Voting procedure in the United Nations Security Council

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By: Sauro Dasgupta

The First World War caused the world to set up an international organization to deal with global conflict and avoid war in the future. As a result, the League of Nations was born. However, despite its initial success, it could not prevent the Second World War (1939-45). Many more people died and were wounded in this war than ever before. The United Nations was founded as a successor to the League of Nations. It was established in 1945 after the Second World War. The organization was set up through the signing of the United Nations Charter by 51 states. It was set up with the hope that it would achieve what the League could not between the two world wars.

The UN’s objective is to prevent international conflict and to facilitate cooperation among states. It was founded with the hope that it would act to stop disputes between states escalating into war and, if war broke out, to limit the hostilities. Furthermore, the UN was intended to bring countries together to improve social and economic development prospects all over the world.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is one of the five principal organs of the United Nations. It is the executive wing of the UN and is tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security as well as accepting new members to the United Nations and approving any changes to its United Nations Charter. The First Session at the UNSC was held in London on January 17, 1947. Since its first meeting, the Security Council has taken permanent residence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. It also traveled to many cities, holding sessions in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1972, in Panama City, Panama, and Geneva, Switzerland, in 1990. The UN’s role in international collective security is defined by the UN Charter, which authorizes the Security Council to investigate any situation threatening international peace; recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute; call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications with the aggressor in case of war, etc.

The UNSC was established keeping in mind certain key features that needed to be performed continuously. A representative of each of its members must be present at all times at the UN headquarters.  It maintains international peace and security as per the principles and purposes of the UN. It investigates any potential dispute which may lead to international conflict and recommends member states to take military action against the aggressor. It advises the UN methods to adjust with such disputes and the terms of such a settlement. It sets up plans to establish means of global disarmament and asks member states to follow the methods. It may ask its members to sanction aggressors instead of fighting a war with them, as seen in the case of North Korea, ultimately forcing them to sign peace treaties with the US and the Republic of Korea. If no peace has been achieved by then, the UNSC asks member states to take military action against the aggressor. It recommends the admission of new members to the UN. It exercises the trusteeship functions of the UN in strategic areas. It recommends to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and along with the assembly, it elects the judges of the ICJ. It can also deploy UN peacekeeping operations and impose sanctions on states. The first time the UN Security Council deployed a peacekeeping force anywhere in the world was during the Korean War, which began on 25 June 1950 and ended on 27 July 1953. Since then, UN peacekeeping forces have been deployed the world over including in the Balkans and Africa.

There are permanent and non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. A total of 15 members are there in the council, out of which 5 are permanent and 10 are not permanent. The victorious powers of World War II, i.e. the Allied Powers of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France who won the war in Europe defeating Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany along with the Chinese support on the East to defeat Imperial Japan became the permanent members of the UNSC. They are informally known as ‘P5’( Permanent Five). At first, a seat was given to the anti-communist Kuomintang government of the Republic of China. In 1949, however, the Communist-led rebels under Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war. This led to the fall of the Kuomintang Government, forcing it to be relocated to the island of Taiwan, then known as Formosa. Since the Communist government claimed to be the sole representative of China, the remaining members thought it would be prudent to allow the new Chinese government to become a permanent member on account of its vast army and support from the Russian Federation, then known as the Soviet Union.

The 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC in 2021 are Estonia, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines, Tunisia, and Vietnam. Five members of the UNSC are replaced every year. The members are selected from all the regions of the world. Three members are from Africa, while Asia, Western Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean have two members each. Each of the 10 non-permanent members would serve a term of two years and they cannot be re-elected again consecutively for another two years and there has to be a gap between the terms.  If a nation gets elected as one of the non-permanent members of the United Nations Security council out of the ten members for two years then it cannot contest again for the next year’s contest. The Security Council has the primary responsibility within the United nations of maintaining international peace and security and it is the only United Nations organ that has the power to make decisions that member states are obligated to implement. Each member of the UNSC has one vote. The voting procedure of the Security Council is based on the directives laid down by Article 27 of the UN Charter and Rule 40 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure. Article 27 states that decisions of the Security Council are made by an affirmative vote of nine members, whereas each member has one vote. The Charter distinguishes, however, between votes on “procedural matters” and votes on “all other matters”. Article 27 mentions that the concurring votes of the permanent members are required for the adoption of substantive decisions. Accordingly, when voting on procedural matters, a negative vote cast by a permanent member does not invalidate a decision, the decision stands if it secured nine affirmative votes.

