After almost 70 years, it suffers from the twin deficits of representativeness and legitimacy
The growing conflagration that is Syria reveals more than just the rival, and increasingly sectarian, agendas of its regional sponsors. It highlights the paralysis at the heart of the body whose job is to keep the international peace – the UN security council. The deadlock inside it is so profound that a simple decision like appointing a special envoy had to be taken by the general assembly instead. Even when the council reaches a decision, its implementation is the cause of friction among its permanent members. After resolution 1973, which established a no-fly zone over Libya, neither Russia nor China can be persuaded that a decision taken in the name of protecting civilians is not a cover for regime change.
After almost 70 years, the security council suffers from the twin deficits of representativeness and legitimacy. In those seven decades membership of the UN has almost quadrupled, from 51 to 193 states, but the number of permanent members (the P5) is the same today as it was when it was created, and the number of non-permanent members has increased only from six to 10. Whereas the original ratio was one permanent member for 10 countries, today it is one permanent member for nearly 40 countries. Whole regions of the world are locked out of the decision-making. About 85% of the items on the council's agenda deal with Africa, and yet the continent has no voice equivalent to a permanent member.
Everyone agrees that the council must change. The unanimity starts to crumble on the reasons for change, and to fritter away altogether on the models that would fix the problem. The African group demands two permanent seats for its 54 members, with full veto rights. The G4 (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) claim permanent seats for themselves on the grounds that authority should not stem from hard military power only but a member's status as a economic power, its commitment to peacekeeping, development, human rights. There are groups representing small island states, and what was called the coffee club. The arguments go back and forth about the numbers of permanent and non-permanent members, the need for the veto, about whether greater representation would dilute authority or enhance it. It came closest to a resolution in 2005 and since then the issue has been kicked into the long grass. It is safe to assume it will stay there. While mouthing support for change, the P5 are happy with the status quo.
What is now needed, as Brazil's foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, has argued, is the involvement of civil society. Without a wider debate, the exceptionalist mindset of the P5 will continue. But so will the turmoil that creates. American and British drones are just fine, until China or Russia use them too.