Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Reforming the Security Council

Debate has begun in the UN General Assembly about the G-4's plan to reform the Security Council. They would add 10 new seats - 6 permanant and 4 non-permanant. Four of the permanant seats would be taken by Germany, Japan, Brazil and India, with the other two going to African nations.

The good point about this proposal is that it will make the Security Council better reflect the realities of the modern world, rather than that of 50 years ago. Power has moved away from the victors of WWII, and other parts of the world deserve a voice. It also recognises the up and coming powers of this century - particularly India - and gives them a reason to buy into the system rather than ignoring it. The drawback is that it further entrenches a two-tier system, between permanant and non-permanant members, and leaves the veto of the present permanant seats intact (though at least the newcomers would not also get one). This means that they can, when they choose, ignore the international community, and effectively remain above international law.

This is a serious problem. If our system of global governance (and that is what the UN is, albeit a weak one) is to have any legitimacy, then it must move towards being governed by law, rather than the whim of the permanant seats. It must also follow the recipe it lays down for others, and move towards greater democracy. This will inevitably involve limiting the privileges of the permanant members - but then, that is what democracy is all about.


I think there are two reasonable solutions
1) a fully democratic (by population) and ideally seperate from the normal governance structure elected representatives.
that is the "right" solution.

the practical solution on the other hand is

2) the major powers (if anything weighted based on their military strength) my big 9 .. US, russia, China, India, UK, France, pakistain, Israel and south korea.
this is reality since a democratic UN that authorized force against any of these countries without VERY firm support (ie willing to let their solders die by their thousands) from many of the others would just result in the UN forces being slaughtered.

Either aim for 1 because it is fair or 2 because it is practical
Anyhting else is some stupid middle ground both undemocratic AND ineffective.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/12/2005 06:42:00 PM

To explain further if you for example give a vote to a country like lets say zombabwae you are making a sacrifice to democracy (ie giving zimbabwae power as opposed to peopel in general) BUT not reducing the practical problem at all (zimbabwae doesnt make the council much stronger).

Posted by Anonymous : 7/12/2005 06:53:00 PM

I/S, I agree with your sentiments about the G-4 proposal and about curtailing veto powers. But that is not going to happen, is it? Of the veto powers, which, if any, can you imagine giving up their veto right? Certainly not France, the US, China or Russia, that's for certain. The UK, well, perhaps but I doubt that too. Unless I'm mistaken, curtailing veto powers was not in any of the reform proposals, right? It should be, but that would really just be a aste of everyone's time because it would never get through. Or am I reading that wrong?

As for the G4 proposal, I was under the impression that the 4 countries have agreed to forgo veto rights for 15 years, rather than ruling it out entirely.

I'd be very interested to hear your take on the African Union's counter-proposal, which involves the SC being increased by one further permanent seat and is also being discussed this week. What do you make of that?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/12/2005 09:22:00 PM

It may not be realistic to have governance of UN mirror the democratic process of a nation to closely.

For a start, representation will for the foreseeable future be based on the nation rather than the citizen.

Also, the security council is not the equivalent of the executive of a nation state. In NZ the cabinet is composed of members of a coaltion of parties who have agreed to a range of policies. the Cabinet's decision making process is well defined.

The Security Council on the other hand is compsed of repersentatives of different coutries who may have very different policy agendas. Whereas a Cabinet can act quickly in times of emergency, the SC is less able.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/12/2005 10:33:00 PM

The whole discussion is a farce while the UN remains predominantly a club of dictators. And to entertain the idea of giving more power to anti-democratic blocks like the African Union is beyond farcical.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/12/2005 10:37:00 PM

To anon in the first post.
are you crazy?
basing UN membership on military strength. this would encourage nations to re-arm. particularly states like north korea, already with a huge military.
would you really want north korea in the security council?!

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 05:04:00 AM

In response to the second to last anonymous comment:

Does anyone have a figure for how many of the 191 UN Member States are dictatorships? Presumably considerably fewer than 96, right, which would be the number required for the UN to be considered predominantly a club of dictators? I don't know how many there are. Does anyone else know?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 05:25:00 AM

to berlinbear-
how long is a piece of string?
how do you define a dictatorship?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 06:18:00 AM

> To anon in the first post.
are you crazy? Basing UN membership on military strength. this would encourage nations to re-arm.

You could oppoise that with other policies. I propose option 2 as a realization of reality. If oyu want the security council to be optimally effective it will have the stong countries, and only the stong countries. Lets say Nth korea became the strongest country in the world by far (through some technology lets say) and it was not on the security council - well nth korea would all of a sudden be the "real" security council while everyone else would be just a group of people posing as a security council.
If you wnat to stop rearming then just have rules against proliferation of weapons or even a global tax on reaarming? Whatever it is it needs a pretty strong security council to back it up with teeth.

