Why does Ireland want a seat on 'dysfunctional' UN Security Council?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jun 25 2020 Posted: 14:30 IST

Author: Professor Ray Murphy, Irish Centre for Human Rights

Opinion: the Irish Government will learn tomorrow if the bid for a seat on the UN Security Council has been successful

At a critical time for the UN and its Security Council, elections for five non-permanent members of the Council will take place tomorrow (June 17th). The Security Council is the most powerful of the UN organs and it has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. However, it has come to symbolise the dysfunctional nature of the UN in recent years.

This year, Ireland, Canada and Norway are contesting two available rotating seats currently held by Belgium and Germany.  Although the criteria for appointment are based on the contributions to the maintenance of international peace and to the other purposes of the UN, equitable geographic distribution has come to play a major role in reality.   

When delegates assembled at San Francisco to adopt the UN Charter in 1945, they were confronted with an agreement among the major powers as to the composition of the Security Council. What was wanted at the time was a body large enough to be representative of various interests, yet small enough to be efficient and manageable.

In accordance with the Charter, five of the 15 members of the Council are permanent and have an effective power of veto. This has ensured the primacy of the US, Russia, China, France and the UK on the Council, while also limiting its membership. This arrangement merely reflected how the US, the then Soviet Union and the UK dominated the post World War II era. A major challenge today is the changed distribution of global power and the fact that the composition of the Security Council does not reflect this. How can it be justified that India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan or Indonesia do not have permanent membership?

There have been numerous reports on UN reform and many efforts to change the composition and working methods of the Council. While there is agreement on the need for reform, that is as far as it goes, apart from a consensus that the Council should remain sufficiently small to be effective and at the same time sufficiently large to be representative and legitimate.  

The right of the current five permanent members to veto any proposals for reform reflects the imbalance in the power dynamics on the Council. It is at the very least inconsistent with the requirement for global representation and undermines the legitimacy of the UN as a whole. 

Council dynamics in recent years have reflected deteriorating geo-political tensions and divisions. Debates between the US, China and Russia over Venezuela became so fractious that the Council stopped discussing the topic altogether. After a decade of recriminations on Syria, this might have seemed a good idea, but it ignores the responsibility of the Council and its members.

Some of the most contentious differences have emerged over the Middle East and North Africa. Division over Iran has been particularly damaging and even threaten relations among European powers. France and the US have clashed over peacekeeping in Africa, especially the Sahel region. These public clashes have undermined the Council and the UN missions on the ground. 

For the most part, the poor state of the UN in general today, and the marginalisation of the Security Council in particular, reflects the reality of international relations. While UN reform is important, it will not resolve these issues. It will not address US unilateralism or Russian flouting of UN resolutions in Libya while supporting opponents of the UN backed government there.

Ireland is committed to prioritising disarmament and non-proliferation issues if elected. It has a good record of contributing to peacekeeping and human rights, but does not have the economic leverage of a country like Canada, which is a major contributor to the peacekeeping budget.

The non-permanent members and regional groupings have sought to circumvent the lack of agreement among the major powers and consequent paralysis of the Council. In this context, Ireland can only aspire to a relatively modest role. The permanent five members still largely set the agenda and retain a tight hold on most major Council processes, drafting resolutions and only occasionally permitting the 10 elected members a substantive role. Nevertheless, Sweden managed to play a pivotal role in Yemen while on the Council. 

Ireland, Norway and Canada have much in common. The differences between them for the most part reflect their individual priorities.  All have successfully held non-permanent seats in the past, which makes predicting the outcome of the election difficult, and the pandemic has complicated the process. Ireland has always been an advocate of multilateralism, peacebuilding and the rule of law.  The current campaign for membership has emphasised the themes of empathy, partnership and independence. 

Given Ireland's record on UN peacekeeping, it could play a constructive role in promoting an integrated approach to post conflict reconciliation involving peacebuilding, development, human rights and good governance. It has advocated for a greater role for women and girls in peace building and for their protection in situations of armed conflict. In common with the other contenders for a seat, it has also sought more transparency and inclusiveness in the Council’s work. 

The UN will only ever be as effective as the member states allow. At present, the outlook for the Security Council remains bleak. Expansion of the membership and other reforms remain deadlocked. The biggest obstacle to an effective Council continues to be the dysfunctional relationship between the major powers and the consequent marginalisation of its role. Ireland has stated that it would seek to draw on its experience of peacemaking to assist the Council in conflict resolution efforts. Ironically, these efforts are most needed today in resolving differences within the Council itself.


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