The Role of Small States in the United Nations Security Council

Tuesday, 17. March 2009     1 comment(s)
Raimo Väyrynen

The role of small states in the United Nations and its Security Council is a complex issue. In terms of numbers, small countries form a great majority of the UN members, but even their combined influence on the outcomes of the world organization remains limited. Small states hardly ever vote in unison and even if they would do so, the power of the resolutions passed by the General Assembly remains restricted. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as the election of the rotating members to the Security Council, when the majority of states win in a secret ballot.

Without any doubt, those major powers who are permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have critical influence on the decisions of the world organization pertaining to international peace and security. If the permanent members agree among themselves and get a few rotating members behind themselves, they can exercise binding power on other members. The waning and waxing of the P5 consensus is associated with the fluctuations in the emphasis on multilateralism and concert-type arrangements in international relations.

However, the P5 do not have the same uncontested position at the United Nations as they had during the Cold War and after the entry of China to its membership. In some respects, permanent members have turned out to be the “great irresponsibles”, as Hedley Bull called them in the 1970s, by resorting to unilateral uses of force. For them, humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” have had a very specific utilitarian and unilateral meaning.

The distribution of power in the international system is changing so rapidly, and the current financial crisis is accelerating this change, that the emerging powers are demanding more and more vocally their place in the sun. Yet, the reform of the UNSC is way ahead in the future as the present permanent members are reluctant to let the newcomers – such as India, Brazil, Japan and Germany – into their exclusive club. Even the potential new UNSC members have been divided among themselves into two competing coalitions on who should qualify for the inner sanctum of the Security Council.

In the course of its history, the main role of the UNSC has not been its power to mobilize and command military forces to enforce international peace and security, even though the member states have been doing also that from the Korean War to the present situation in which there are over 100.000 overstretched UN peacekeeping forces deployed in different parts of the world. Even more important has been the capacity of the UNSC to provide “collective legitimation”, a term first coined by Inis L. Claude in 1966 to describe the right attributed to the United Nations to use military force against those threatening international peace and security.

The legitimacy of the international use of force is important both because of the ethical and legal acceptance, but also due to the lower political costs for those acting on behalf of the international community. The demand for the UN- mandated legitimacy to intervene, and its denial by some allies, became a major political issue in the U.S. unilateral use of military force against Iraq in 2003. The contestation over the (il)legitimacy of the U.S. attack divided not only the North and the South but also NATO to such an extent that the rift is only now gradually healed.

Ian Hurd has argued convincingly in his recent book “After Anarchy. Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council (Princeton 2007) that the considerations of legitimacy ought to be pivotal in the reform of the United Nations. As the demands of the emerging power centers and the frustrations of small member states cannot be met by restructuring the UNSC because of the political resistance of the powers-that-be, its decisions have, in the interim, to be made palatable by other means. A minimum condition for the future legitimacy of the Security Council is that its methods of work are transformed so that those members who are now excluded from effective influence, can face a more transparent and participative Security Council.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

19.3.2009, Kenneth Sikorski

Dear Mr.Väyrynen, you are leaving out one small detail. As far as the UN goes, the UNSC happens to be one of the less corrupted UN bodies the international institution on Turtle Bay has to offer.

One only has to look at the how NAM and the OIC have corrupted both the UNGA and the UNHRC and UN operations in general, to see that the UNSC is actually the least worrisome of the UN's problems.

Interestingly enough, the destructive forces of the NAM and the OIC do not create much of a blip on the radar screens of Europe's think tanks, why is that?

As a case in point, look no further to the corrupting influences of the OIC, and it's Secretary-Chief, Ekemleddin Ihsanoglu, which to date, not one blip has been registered in the pages of the UPI over the bigoted statements issued by the Sec-Gen during one of your seminars. There hasn't been one mention of Ihsanoglu's highly bigoted and racist statements made at that event, on the UPI's website.

In response to my statement about Islamic anti-Semitism, which is a fact as you well know, your guest stated that "you cannot speak about any Muslim, good or bad, as anti-Semitic, this is a theory, this is not the case. Why has the Finnish UPI been quiet about this?

Why does your organization continue to keep quiet about the leader of the world's largest Islamic organization, who effectively dismissed the possibility that there are anti-Semites amongst the World's 1.3 billion Muslims. Are you in agreement with his statement? What he was implying is that only a non-Muslim could be an anti-Semite, a very bigoted and racist statement, are you in agreement with the OIC Sec-Gen, or what?

I believe that in light of the upcoming UNHRC conference in Geneva this upcoming month, in which racism is the topic, that it is highly relevant what the OIC Sec-gen thinks about Jew hatred, or in other words, anti-Semitism, don't you? Do you not think it highly problematic that such a conference is in the making, with absolutely no mention is Islamic anti-Semitism, and that Finland is going to attend? Are you in agreement with this?

There are more pressing problems within the UN than restructuring the UNSC, handle the problems of the UNHRC first, then tackle the UNSC later. I'm sure the small country of Finland is concerned about the subversion of the UNHRC as much as I am, so should you and your organization.

Best regards,
Kenneth Sikorski

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