A submission to the General Assembly of any questions related to the maintenance of international peace and security, A request to the General Assembly that it make a recommendation on a dispute or situation, A request to the Secretary-General for the convocation of a special session of the General Assembly, Any approval of annual reports to the United Nations General Assembly, Conducting meetings at places other than the seat of the UN and The establishment of subsidiary organs which the United Nations Security Council finds necessary to perform its functions. Security Council resolutions are brought about to impose sanctions or to take steps like deployment of United Nations peacekeeping force in any region or any country which is facing some trouble problem on some International Crisis. These resolutions have to be adopted by all five permanent members if they do not then this effect would be nullified and if any one of the five members says no to a proposal that means the proposal would lose its value. The fact that procedural votes are occurring more is a reflection of the difficult dynamics in the Council in recent times, as well as of the willingness of members to push for the Council to address specific issues, despite opposition from some members. Procedural votes can also be viewed as a useful way to raise awareness and create a record of the Council’s efforts to engage on critical issues.

Voices are being raised about the unequal distribution of power to the Security Council to the 5 permanent members of the UNSC. These five permanent members got disproportionate power since 1965. Dissenters have been countries like India, Germany, and South Africa and other countries and countries from South America like Brazil that this veto power is not reflective of a contemporary world wherein many countries are rising as great powers. The contemporary world order has changed a lot but the United Nations Security Council still reflects the geopolitical architecture of the Second World War and a lot of developments have taken place. This development requires reforms in the formation and composition of the United Nations Security Council otherwise United Nations Security Council would lose its standing and its sanctions and decisions may not be implemented by the countries because they would not be having the moral force to do so due to under-representation or unrepresentation in the UNSC. The United Nations Security Council would be losing its moral authority as well. Since the creation of the UNSC, the global population has increased.  Today the population is around 7 billion. Since the last UN reforms in 1965,  the membership of the United Nations has increased from 113 to 193 without any change in the composition of UNSC and so this is another reason the extra 80 countries were added to the UN without given the chance to ever become a permanent member of the UNSC. So that is another reason why even now the Security Council is not representative of the geopolitical realities of the modern world.

Many countries like India have been trying to make their way into the list of the five permanent members of the UNSC but have not been successful. An even more surprising fact is that India, a country with a huge population, a growing economy, and a nuclear power is not a member of the UNSC. India is one among the G4 countries (India, Germany, Japan, Brazil), which gives it an edge at becoming one of the permanent members of the UNSC. India is the fastest-growing economy in the world India has acquired the status of Nuclear Weapons State and is the second-largest in terms of population and the largest liberal democracy in the world. The country ranks high in purchasing power parity and is a contributor to the UN Peacekeeping missions. For India and similar countries to become permanent members, the minimum required votes by the other UN members would be needed and India and others need to mend their way with all the UN countries to get the required votes. Although it may seem like a simple process, it is made difficult by the objections of certain permanent members of the Security Council.

China in particular has been blocking Indian and Japanese push for a permanent seat at the council. China believes that granting India and Japan a permanent seat at the UNSC will lead to Indian and Japanese interests being of paramount importance in the geopolitics of Asia, a sentiment echoed by North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines, and other ASEAN countries and Pakistan. Voting in the UNSC, just like in any other function in any organization is tilted in favour of the powerful nations. India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil tend to be participants on the Security Council as non-permanent members on a more frequent basis than other countries that do not have as much geopolitical or military power. To be clear there are no limits on what permanent membership on the Security Council must look like before there is a legitimacy crisis. For example, because the US and USSR did not join the League of Nations, its position remained weak but because the US, UK, France, PRC, and Russia are a part of the UN and their power is often enough to end any crisis that the UN is still strong and relevant today. So while we may often be enthusiastic about reforms, we must be pragmatic about the reality of geopolitics and remain steady, otherwise, even the UN will not be able to tackle any crisis like The League of Nations and will be doomed to fail. (The author is a PG student from the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

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