Why is Africa left out? UN power imbalance under scrutiny

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The leaders of the African Union, Brazil, Japan, and India, amongst leaders of other developing states have called for a reform of the United Nations Security Council to address what they consider a gross imbalance of power in the world body. But will the UN be a functioning body if the current five permanent members of the Security Council are not assured their veto powers?

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had told the UN World Summit in New York that the council’s structure reflected the world of 1945. Russian Prime minister Vladimir Putin had urged the gathering of some 150 world leaders in New York to carry out constructive reform of the UN. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki had criticized rich and powerful nations for allegedly blocking the reform. In a report published in The Nation, in March, 2009, Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon was quoted as saying: “Experience tells us that veto impacts negatively on the effectiveness and efficiency of the Council.”

The ongoing debate about the UN’s Veto Power and permanent Security Council has however streamed from political conventions, ambassadors forums and executive offices to the academic symposium of scholars, for analysis. Dr. Douglas Woodwell, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Indianapolis and a former lecturer for the Yale Center for International and Area Studies is one of the many scholars to confer his views on the argument about reforming and expanding the most powerful UN body aimed at making it more representative and more effective.

Veto, Democracy and UN future

The renowned professor whose articles have appeared in publications for the World Bank and International Studies Quarterly reiterated the fact that the current UN situation is a complicated one. “Developing countries are justified in demanding that the Security Council should be more representative and democratic. However, there would be no functioning UN body if the current five permanent members of the Security Council are not assured their veto power,” Woodwell said referring to the concept of the proscription power. The political science expert described the power structure of the UN as a holdover of the power structure of World War II. “Satisfying the power appetite of these guys is just a necessary evil,” he added.

The United Nations since 1988 has adopted at least one resolution annually dealing with some aspect of democracy. Such resolutions as promoting human rights, development, peace and security, assisting parliaments and decentralized local governance structures to enhance the checks and balances that allow democracy to thrive. However, the same enthusiasm to ensure democracy amongst member countries is not apparent in the governing body of the United Nations, so say leaders of developing countries.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, France and the United Kingdom) have the veto power in substantive matters: This power has been deeply controversial since the drafting of the UN Charter in 1945. Powers like the United States and Russia would probably not have accepted the creation of the United Nations without the veto privilege. Fifty four years later, the debate on the existence and use of the veto continues, revitalized by many cases of veto-threat as well as actual veto use. In response to whether there is a need to expand the permanent Security Council, the History and political Science expert said that:“The United Nation functions on the vague idea of legitimacy, and of course a greater range of representation would guarantee the organization’s legitimacy, however, if the Security Council becomes too big, the United Nations will become unwieldy and it will be much harder for it to achieve anything.”

It is out of place to view the UN as a one-world government body — a view that has led many a developing nation to seek for it to be more democratic and representative. “The way domestic governance works is not the same way governing a world organization as the UN, works. To keep countries from going to war with one another, to protect sovereignty and to ensure humanitarian intervention is all that the UN can thrive to do and to meet these goals is to keep the big nations on board and with power,” Woodwell said.


Another problem that has plagued the UNs credibility has been their failure to prevent conflicts or ensure peaceful treaties in several conflict zones around the world. A report on Aljazeera described the UN peacekeepers as one of the largest, best equipped and international forces in the world. Yet the organization’s history is spotted with cases of its incapability to keep the peace in places such as Srebrenica in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur and DR Congo. Currently there are UN peacekeeping operations running in 16 different locations, throughout five continents from Haiti to Timor and 120 countries contribute 100,000 troops who are paid out of the UN’s annual budget of $7.1 billion. To this regard, the coexisting General Assembly and Security Council resolutions establishing the Peace building Commission — advisory body of the United Nations that supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict, and is a key addition to the capacity of the International Community in the broad peace agenda–, have also provided for the establishment of a Peace building Fund and Peace building Support Office, which together form the United Nations peace building architecture. Quizzed about how this new UN body can best achieve its goals, the Associate professor of Political science said, “What one hopes for is still a long way from now, but the UN must utilize its contact with such organizations as NATO, the African Union, and other regional bodies regarding security operations: It should work in conjunction with them and build better inter-regional relationships in order to successfully keep the peace amongst nations.”


Questions have also been asked about the candidacy for the leadership of the United Nations. No prominent or high-profile candidate has yet been Secretary General- a trend that has led many to believe that only compromise-candidates from middle powers and with little prior fame are chosen for the position, which makes it easier for the permanent members of the Security Council to easily manipulate or override. Since the Organization was formed in 1945, it has been led by Trygve lie of Norway, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, U Thant of Burma, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, Kofi Annan of Ghana and currently Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea. But Dr. Woodwell believes that it is as a result of the perception of neutrality that most candidates from countries that have no reason to take sides in crucial decisions have been chosen. “However, it is an exception so far to have a guy from South Korea in that position given South Korea’s ties with the U.S.”

The UN security Council, and the new Peacebuilding Commission body have pledged to play a more important role in bringing together all of the relevant actors, including international donors, the international financial institutions, national governments, troop contributing countries; marshalling resources and advising on and proposing integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery and where appropriate, highlighting any gaps that threaten to undermine peace.

“We will work with you to achieve enlargement of the Security Council, but only in the right way and at the right time,” Shirin Tahir-Kheli, adviser on UN reform to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told the General Assembly in 2005. However the US rejected a draft resolution by Brazil, India, Japan, and Germany asking for radical changes to the UN Security Council. But the developing countries have decided to open that chapter again with Africa joining in the race.

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