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The Campaign for United Nations Reform

The United Nations Summit of the Future will be held in September 2024 in New York City. The conference—focused on reforming the organization—has been planned for years, encouraged by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. While announcements of the summit focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of climate and social equality, the summit is increasingly seen as a chance to achieve long-sought reforms in the Security Council (UNSC).

Calls for Security Council Reform

As top UN governing body, the UNSC includes five permanent members (the P5) and ten rotating elected members. Of the P5, each has the right to veto any resolution. Through this veto power, the U.S., UK, and France have long limited the influence of other nations. While China and Russia are also permanent members, it is U.S. and UK vetoes that have prevented admission of more members to the Security Council, inhibiting its global balance.

Interest has grown in changing the UNSC’s veto rules since 1992, when Russia took its P5 seat following collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2015, France and Mexico proposed that permanent members of the UNSC agree not to use the veto in cases of “mass atrocities.” In April 2022, the General Assembly (UNGA) ordered a debate on the subject of any veto in UNSC.

Even more recently, in October 2022,  Security Council reform became more urgent with Russia’s veto of a resolution on peace in Ukraine. (The deep concern in many countries was shown in a June 2023 colloquium of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.) And, after the war in Gaza exploded, the U.S. vetoed three resolutions to end the fighting in October and December 2023, leading to more forceful calls to reshape the Security Council.

Adding members to the UNSC will require choosing among strong candidates. The 10 elective members of the UNSC now include two members from each of five world regions, each with two-year terms. One could imagine selecting as many as five more permanent members and five more elective members to create a council of 25. Regional candidates for permanent seats include India and Japan for Asia; Germany for Western Europe; Poland for Eastern Europe; Brazil and Mexico for Latin America and Caribbean; and Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa for Africa.

The Campaign from Now to September

As of March 2024, the conflict over UN governance has been heightened further by several developments related to the Israel-Hamas war. First is the ongoing conflict itself; on February 2, the U.S. vetoed another cease-fire resolution in Gaza. (The UNGA debate on this veto was scheduled for March 4.)

The second development is the January 26 order by the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the accusation of genocide against Israel. The ICJ  gave its strongest possible order, requiring Israel to halt all killing and all interference with humanitarian aid. Yet the court is not an administrative body—only the Security Council can act to force compliance with its orders, and the U.S. stood ready to veto such action.

Finally, the ICJ responded to a General Assembly request to rule on whether the Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegal. Over 50 nations deposed opinions to the court in the week of February 19, with 90 percent of them arguing that the occupation is illegal.

Two key deadlines lie ahead: The first is March 10, the beginning of Ramadan, when Israel has promised to launch its full-scale invasion of the crowded Rafah section of Gaza unless Hamas releases all hostages. U.S.-led negotiations show little hope of success, and Hamas declines to agree unless Israel withdraws from Gaza. Further, Hamas insists on independence of Palestine while Israel refuses to permit a Palestinian state, and the U.S. and eight other wealthy countries are holding back their funding of the UNRWA relief agency. U.S. President Biden has both planned more arms shipments and called for a ceasefireIs the month of March to bring ceasefire, devastating assault on Rafah, or both?

The second deadline is September 18, the opening of the Summit of the Future, at which discussions on UN Reform will be central. A large majority of nations will surely call for expanding the Security Council, adding both permanent and elected members, and for abolishing or restricting the veto power of permanent members. Asian, African, Latin American, and island nations almost uniformly support UNSC reform—not to mention a Gaza cease-fire—while European countries are split both on Gaza and on UNSC reform.

The campaign for UNSC reform continues to gain momentum. Among the nations most active in diplomatic relations aimed both at a cease-fire in Gaza and reform of the UNSC are South Africa, Türkiye, Brazil, Algeria, Egypt, Spain, Belgium, and Ireland. The Arab League and African Union have taken positions as groups. Russia and China, though they might lose a veto, have been giving quiet support to this campaign. Overall, the great majority of UNGA members will remain solidly pro-reform. UNGA President Dennis Francis of Trinidad has also been an active reformer in his 2023–24 term, and his successor, who will be from Africa, will likely follow a similar policy.

Among the dynamics in the campaign for reform is the presidency of UNSC itself, which rotates monthly among member states. France and Guyana held the post in January and February 2024. The presidents elected to serve from March to October, in order, are Japan, Malta, Mozambique, South Korea, Russia, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, and Switzerland—all pro-reform nations (even including Russia and Switzerland). But if the September summit moves to reform the UNSC, the changes will have to survive the final two presidencies of 2024: the UK and the U.S.

Support for UNSC reform is not limited to the UN itself. Old hostilities among Middle East countries are healing, especially between Türkiye and Egypt but also between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Brazil’s president Lula da Silva spoke on Gaza and on UN reform at a Cairo meeting of the Arab League, as well as an Addis Ababa meeting of the African Union. The next day, Lula was at home in Brazil to host and chair a meeting of foreign ministers of the G20 in Rio, notably including Antony Blinken of the U.S. At this meeting, the G20 ministers called for peace in Gaza; one year ago, in contrast, they released a U.S.-drafted call for pursuing war against Russia in Ukraine.

Potential Consequences of the Campaign

UN reform may indeed come to a head at the Summit of the Future in September—if not before. Whenever the actual battle for change in UNSC structure happens (if it happens), it is likely to be vociferous, even brutal. Proponents will need to find a way to achieve reform despite the P5’s veto power. Ultimately, the change might be only a few words in the UN Charter, but making and ratifying such a change will still require essential transformation in the principles and procedures of the organization.

If the reform campaign succeeds—curtailing or abolishing vetoes and adding new UNSC members—one may expect cooperation among the UNSC, UNGA, and Secretary-General in establishing nationhood for Palestine, implementing orders of the ICJ on genocide and the status of Palestine, and addressing the Ukraine dispute. Despite such cooperation, the actual resolution of issues related to Palestine, Ukraine, and even China’s claims for territory may not proceed smoothly. However, they will be addressed within a fundamentally different world order.

On the other hand, if this reform campaign fails, the veto will remain intact, and the U.S. will seek to maintain its global supremacy though military power and organizational dominance, even with little backing from other nations. At worst, one can imagine more death in Gaza, Ukraine, and elsewhere, followed by years of UN gridlock and growing unilateralism in government policies—all against the backdrop of a renewed campaign for future UN reform. In this case, perhaps the U.S. would decide to withdraw from the UN, which would be disruptive both for the UN and for the United States. A UN without big-power vetoes would not be without precedent: Other great powers have had to learn the lesson of being reduced to the status of an “ordinary country.” With time, almost all these nations have learned to be collaborative citizens in the world community. Might the U.S. be next?

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