When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, its permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) quickly snarled the prospects of multilateral action. Eighty-one of the U.N.’s 193 member-states cosponsored a resolution denouncing the invasion — a clear violation of the core principles of the U.N. Charter and international law — and Russia, exercising its privileges as a permanent member, immediately and unilaterally vetoed it. The year since Russia’s invasion has only strengthened an already-widespread consensus on how broken the UNSC is, with subsequent calls for change gathering real momentum. Still, real structural reform remains a distant prospect: no matter how much they publicly acknowledge its unjust rules, permanent members are unlikely to undermine their own advantages in the council. But there are other, more informal engines of change at the UNSC.

A United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
A United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

A look back at how the UNSC has changed over time reveals that the UNSC’s sole formal reform didn’t dilute the P5’s formal powers, but still produced a real shift in the UNSC’s work and practices: it gave other member states — particularly the UNSC’s rotating 10 elected members — new ways to slowly transform both the form and substance of international peace and security. Examining these changes highlights how this vital institution can change even when its powerful members are reluctant to give up their political advantages.

Gridlock Is the Point

The UNSC is the international body charged with maintaining international peace and security. Under international law, it is the sole global body that can authorize force, but each of its permanent five members — the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France (known as the P5) — wields a veto that allows it to unilaterally thwart any action.

By design, the UNSC cannot address some of the biggest issues of war and peace in the world: it cannot act to address, mitigate or stop human suffering in conflict when one of its permanent members is a party to the conflict. It was explicitly built to be unfair, giving the victors of the World War II an outsized role in international peace and security, marginalizing whole regions and continents — particularly former colonies that gained independence after 1945 — and it was explicitly structured to be easily deadlocked, with any of the P5 able to unilaterally grind its work to a halt.

Everyone from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, to the Biden administration, to voices from the Global South have called for fundamental, formal revisions to the UNSC’s membership and powers, with ideas ranging from expanded permanent membership to finding ways to strip the P5 of their veto. Some have even invoked Article 109, the formal procedure for rewriting the Charter via a general conference that the Charter itself lays out. But in an era of waning multilateralism, efforts to revise the U.N. Charter are more likely to kill most existing structures of multilateral cooperation than to produce a more just institution. As Natalie Samarasinghe wrote this fall, “there is little chance of a successor organization rising from the current geopolitical ashes.”

Indeed, significant reforms would require both a complete revision of the U.N. Charter and true political will and agreement from the same powerful member states who benefit enormously from the status quo. The one major reform of the UNSC, in 1963, cost the P5 little at the time: they agreed to increase the number of non-permanent members at the UNSC, following pressure from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), but ceded none of their power.

We know the UNSC can continue to work amid internal fractures, and that the P5 want it to continue working in many cases. And even if formal reforms are unlikely, we know the UNSC can change because it has changed in the past. The UNSC’s one formal reform allowed more member states to sit on the council, and these states, in turn, have used the chamber in creative, innovative and new ways, opening up new possibilities for multilateral action via small shifts: meaningfully coordinating with groups outside the UNSC, meaningfully coordinating with each other, transforming the practice of penholding, and drawing on the rotating UNSC presidency to advance new agendas and procedures.

While these changes are seemingly small and clearly insufficient to fix the UNSC’s fundamental problems, they make today’s UNSC markedly different in practice from even a few decades ago. They may not formally shift power away from the P5, but they empower other members to take up new tasks, and in doing so, change how the chamber works, change which tools are available to diplomats trying to navigate the P5’s conflicts, and form part of a suite of ideas to advance multilateral action on pressing conflicts in the face of P5 obstruction.

A Brief History of Formal Reform

At the U.N.’s founding in 1945, its Charter stipulated that the UNSC would have five permanent members and six elected members. It indicated that selection of these elected members should be determined with attention to their contribution to the maintenance of international peace and to equitable geographical distribution, but did not specify what geographical distribution meant, creating a major source of disagreement for member states.

