U.N. Security Council (UNSC) reform has been a long-standing demand from many in the international community, but calls for an overhaul of the institution have grown louder amid renewed interest in democratizing the international system and addressing historical exclusion and injustices in its core institutions. And in a major development this past September, President Biden told the U.N. General Assembly the United States would support reforming the Security Council — specifically mentioning the addition of permanent members from Africa.

The U.N. Security Council meets at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City. September 22, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
The U.N. Security Council meets at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City. September 22, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Such a change would not only acknowledge Africa’s pivotal role in forging global peace and prosperity, it would also unlock new avenues for addressing the toughest challenges facing the international community.

The eve of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a propitious moment to highlight how U.S. support for reform can enhance the U.S.-Africa partnership. African political, civic and academic leaders are looking to see how Biden plans to translate this commitment into action and how African leaders will seize this moment to advance their common position.

Amani Africa’s Solomon Dersso, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Tim Murithi, and USIP’s Susan Stigant discuss the momentum behind calls for U.N. Security Council reform, as well as what African leaders are looking for in a new U.N. peace and security system.

Why did President Biden’s announcement the U.N. General Assembly matter?

Stigant: The Biden administration’s strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa acknowledges that it is “impossible to meet today’s defining challenges without African contributions and leadership.” In short, Africans need a seat at the table, a voice in shaping discussions and a vote in making decisions.

And when it comes to matters of peace and security, the U.N. Security Council is the most important forum in the world. By announcing U.S. support for adding permanent members from Africa to the UNSC, President Biden is looking to put this strategy to use by elevating African leadership in the institutions that matter the most.

Murithi: Ever since momentum for transforming the global system was muted after the end of the Cold War, willingness to pursue UNSC reform has been elusive. However, Biden’s announcement at the U.N. General Assembly suggests that his administration is laying the foundations for a departure from its previous posture and the posture of his predecessors. Biden was not alone in this shift, either, as there was an almost-universal refrain in favor UNSC transformation at the General Assembly, which should provoke governments into action.

Dersso: The multilateral system that was constituted under the U.N. Charter has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy nearly from the start. The system is Western-centric, both in design and operation. But the receding influence of the West and the rise of new, emerging powers have left this post-WWII power dynamic both outdated and out of sync with the current reality. While the U.N. Security Council is by no means the only multilateral body affected by this deficit of legitimacy, there is nowhere where this deficit is more pronounced.

For African states, the lack of even a single permanent seat on the UNSC represents one of the most notable injustices the continent has been subjected to by the multilateral order. A majority of the UNSC’s agenda pertains to Africa, but Africans who are directly affected by the body’s decisions have little say on the outcomes.

Additionally, the rules of the multilateral order are not enforced consistently. Events in Iraq, Libya and now Ukraine have laid bare the limits of the Security Council when it comes to preventing and averting wars where veto-holding permanent members are involved.  

As the chickens come home to roost with the Security Council’s inability to rein in Russia’s assault on Ukraine, it is not surprising that Western countries — including veto-holding permanent members who have benefited from these flaws in the past — are championing the call for reform. 

How have African leaders and regional institutions reacted to the announcement?

Dersso: Calls for reforming the U.N. Security Council are not new for Africa. African states have already adopted a common position on the issue through the African Union, which also has a longstanding ministerial committee on the topic of UNSC reform.

What made this U.N. General Assembly different than past iterations was the war in Ukraine — and the fragmentation and division that emerged in its wake. Nigeria’s President, Muhamadu Buhari, drove this point home in his remarks, saying that the challenges raised by the war in Ukraine and other recent crises further justify calls to make the Security Council more representative and capable of meeting current demands.

Murithi: Africa has tried to voice its concern about the need for change within the existing U.N. system for more than 17 years. As mentioned earlier, the African Union issued a declaration in 2005 where African nations collectively took a common position on reforming the Security Council.

The Ezulwini Consensus, as it’s often called, enumerates what “full representation” of Africa in the Security Council means: Two permanent seats with veto power, as well as five non-permanent seats. This position has not changed amid the newfound momentum for reform.

