Leveraging power and influence on the UNSC

The United Nations (UN) was created in the final months of World War II with the aim of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (UN Charter). Critical to this mission is the UN Security Council (UNSC), upon which the UN Charter bestows primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council’s peace and security powers are far-reaching, making it the most powerful international body in history. When faced with a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression the UNSC can employ a wide range of Chapter VII enforcement measures, including sanctions and the use of force. In addition to this coercive power, the Council possesses substantial legal authority as its Chapter VII decisions are legally binding on all 193 UN member states. Because of its prominent and powerful role in international law and international relations, the Council has been described as the global ‘executive of the international community’ (Simma 2012).

A central reason for the failure of the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, was that key states like the United States chose not to join. The UN’s founders therefore created a strong incentive to secure the active participation of the five great powers of the time, namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (P5). The UN Charter extended permanent Council membership to these states, as well as the ability to veto prospective Council action. This guaranteed that the UNSC would not take action that might undermine the key strategic interests of those members. Yet the division of the Council into the P5 and the remaining ten non-permanent members (the E10) – who are elected from the general UN membership for two-year terms and do not have veto power – clearly undermined the UN Charter’s endorsement of the principle of the sovereign equality of states.

The creation of the veto has been criticised as setting up a system of ‘power over principle’ and ‘might makes right’. Many scholars identify this power imbalance as a fundamental flaw that prevents the Council from meeting its responsibility to maintain international peace and causes it to act in an ad hoc and unprincipled manner. The Council is pilloried for its inconsistency and for suffering a ‘democratic deficit’. A commonly advocated strategy to combat these shortcomings is to undertake structural reform of the Council. The goal of such reform is to enlarge the Council and make it more responsive to the broader UN membership. Yet the ability of the P5 to veto any proposed reform means that there is little prospect of addressing what is seen to be the main problem, namely the veto itself. Moreover, the unwillingness of the most powerful non-permanent countries to set aside their own ambitions and agree on a broadly acceptable reform model has further thwarted reform efforts.

This project undertakes a comprehensive empirical study of how non-permanent members build and maintain power and influence on the UNSC and documents insights of critical players in Australia’s UNSC delegation during its 2013–14 elected term. It also evaluates the major achievements of other non-permanent members since 1990 with the aim of explaining how, why and when non-permanent members are best able to secure their interests and exercise influence on the UNSC.

The aims of the project are to:

(1) generate new knowledge about how, where and when non-permanent members have made a difference to the UNSC decision-making and norm developing processes;

(2) contribute new empirical data about important moments of UNSC lawmaking; and

(3) produce empirical evidence to inform the choice of strategies by Australia and other states in order to promote and secure their national interests in complex global governance institutions.

The project focuses on six areas of UNSC activities where non-permanent members have the potential to influence decision-making: force, sanctions, non-proliferation, peacekeeping, and working methods.

Australian Research Council Discovery Project DP150100300