During the U.N.’s first 35 years, membership in the General Assembly increased drastically, as newly decolonized countries joined the U.N. Many of these new states began pushing for increased membership and representation on the Security Council too. And in 1963, the General Assembly passed Resolution 1991, formally amending the Charter and expanding the number of non-permanent seats to 11 and officially dividing the seats up into geographic regions, through which states would compete in elections. While this reconfiguration left the P5’s veto power intact, the expansion in membership, as well as new regional blocs and often-competitive elections, fundamentally changed the way the UNSC did its work without further amendments to the Charter.

The P5 and the UNSC

To understand these changes in practice, how they came about and what kinds of changes at the UNSC are possible even when the P5 are unwilling, we have to start with why the P5 care about the UNSC at all. Even as their own divergent agendas prevent action on key cases, the P5 have more in common than not on many issues of international peace and security — when their own primary interests and political processes aren’t at stake, they can agree on even complex issues of international peace and security, and take action to address pressing issues. For much of the post-Cold War period, and even amid substantial disagreement on Ukraine and Syria between 2013 and 2016, for example, the P5 agreed to all proposed new peacekeeping force authorizations. And work continues now despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, the body remains an active site for diplomacy even on conflict cases that divide the P5, and even when one of the P5 members is a key obstacle to collective action. Many scholars have asked why the P5 turn to the UNSC at all, when in most cases they could simply bypass it altogether, and when in all cases the UNSC cannot keep powerful states from breaking international law. Some scholars have argued the UNSC is a place where powerful states can work together to check other states’ military ambitions, each member investing the chamber and its decisions with importance so every other powerful state will also invest the chamber with importance, and a place where powerful states can offer their own populations and the international community information about their plans and intentions, making the body a vital part of diplomatic and foreign policy projects even when it can’t stop P5 members from breaking the U.N. Charter.

Although gridlock at the UNSC draws the most headlines and external attention, the bulk of the UNSC’s work is on wars and crises where no permanent member has a primary national interest in the outcome of the conflict. Here, the P5 have an incentive to keep the focus of international decision-making within UNSC chambers. The status and rank that a permanent seat on the UNSC provides can incentivize the P5 to continue to work with one another on some issues even when their foreign policy goals and interests are wildly divergent. This willingness is a space for diplomatic action by other concerned states.

The Elected 10 at the UNSC

The elected 10 members of the UNSC (E10) also shape its agenda, its work and its procedures, and have increasingly built coalitions to leverage their collective power against P5 interests. The UNSC also has two important roles through which states can influence both the council’s outputs and, notably, its working methods: 1) penholding, the informal practice by which one or more of the UNSC’s members initiate and chair the informal drafting process for UNSC resolutions and 2) the rotating position of the UNSC presidency. Practical changes in both arenas have enabled the UNSC’s elected members to shape the council’s work in new ways.

Coalition Building

As Arthur Boutellis wrote in his recent comprehensive work on the E10, the E10’s emergence “as a construct and a more cohesive coalition on the Security Council” is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Many analysts date it to a 2017-2018 series of dialogues and initiatives among the E10, which has continued via both formal and informal trainings, dialogues and initiatives. Elected members often have less institutional and procedural knowledge, less staff in New York and less expertise with UNSC procedures. Since 2003, Finland, alongside organizations like Security Council Report, have held annual trainings for new missions, allowing states to begin their terms with a better understanding of the UNSC’s working methods and issues. This, in turn, weakens some of the traditional advantage the P5 have had over the UNSC’s work.

Boutellis argues that through concerted, organized cooperation; through strategic alliances; and through years-long advocacy and work of individual member states before and after their elected terms to the UNSC, the E10 have been able to influence the work of the UNSC, helping shape its working methods, the thematic issues it considers and particular country-specific files.

In many cases, elected members have used their positive relationships with a particular permanent member to act as a liaison, developing a role as both a credible interlocutor among other General Assembly members and a trusted negotiator for a P5 member as an effective strategy for pushing for P5 compromise and change. They have also advocated for greater transparency and accountability in ways that do not amount to official reform, as Canada successfully did in the late 1990s. And through formal working groups of the UNSC, collaborative arrangements outside the council, or ad hoc connections, countries in the NAM have historically coordinated when they hold UNSC seats and stayed connected with their fellow members outside the council. Beginning in the 1970s, the NAM group worked together to harness a “negative veto” wherein they would “assemble seven votes on a given issue … With nine votes, barring a P5 intervention, they could pass resolutions on their own.” In this way, they could circumvent the efforts of Western members to achieve their own objectives without changing the council on paper. And since 2019, the E10 have underlined their shared goals in an annual joint statement every year.

