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Troubling Turnover on UN Security Council

Author: Kara C. McDonald
October 15, 2009

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On October 15, the UN General Assembly was poised to elect five new members of the UN Security Council--Nigeria, Gabon, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brazil--to two-year terms.

On the surface, each state's relatively easy path to election--all five advanced uncontested from their regional groupings--would seem to convey consensus on their worthiness to sit on the UN's most powerful deliberative body. But these choices pose challenges for U.S. interests on the fifteen-member council, including the ongoing process to check the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. The fitness of some of these countries to serve also raises questions about the selection process.

The new council features two states, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon, which are struggling to establish functioning governments and are themselves on the council's agenda. The presence of three states aspiring to permanent Security Council membership may also revive the debate on whether to enlarge the Security Council.

While the departure of Vietnam and Libya may be seen as helpful to U.S. interests, the loss of Burkina Faso and Costa Rica, two staunch U.S. allies, will be acutely felt. Their replacements, Nigeria and Brazil, while friends of the United States, frequently represent southern bloc interests at the United Nations. Regional choices for UN Security Council membership often feel beholden to the regional grouping that proposed their candidacy and the bloc positions they adopt. In the past, regional blocs have used the strength in their numbers to advance increasingly hard-line positions, such as blanket opposition to the use of the council's coercive tools (arms embargos, economic sanctions, or travel bans), and policies of nonintervention even in the context of mass human rights abuses. These positions, if given voice in the council, will frustrate U.S. nonproliferation objectives in Iran and North Korea, and could complicate reaching consensus on situations like Sudan or Myanmar. Nigeria will be vulnerable to pressure from its regional memberships in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Non-Alignment Movement, and the Group of 77, a caucus of developing states that pursues common interests in multilateral forums. Similarly, Brazil is a leader of the Southern Cone, and a founding member of the Group of 77. Whether Brazil or Nigeria's aspirations for UN Security Council permanent membership will help transform their regional voices into  globally representative and responsible ones remains to be seen.

Tougher Council Deliberations

As for individual negotiations, the United States can expect a tougher environment that demands significant engagement with capitals of other Security Council members. Negotiating tactics in the UN Security Council often come down to the number of votes: Seven and nine are magic numbers. A country needs seven votes to block action on an agenda item, and nine votes with no vetoes to pass a resolution.  In 2009, the United States could generally count on France, the United Kingdom, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Japan, Mexico, and Uganda on important votes, with Croatia and Austria often following suit.  This alignment of council member interests was essential to recent council action on Iran and North Korea, and will be important to ongoing discussions on Sudan, the International Criminal Court, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Somalia.

The United States can expect a tougher environment that demands significant engagement with capitals of other Security Council members.

The easiest way for a member state to block undesired action is to deny the initiating country the nine votes needed to pass a resolution. In 2009, a blocking seven votes was generally in hand for the United States and its allies, provided there was no division of interests. Obtaining nine affirmative votes to pass resolutions was also within reach, so negotiations focused primarily on the permanent five veto-wielding members, or P5 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States), to ensure Russian and Chinese consensus and no vetoes.

In the 2010 council, however, the United States will enter many negotiations with the support of fewer partners: France, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, Uganda, and possibly Austria, since it is unclear how closely Gabon and Nigeria will align themselves with the interests of these states. This composition will require the United States to spend more time lobbying capitals of non-permanent members to secure a nine-vote majority, while also negotiating for consensus among the P5 partners.  This may further complicate tough negotiations, like those on North Korea and Iran, and the discussion of controversial agenda items, like Myanmar or Zimbabwe.

Many small governments serving as elected members of the council face internal capacity issues when taking up their council seat. The sheer number of council meetings and decisions often requires that a country boost its New York staff.  The council's broad agenda demands understanding of conflicts and interests across the globe. Some council business, like the work of the sanctions and terrorism committees, is highly technical, presenting a sharp learning curve to new members. The new council will include several novices. Bosnia-Herzegovina has never served on the council before. Lebanon, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, is likely to face capacity issues; it served only one prior term on the council in the 1950s.

Two Unsettled Members

Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina's membership will present both logistical and substantive hurdles to U.S. policy aims. Bosnia-Herzegovina faces internal political turmoil over the functioning of its tripartite government established under the Dayton Accords. Lebanon has yet to form a government following its June 2009 elections, and as such, there may be question as to who has the right to represent the country in the council chambers. Internal wrangling in Beirut and Sarajevo may complicate or delay decisions on council actions and frustrate council partners trying to pinpoint the stances of member capitals, thus adding a wild card to the council's 2010 proceedings.  Lebanon and the United Nations Interim Force there (UNIFIL) are on the council's agenda, so the country may be required or may opt to abstain from council decisions involving itself under the provisions for "obligatory abstention" in Article 27 of the UN Charter. The stabilization of the south of Lebanon and the implementation of council resolutions calling for the cessation of arms transfers to groups like Hezbollah remain on the council's agenda. Lebanon is vulnerable to Iran, its proxies, and other regional influences, and as such may be an inconsistent partner in negotiations on Iran and the Middle East.

Internal wrangling in Beirut and Sarajevo may complicate or delay decisions on council actions and frustrate council partners trying to pinpoint the stances of member capitals, thus adding a wild card to the council’s 2010 proceedings.

The five new members were elected in a clean-slate election, meaning there was no competition, with only one candidate running per open seat. The ramification of a clean-slate election for UN Security Council dynamics is that regional groups, rather than the General Assembly as a whole, negotiate and decide which candidates to put forward, thus leaving the General Assembly little choice. This trend has increased the power of regional blocs in choosing members of the Security Council, and potentially undermines the selection of Security Council members based on the qualification of contributions to international peace and security as set out in Article 23 of the UN Charter.

Security Council Reform

Finally, the presence of three aspirants of permanent UN Security Council membership--Brazil, Japan, and Nigeria, joined by the possible election next year of two more aspirants, Germany and India--may renew calls from within the ranks of the council to update its permanent membership to reflect the alignment of power in the twenty-first century. Competing regional interests have stymied negotiations in the UN General Assembly over Security Council enlargement, and no enlargement proposal is yet close to securing the two-thirds majority needed to adopt such a change to the UN Charter. It remains to be seen whether the presence of so many aspirants of permanent membership on the council will propel this debate. In the meantime, the United States should encourage aspiring permanent members to use their two-year tenure to demonstrate global, not just regional, leadership, as the most compelling argument for future permanent membership.

With its regional interests and domestic political issues, the new council will be an environment less favorable to U.S. interests. How sharply these dynamics will affect the achievement of U.S. objectives in the council depends largely on the administration's ability to translate its stated "New Era of Engagement" into negotiated results.

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