of membership allows mobility, which implies bargaining and yielding; but it entails a greater commitment amongst the states that occupy the same seat or pertain to the same bloc. In this way, the semi-permanent seats would enable long-term agreements and would consolidate common regional interests while introducing a balance between the great powers within each region.

As regards permanent seats, the balancing of power would be introduced differently. The EU's seat would entail increasing its accountability to all its member states, but also curtailing its member states' sovereignty – such that the UK and Spain, for instance, could not wage any war, such as in Iraq, without the authority of the Union, who would have to approve it in the SC.

Turning now to Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, it shares many common interests not just with Argentina, but also with the other countries in the region (as is shown by Mercosur). Nevertheless, Brazil would have to bargain constantly with Mexico in order to decide which way to vote on specific resolutions that would damage them (for instance, under their agreement on new trade relations and technological investments) – thereby creating a sort of balance of power that would strengthen their accountability to one other and enhance regional representation.

This model would provide Africa with five seats – two more than Europe and one more than the Americas. The reason for this is not merely population, but also the fact that Africa would not have any permanent seat. Thus, the more permanent seats and veto power a region has, the fewer total seats it has. And the bigger a region's population is, the more seats it is allocated overall.

The new seats of Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Japan would introduce both the representation Asia deserves in terms of population and contribution to the UN and the balance necessary for a more equitable distribution of power. However, some fundamental geopolitical changes would have to be made in order for India to be accepted by China. Any agreement to accept India would have to provide a solution to the problem of the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns, and the Pakistani Muslims of Kashmir, which has given rise to a never-ending war between Pakistan and India which destabilize and affects China directly.

With regard to the EU seat, it is from the UK that the fiercest opposition would come; but based on the latter’s contribution to the UN, its population and its regional position, its seat does not seem justified. Moreover, taking into account the recent appointment of Baroness Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs, it seems the EU is trying to strengthen British diplomacy in order to convert it into the EU's diplomatic infrastructure. If the British diplomatic service became European, the UK would have a strong incentive to accept a united voice for the advantage that the UK would gain in terms of influencing other countries and promoting its own interests.

As noted earlier, any enlargement would never democratically represent all the UN member states. However, by introducing semi-permanent and permanent memberships that enhance the representation of current power realities without detracting from efficiency, the SC’s legitimacy would definitely increase.

A few decades ago no one could have imagined the current European Union. Similarly, no one knows what the UN will be like in a few decades’ time. Nonetheless, if world peace and security are to be safeguarded by a worldwide collective security organism, the United Nations and its Security Council – not each individual state – must have the monopoly when it comes to interpreting a given action as just and procedurally fair. This is what legitimacy ultimately depends on.

Dr. Jule Goikoetxea is based at St. Edmunds College, Cambridge.

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