Press "Enter" to skip to content

Will the Global South be given a Permanent Voice at the United Nations Security Council?

The United Nations Security Council election will be held on 18 October 2012 during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The elections are for five non-permanent seats on the Security Council for two-year mandates. The new members will take up their seats on 1 January 2013 and will serve on the Security Council through 31 December 2014.

The five seats up for election in 2012 will be distributed regionally: one seat for the African Group, currently held by South Africa; one seat for the Group of Asia and the Pacific Small Island Developing States, currently held by India; one seat for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, currently held by Colombia; and two seats for the Western European and Others Group, currently held by Germany and Portugal.

It has been reported that Argentina and Rwanda would enjoy a “clean slate” or “uncontested” election.  Argentina is a member of Latin American Group, while Rwanda is part of the African Group. In contrast, it seems that the other two races will be contested. The Asia-Pacific Group has three candidates vying for one available seat: Bhutan, Cambodia, and the Republic of Korea. The three Western European and Others Group candidates, Australia, Finland and Luxembourg are competing for two seats.


What remains disturbing is that in spite of being the world’s premier organ for regulating and sustaining international peace and security, the current permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council has not changed since 1945 when it was first created, and hence still reflects the broad post-World War II peace settlement.

Notwithstanding the significant changes in the global distribution of power, the developing world now accounts for more than 50 percent of global economic activity. The current Security Council represents roughly half of the world’s population and much less than half of the economic power characterized by the five countries which are now permanent members. Such is considered prejudicial to the rest of the world and to the very survival of the United Nations. Consequently, the developing world has become increasingly skeptical, if not suspicious, of the work of the United Nations in general and the Security Council in particular. Moreover, the legitimacy and acceptability of the decisions of the Security Council has been thrown into question in the global south.

Against such a backdrop, it becomes paramount that fresh impetus be given to the conversation on Security Council reform. The underlying rationale of such reform efforts should to be to ensure that the Security Council changes in such a manner so that it may reflect the global realities of the twenty first century.


For more than a decade, the working methods of the United Nations Security Council have been the topic of much discussion within and outside the Security Council. Essentially most concerns are related to four key aspects of its procedure and practice: transparency, participation, accountability, and efficiency.

The subject has become relevant now more than ever, given the interconnectedness of global politics, international governance and foreign relations coupled with the exponential rise of emerging super powers from the global south.

Moreover, resolutions of the Security Council are binding unlike those of the General Assembly, and have far – reaching implications particularly in an increasingly globalized system of governance, where the collective interest now supersedes the national concern.


One of the issues that have bedeviled reform of the Security Council has been the inability to ratify a contemporary understanding of which is the major world powers. Recent United Nations General Assembly voting on which states will fill the non-permanent Security Council seats suggests that, even without formal ratification, there is an emerging consensus about who needs to be at the table. The fact that the Security Council currently includes Brazil, Germany, India, Nigeria and South Africa as non-permanent members, with Japan and Turkey having recently completed two-year terms, cannot be coincidence.

The rationale for expanding the Security Council’s permanent membership is powerful: To be effective and legitimate, the world’s premier watchdog for international peace and security must reflect the contemporary distribution of power, so that it enjoys the political support and draws on the resources of the world’s most capable states. The current list of “permanent five” members – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France – is notable for its omissions.


The four nations most strongly campaigning for permanent membership on the Security Council are Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan, which are also together called the Group of 4 or G4. Brazil is by far the largest country in South America and therefore argues for membership based on its size and power with respect to the region. India is the largest democracy in the world and one of the most populous countries in Asia. It is also at the forefront of technological innovation, a nuclear power, and believes that that is reason enough for its permanent membership in the Security Council.

Germany has changed dramatically since the United Nations was established after its defeat in World War II and, as well as Japan, is a member of the Group of 8, the group of the 7 wealthiest countries in the world, plus Russia. Both nations are two of the largest financial contributors to the United Nations. The G4 nations have included in their proposal one permanent seat for an African nation, and thus their idea for reform has become known as the G4 + 1 proposal.

Of the five permanent members, this proposal is currently backed by the United Kingdom and France, mainly because both countries see their own positions as vulnerable with Europe moving towards a common security policy and strong arguments that the European Union need not be represented by individual countries.

However, many countries in the European Union, especially Spain and Italy do not want to see Germany gain a permanent seat out of fear of a coalition of power among the three most powerful nations in the European Union: Great Britain, France and Germany. The rest of the European Union would then feel even more excluded than it already does from the prestigious Security Council.


Then there is a small powerful group called Uniting for Consensus, essentially regional rivals of G4. Led by Italy, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, and Mexico, this group of almost 40 countries, including Spain and much of the European Union, has formed as a direct counter to the proposal of the G4 nations. They would like to keep the 5 permanent members as they are, and increase the number of non-permanent members to 20 for a total increase of 10 seats to the Security Council.

Most Member States agree on expanding the membership of the Council, but they are sharply divided on the category in which the increase should take place and by how many. National and regional jealousies pervade an atmosphere of antagonism. Pakistan and Indonesia argue that India cannot possibly represent the Muslims of South Asia. Mexico and Argentina level the same argument against Brazil’s potential ascension with respect to the Spanish-speaking population of Latin America. Further, Latin American countries oppose Brazil gaining a permanent seat on the basis that although it is the largest country in South America, it is a Portuguese-speaking country, and therefore not an accurate portrayal of the make-up of the region.

The African states agree on a call for at least two permanent members from Africa as well as a number of elected members from Africa but disagree on which countries should represent the continent as new permanent members. Various factors such as troop contribution records to United Nations peacekeeping missions, democratic values, African representation, financial contributions to the United Nations and financial capability will determine the likelihood of obtaining a seat.


The official position of the United States of America is one of support for the enlargement of both permanent and elected members of the Security Council. In fact in November 2010, when President Barack Obama visited New Delhi, he categorically and explicitly endorsed the candidacy of India to be a permanent member. This made him the first President of America to do so. What Obama did not provide however was any follow up strategy or action plan, based on clear criteria for permanent membership, on the significant announcement.

It is believed that the United States has geopolitical interests in expanding the Security Council permanent membership. The time for a globally dominant state to cede some power to rising ones is when it can still dictate the terms of the shift. As noted by commentators, the United States can help relieve its strained resources by sharing some of the privileges and burdens of global leadership.


There is little doubt that the United Nations Security Council could, and indeed should, be improved. Experience shows that changing the legal basis of multilateral institutions is difficult, but not always impossible. The legal base of the European Union has been in a continuous state of evolution for more than two decades and the final closure of the Western European Union in June 2011 showed that institutions can even be disbanded if the need for them has passed.

In the final analysis, genuine negotiations in a spirit of working towards altruistic global priorities become necessary to forge a consensus within the various regional and other groupings advocating Security Council reform. The lack of agreement is what has stalled the reform process time and again. The requirement of global cooperation then is imperative in any effort to bring about Security Council reform.

Finally, candidates for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council must be prepared to accept not only the privileges, but the weighty obligations of membership. A permanent voice for the global south is unlikely to materialize so long as divisiveness within it endures.