> would you really want north korea in the security council?!

again if they are the strongest they are on it whether you like it or not.

> Does anyone have a figure for how many of the 191 UN Member States are dictatorships?

depends on who is a dictator.
the number of countries that have free and fair elections is far less than 50% probably more like 20. the number htat ae nominally democratic is just a tiny bit over 50% I think (i read that somwhere).

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 07:45:00 AM

Is it really that low? I'd be interested to read more. Can you point me to a source?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 08:43:00 AM


Democracy is in the eye of the beholder.

But I think 20 is way too low. The EU has what - 17? democracies. Add in Turkey, Israel, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Mexico, a dozen central and south american democracies, another 5 or 6 from east asia, India, Sri Lanka, a dozen from the pacific (including us & aus), another 8 or 9 from Africa (a minority of the sub-saharan nations, but not by much)...

And I'm around 55, without even resorting to google. I suspect a more complete list would get more.

Of course some, democracies are more equal than others: I'm not counting farces like Quwait, but I am counting places like Columbia where entrenched criminal/military/business interests have great power.

Posted by Icehawk : 7/13/2005 09:53:00 AM

BerlinBear: I don't seriously expect the Old Powers to give up their veto at this stage. But I think it is worth fighting over. There's no justification for such privilege, and it needs to be removed. The question is how, when the UN charter is so clearly stacked in favour of the powerful...

You're right - the G4 have merely agreed to delay the discussion of new permanant members' veto powers by 15 years. Which is very magnaminous of them [/sarcasm]

The AU position is a variation on the G4 one, with an additional non-permanant seat (so 11 new seats in total, 6 permanant and 5 elected), aimed mainly at getting an extra voice for Africa. It is however principled - all new permanant members must be equal to the old ones, and have a veto. This means it is unlikely to be adopted. The Old Powers do not want to share their privileges, especially when it means that their clients might be able to find alternative patrons to protect them from international condemnation.

Frankly I'd rather the lot were elected - but that isn't going to happen either. The G4 proposal may be the best achievable, and even then it may fail at the last hurdle as China is opposed.

In the long-term, I think the veto power is going to make the UN unreformable, and if we want a democratic influence on world governance (rather than just an instrument for the privileged and powerful), we may need to work around it. George Monbiot's Age of Consent suggests an NGO-organised democratically elected world Parliament set up as a rival oversight institution. No formal legal authority, of course, but if done properly it could earn some mana, and parlay this into formal power just as the European Parliament (or indeed the British one) went from rubberstamp to ruler. It's an interesting plan, and one that appeals to my democratic instincts, but I don't see any sign of it happening soon.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/13/2005 01:11:00 PM

According to Freedom House (they publish an encyclopedia of democracy, IIRC), in 2000 there were 120 electoral democracies, with competitive, multi-party elections and universal suffrange. 85 of them are liberal democracies with strong human rights protections. There are also 16 countries with restricted democratic practices, where a single ruling party uses its control of the media and the electoral system to prevent challenges to its rule. What's interesting is that many of those Freedom house classifies as "authoritarian regimes" at least pretend to have elections - and a number have fallen in recent years because their people have got sick of the pretence.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/13/2005 01:24:00 PM

oh I didnt mean 20 countries but you are right it will be more than 20% too. I hear about 120 of the er 200 and somthing countries are democracies. and probably most of htose are reasonably ok democracies.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 08:09:00 PM

oh you already answered the question heh

Posted by Anonymous : 7/13/2005 08:13:00 PM

Excellent. Thanks all for the extra info. I'll check out that Freedom House document I/S.

I/S: Interesting thoughts both about the veto powers and the AU proposal. We are largely in agreement. You noted that the G4 proposal may fall at the last hurdle because of Chinese opposition, which I took to mean you think that China will veto. Could you clarify a point for me: do the veto powers extend to the General assembly as well, or are they restricted to the Security Council. I thought the veto only applied to the SC. Am I wrong in that assumption? If that is so though, since the reforms are being decided at GA level and require a 2/3 majority, could Chinese opposition alone bring the G4 proposal down. Or does the reform require both GA and SC approval?

Icehawk: Thanks for the quick tally. Now you've got me intrigued. Which 8 EU countries do you not consider to be democracies?

And finally, coming back to the original point, if there are 120 democracies out 191 members, and since presumably not all of the non-democracies are dictatorships, haven't be squarely put the lie to the suggestion that the UN GA is "predominantly a club of dictators" haven't we?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/14/2005 11:17:00 AM


Tempting though it is to fake an anarchist rant about some so-called European democracies: actually I just misremembered how many EU countries there are.

I was just attempting a (very) conservative count off the top of my head aimed only at showing that 20 was way, way too low.