What needs to happen next to advance the prospect of reform?

Murithi: Biden’s statement on the need for UNSC reform through an inclusive process that addresses the demands of African countries suggests that this issue needs to feature prominently in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

For their part, the founders of the U.N. recognized this moment would come and included a practical mechanism, article 109 of the U.N. Charter, known as “The General Conference for the Review of the Charter of the United Nations.” According to that mechanism, a charter review conference could be convened with the approval of two-thirds of the General Assembly and any nine members of the Security Council. Additionally, permanent members are not allowed to veto such a proposal. Therefore, if Biden is indeed committed to following through on his statement, then convening a charter review conference is a practical way forward to address Africa’s concerns.

Such a conference could adopt a recommendation to substantially alter the U.N. Charter, including the role of the UNSC, and introduce completely new provisions. Or alternatively, it could craft the outline for an entirely new global treaty for an institution designed for 21st century realities.

The recent prominence of reform at the U.N. General Assembly is an indication that the body is primed to play a pivotal role. If African countries can work in tandem with other like-minded countries in leading on this agenda, this renewed opportunity can be effectively leveraged to advance genuine change.

Dersso: While permanent representation and veto power is a core focus of Africa’s interest in U.N. Security Council reform, African countries also have a vested interest in making sure the Security Council delivers fairly and justly for all on its mandate.

As pointed out earlier, African files account for more than 60 percent of the agenda of the UNSC. The Security Council needs to establish working methods that ensure its decisions are informed by the views and needs of those who will be most affected. One particular place where this is needed is the “pen-holding” system, or who controls the documentation process for specific files.

Right now, the three Western permanent members exert enormous influence through “holding the pen” on many of the African files. African leaders have called for these files to be given to African member states of the UNSC.

Moreover, the nature of current peace and security challenges are such that even a reformed U.N. Security Council with African veto holding permanent members wouldn’t be able to deliver on some of the U.N. Charter’s core promises. Since the turn of the century, it’s clear that the maintenance of international peace and security in Africa requires the involvement of regional organizations such as the African Union in addition to the United Nations. This has made it critical that the U.N. and African Union achieve a consensus framework for sharing the burden of maintaining international peace and security in Africa. A key aspect of this will involve the longstanding quest for an agreement on financing African Union-led peace support operations that are authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

For a more effective multilateral system, Security Council reforms can’t be confined to representation of Africa as permanent and veto-holding members. This representation needs to be paired with the empowerment of African members in all Security Council processes. Not any less important, the reformed U.N. system needs to facilitate effective management of diversity, difference and competition. Transparent, accepted procedures to enforce the rules of the system and determine when breaches occur will also be critical.

Stigant: In his February 2022 message to the African Union, Biden expressed his confidence that “through the challenges ahead, although they are great, there is no doubt that our nations, our people, the African Union — we’re up to this task.”

An immediate step to advance reform of the UNSC could be establishing the appropriate mechanisms to translate Biden’s announcement at the U.N. General Assembly into action. To do this, the administration should appoint and empower a dedicated senior official to lead the file. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations will undoubtedly play a critical role, as will the U.S. ambassador to the African Union. But a dedicated senior official will be needed to coordinate the process within the U.S. government, with partners and with the U.N. bodies responsible for initiating and advancing a reform process.

Special envoys have been effective in these types of roles — where coordination is required across the U.S. government, regions and multilateral institutions for a defined purpose and mandate. An early task for a special envoy could be to convene leaders from Africa, Latin America and Asia to discuss their priorities and foster transregional approaches to UNSC reforms. The United States can also play a critical role in galvanizing support from the existing members of the U.N. Security Council — particularly France and the U.K. — as well as from those holding rotating seats over the remainder of the Biden administration’s time in office.

Solomon Dersso is the founding director of Amani Africa Media and Research Services and a commissioner on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Tim Murithi is the head of peacebuilding interventions at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and a professor of Africa studies at the University of Free State in South Africa.

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