Penholding

The procedures surrounding penholding are largely unwritten but critical to both the form and content of the UNSC’s work. From the U.N.’s founding through 2008-2009, penholding was traditionally the provenance of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, although other members sometimes lead on particular issue areas. While these three permanent members still largely serve as penholders, today the penholder role is more than just drafting texts and chairing their negotiation: it involves a full range of leadership on specific issues and has increasingly included E10 members, either in collaboration with these Western powers, or in a shared role with another elected member E10 members. 

Penholding has allowed elected members to challenge the P3’s monopoly on leadership on resolutions — and in some cases, to do so with remarkable cross-regional organization and success, as in the complicated 2014 negotiations over the cross-border humanitarian corridor in rebel-held Syria. Although the E10’s work, cohesiveness and efficacy can vary considerably according to its composition, these member states managed to, in Boutellis’ language, “pass the baton” to the elected members that succeeded them on key issues — on the cross-border humanitarian corridor in Syria, for example, between 2014 and 2022, Australia, Luxembourg, and Jordan passed the baton successively to Sweden, Japan, Kuwait, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Norway and Kenya. While these efforts fell well short of bridging the divide between the P5 on Syria, they enabled some aid to reach people even as a larger political settlement remains elusive.

The UNSC Presidency

​​​​​​​The presidency rotates monthly in alphabetical order, giving each member state, permanent and elected, an opportunity to structure and steer the form and content of the UNSC’s work. As Susan Allen and Amy Yuen argue, members use their time in the presidency to advance their own international policy agendas while focusing on issues they care about where the preferences of permanent members overlap enough to reach an agreement. If we follow their line of argument to its logical conclusions, then creative diplomacy and behind-the-scenes bargaining from committed actors can shift the preferences of the P5, albeit within limits; can change and help set the preferences of the delegation setting the agenda; and can raise the public accountability costs of actions within the UNSC.

The UNSC is also a body that proposes, frames and advances new norms and ideas about war and peace — and in recent decades, E10 members have used their presidencies to put new kinds of issues onto the UNSC’s agenda, expanding the council’s conception of security itself. On topics like the responsibility to protect, the protection of civilians in conflict, women, peace, and security; youth, peace, and security; and climate and security, advocacy and agenda-setting from the E10 alongside key alliances with the P5 have added novel, transformative dimensions of human security to the UNSC’s work and focus, albeit with varying degrees of success. At its foundation, the UNSC had a narrow, state-centric vision of international peace and security, but today’s daily discussions reveal how much has changed in the intervening years, as member states have expanded its deliberations on war and peace to include the fates and rights of people within states.

Can the UNSC Change Enough?

Both the form and the content of the UNSC’s work have evolved over time through informal practices and concerted effort from the U.N.’s other member states. We should therefore anticipate that these members will be at the forefront of finding creative procedural and substantive ways to confront P5 gridlock. 

A full-scale revision of the U.N. Charter is distant, and gridlock is likely to continue at the UNSC, particularly when a member of the P5 is committed to either breaking the terms of the U.N. Charter, or protecting another country doing so. No widespread consensus among other states can change how easily a P5 member can turn the UNSC away from action.

Still, these historical changes in the UNSC — a formal expansion in elected membership, coalition building at the UNSC, shifting ownership over UNSC resolutions and new agendas via the UNSC presidency — point to one set of levers for people concerned with multilateral action even amid fractures among the P5. Taken alongside other tools, like actions through the U.N. General Assembly or the U.N. Secretariat, these changes in practice offer action points even when global institutions seem hopelessly unfit to address the conflicts before them, helping transform the UNSC’s work on international peace and security even when the P5 refuse to cede meaningful power to the rest of the world.

Anjali Dayal is a senior scholar in residence at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an associate professor of international politics at Fordham University.

Caroline Dunton is a research associate at the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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