A historic note: NZ opposed strongly the establishment of veto powers for the Security Council members when the UN was set up.

Posted by Icehawk : 7/14/2005 12:04:00 PM

BerlinBear: the process for reforming the UN charter requires firstly a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly; secondly, formal ratification by the governments of two-thirds of member states (by whatever process they use); and finally, acceptance by the Security Council. The latter needs a two-thirds majority to pass any substantive motion, as well as no opposition from any of the veto-holders.

So, the General Assemnbly could reach a consensus, and the member states could ratify it, and then after a decade of work the will of the world could be stymied by the veto of one or more powerful nations trying to prevent the dilution of their privilege. That eventual veto could be wielded by China (which doesn't want to see change), or by the US, which wants to admit only two new non-veto wielding permanant members, including Japan.

I think the prospects for real change towards a more democratic world order are slim. But I think we have to try. Forcing the process all the way to a veto will at least make it clear exactly what the problem is, and encourage other nations to look for solutions.

Anon: it seems you were grossly underestimating then. 45% of the UN are liberal democracies, 63% electoral democracies. The difference is more striking on a population basis (thanks mainly to India, the largest democracy in the world). As BerlinBear points out, this should thoroughly sink the constant claim that the UN is a "club of dictators". They're there, and they exert a malign influence (especially through stymieing the work of the UNCHR), but its certainly not as bad as all that.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/14/2005 01:42:00 PM

I/S noted 85 out of the total (less than half) are liberal democracies - but the main point is relitive.
Putting a decision to the security council significantly improves the influence of despots since most of them have negligable power over foreign affairs in normal situations. Furthermore a block of non democratic countries should be able to prevent any substantive legistlation correct? Just look at I/S's list of htings that need to be achieved.
So I think the point still stands even if it is generally stated as an exageration.

> Anon: it seems you were grossly underestimating then.

Yeah yeah - 45% is less than half anyway. and 63% is jsut over half. Ie if you put liberal democracy to a vote it would loose.
However liberal democracy has most of the military power.

I also note no one ever adresses my substantive point of practicality.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/14/2005 07:44:00 PM

Icehawk: Oh, I see. That's disappointing. ;-) I was looking forward to hearing the arguments for why, say, Liechtenstein, or Poland, or somesuch could not be considered a democracy. *sigh* Oh well.

I/S: Thanks for the clarification. I was not aware that reform had to go through all of those hoops.

Anon: It is true, as you say, that a bloc of non-democractic countries could prevent any substantive legislation if they wished too, especially if it is legislation (like the proposed reforms) that requires a 2/3 majority. That assumes, of course, that all or almost all of the non-democratic countries vote together. There have, of course, been plenty of occasions where, because of the veto powers, just 1 democratic country has prevented substantive legislation. I found this on the wielding of vetoes at the SC:

Finally, you wrote:
"Putting a decision to the security council significantly improves the influence of despots since most of them have negligable power over foreign affairs in normal situations."
You lost me there. Despots have very little power at the Security Council. I would not consider any of the permanent members despots (except perhaps Hu of China, but nowadays that seems to be stretching it a little bit), and of the current elected members, I'd have thought that only Algeria perhaps fitted into that category (though I confess I have no idea about Benin or Tanzania, so they might be too as far as I know). Did you mean putting a vote to the "General Assembly", or have I missed your meaning entirely? Could you clarify?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/14/2005 09:24:00 PM

> There have, of course, been plenty of occasions where, because of the veto powers, just 1 democratic country has prevented substantive legislation.

Indeed but that is besided the point. somthing like "since other stuff is wrong everythign might as well be wrong" no point attacking me in regard to stuff I dont care about.

> You lost me there. Despots have very little power at the Security Council.

AOK I will try to explain it a number of times here.

It INCREASES their power. for example if you gave me lets say a vote in the security council I still wouldnt be able to annex australia but I would be ridiculously more powerful and influential than most other people.

Similarly you could make Mugabe the king of africa (and put him in the SC if you want) and say "he wont control all of the earth so who cares?" You would be right he would not.

As i said their power is very low outside the UN inside the UN it is reasonable. Why would you take a step in the wrong direction?

Personally I think it achieves nothign because Giving power to a despotic leader adds one person to the democratic community (ie the 3 billion odd already there) but gives them 200 million odd votes. It is like the difference between a system that doesnt wnat criminals to vote and one that remedies it by giving the criminals 10,000 votes each. I would have thought most would consider the latter to be worse.

> Did you mean putting a vote to the "General Assembly"

That is the think you were talking about when you said
"UN GA is 'predominantly a club of dictators'" But it is a bit irrelevant in relation to my innitial point about the democracy practicality tradeoff.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/14/2005 10:15:00 PM