Security Council reform

This text formed the introduction speech to a discussion on this topic at a conference of The Hague Institute for Global Justice on 24 October 2013.

I would like to begin by explaining why I disagree with advocates of early Security Council reform.  The word ‘early’ must not be overlooked, for no institution can be exempt from reform forever. When I served on the Council in 1999 and 2000, I participated in a few informal brainstorming sessions on ways and means of making the Security Council less anachronistic, more representative and thus more effective. I soon became aware that reform of the Security Council was not possible without a change of its composition, that changing its composition would necessitate the Council’s enlargement, and that an enlarged Security Council might be less anachronistic and more representative but would definitely not be more effective than the current Council. I thought the founding fathers in 1945 had been right to believe that a body with the functions and powers of the Security Council should not have more than a dozen members, and the current Council was already 25% over that limit. The more I heard people lightheartedly advocate a 24-member Security Council, the more sceptical I became about Security Council reform.

Eight years ago today, the United Nations celebrated its 60th anniversary. The celebration had been preceded by the World Summit, from 14 to 16 September 2005. It was the largest summit ever, which brought together more than 150 heads of state and government. In preparation for that summit, secretary-general Kofi Annan had sent a 222-page report to the General Assembly, entitled ‘In larger freedom’ and dated 21 March 2005. With respect to Security Council reform the report contained two options for the Council’s enlargement, referred to as ‘models A and B’. They were very different from one another but would each produce a 24-member Security Council. In the report the Secretary-General urged Member States to “agree to take a decision on this important issue before the summit in September 2005. It would be very preferable for Member States to take this vital decision by consensus, but if they are unable to reach consensus this must not become an excuse for postponing action.”

I could not remember having come across such stern language in a report from the Secretary-General to the General Assembly and did not know what to make of it. Was it apprehension about a threatening failure of the World Summit or was it one last push for success? I consulted friends in New York who told me that models A and B had been evident nonstarters because neither model provided for new veto-wielding permanent members, but that the momentum in favour of a 24-member Security Council per se had not diminished and seemed to be growing even stronger. I therefore assumed that the Secretary-General had wisely given up on the notion of amending the Charter by consensus and had now put all his trust in the growing number of members of the General Assembly who demanded early reform of the Security Council in order to make it more broadly representative. If this group was indeed much larger than the two thirds required for the adoption of an amendment to the Charter, each of the permanent five would undoubtedly be reluctant to go against the stream by vetoing the proposal.

If that analysis was correct, the two-thirds majority was virtually assured, and if any unexpected obstacle were still to crop up now, it would have to come from a permanent member. I wrote a letter to the Financial Times, setting forth my usual arguments against Security Council reform. (See letter here). I did so more or less for conscience’ sake: I did not expect to exert any influence, but I wanted to sound a warning. After my letter had been published, however, I became absorbed in my one-year professorship at Leiden University and gave little further thought to the question of Security Council reform.

Months later, I was surprised to learn that Security Council reform had been dropped from the summit agenda. I could well imagine the relief of the permanent five but was unable to find out which one of them had pulled the plug.

In October 2005 I spent a few days at UN Headquarters in connection with my new Western Sahara assignment and took advantage of the opportunity to try and find out more about the dramatic reversal that had led to the demise of the agenda item of Security Council reform.  But I came away none the wiser. I repeatedly heard the American position being quoted as “the US backs expansion in principle, but only at the right time,” which left me with the impression that all permanent members were comfortably hiding behind this bit of blatant meaninglessness. I met many other people who felt that the time was not ripe for Security Council expansion, but absolutely no one who could describe to me the conditions under which in their view the time could be ripe for it. And I did not get any support for my view that the time would never be ripe for a 24-member Security Council.

My letter to the Financial Times is now more than eight years old, but it may still serve a useful purpose as a summary of my arguments against early Security Council reform. For these remain as valid as ever. Nothing has changed since 2005, except that China’s reluctance to let Japan have a permanent seat on the Security Council may have increased even further due to the territorial disputes about the islands in the South China Sea.

So I am grateful to the Institute for having enclosed my letter in today’s folder. The Netherlands should not hesitate to participate in future discussions on Security Council reform, but it should keep away from the question of who qualifies for permanent membership and who doesn’t. Instead, it should set itself up as the staunch defender of the small Security Council. At first this stance will be found a bit odd by the other member states, but if years from now the Security Council still has only 15 members, the Netherlands will be thanked for having saved the Council from crippling enlargement.



The letter to the Financial Times of 18 April 2005, mentioned above, was not my first contribution to the perennial debate on Security Council reform. About seven months earlier I had already sent a letter to the FT on this subject, which was published on 22 September 2004. (See letter here).

Both letters arrived at the conclusion that reform of the Council would inevitably entail its enlargement and thus jeopardise its effectiveness, but  they were written in very different circumstances.

In September 2004 the question of Security Council reform was in an impasse, and I was only distantly involved in choices that were likely to remain hypothetical for many years to come. In April 2005, however, Secretary-General Kofi Annan had just issued his report ‘In larger freedom,’ in which he stated that member states’ preference for a decision by consensus must not become an excuse for postponing action. This seemed to have triggered an unstoppable drive for enlargement of the Security Council, even if it could not be accomplished by consensus. The sudden change from blissful deadlock to imminent demise of the traditional Security Council made me more determined to do all I could to help thwart the Secretary-General’s plans for creating a Security Council with eleven  permanent members.