Stuck in 1945: The U.N.’s “Big Five” Security Council

What is the U.N. Security Council?

International relations is a broad and complex system.  With each nation employing different approaches to governance and law, the United Nations and its Security Council represent the key entities balancing national and international interests on the international stage.  As such, the operations of the United Nations Security Council are essential to understanding international law and transnational relations.

Created in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations and its Security Council entered the international scene with the introduction of the United Nations Charter—a multilateral treaty defining the limits of each body.  The Charter’s primary missions are to preserve international peace and security, facilitate relations between countries, and improve the lives of individuals through human rights initiatives.  It requires that each of the 193 signatory states abide by its rules, including the provisions giving an “extensive degree of deference to the Security Council.”

The development of a designated Security Council within the United Nations was a core part of the Charter.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Charter sought to use the United Nations and the Security Council to create stability internationally.   In addition to being an integral part in drafting the Charter, the Security Council is one of the six main internal groups of the United Nations charged with the fundamental responsibility of “maintaining international peace and security.”  By nature of this core duty, the Council gathers whenever peace is endangered in order to assist parties engaged in the conflict in coming to a peaceful agreement.  For disputes that are particularly hostile in nature, the Council may issue ceasefire orders or dispatch peacekeeping forces to settle tensions.  Its decisions have a binding effect on all member nations.  In stark contrast, all other groups within the United Nations can only make recommendations to member countries; in other words, their decisions are non-binding.  This makes the Security Council particularly important and powerful.

At the time of its founding in 1945, the Security Council consisted of eleven members.  Five of the members were permanent, often called the “Big Five,” and the remaining six were nonpermanent members serving terms of two years. Since 1965, the total number of members has expanded to fifteen, but the Big Five has remained intact as the only five permanent members of the Council.  The Big Five includes China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.  At the inception of the Council, China was the Republic of China and Russia was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (“USSR”).  The permanent status of these five countries originates from the international scene following World War II.  As the War’s victors, the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were integral to “postwar political order“ and naturally positioned to take up primary roles in the U.N.  As the United Nations was developed, President Roosevelt of the United States requested that the Republic of China be included in the Security Council because he imagined international security being overseen “by ‘four global policemen.’”  Similarly, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom asserted that France should be included as a “European buffer” in order to shield against any aggression from other countries, such as Germany or the Soviet Union.  This resulted in the Big Five composition as it is today.  While the composition of five permanent members gives the Council an undeniable consistency, significant controversy exists regarding the tenure of its permanent members.

Procedurally, each member of the Security Council has a vote.  Both substantive and procedural issues require the support of nine affirmative votes of Security Council members.  However, the permanent members have a special power at their disposal: the veto.  This is one of the most significant differences between permanent and non-permanent members of the United Nations.  In order to successfully pass a Security Council resolution, not only are nine affirmative votes needed, but so too is the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council.  This results in the de facto veto power of the Big Five, wherein the refusal of any single permanent member’s support will prevent the passage of Security Council resolutions.

According to a Security Council Report, “[p]ermanent members use the veto to defend their national interests, to uphold a tenet of their foreign policy or, in some cases, to promote a single issue of particular importance to a state.”  No matter the veto’s purpose, from some perspectives, the veto power is, in essence, a power “to kill” an initiative arising out of the Council.  Thus, the Council, and its powerful permanent members’ role in international law, remains a contentious matter among the international community.

History of the U.N. Security Council

Since 1945, the United Nations has been seen as a safeguard against threats to international peace.  Nonetheless, the United Nations Security Council has consistently been criticized for its imbalanced power allocation.  At the conclusion of the Cold War in the early 1990s, frustration grew towards the permanent members’ composition.  Critics began to argue that the composition reflected outdated “power structure[s]” from 1945.

Originally, the Security Council’s membership was established based on the world order after World War II.  The idea was that the countries selected could act responsibly and had the “capacity of working collaboratively[.]”  In the Council’s first year, the five countries “accounted for 10 percent of member states and over 50 percent of the world’s population, within their empires.”  More recently, in 2020, the permanent members’ percentage of the world population has decreased to 26 and now makes up three percent of the signatory Member States.  However, contrary to what many economists might claim, there has not been a high degree of “economic rebalancing” since the Security Council was created.  According to Foreign Policy, “the [Big Five]’s share of global GDP in 1940 was around 47 percent.”  Today, “the [Big Five] accounts for just 2 percentage points more of GDP—49 percent of the global total.”  Although the Big Five remains consistent, the composition of the world has changed and continues to change dramatically.  In the years since its establishment, “80 former colonies have gained independence, from India to Kenya, to Nigeria to Kazakhstan.”  Modern critics note the absence of permanent representation from Africa or Latin America and prominent countries such as India and Japan.  As Foreign Policy explains, “[w]hile the economics might be the same, the potential member states that might be deemed responsible or capable in 2020 are very different to those in 1945. And they will likely be different in 2030, 2045, or another 75 years ahead.”  As the world’s population and composition continue to transform, many claim that the Security Council should better reflect the change in the world since 1945.

Since its inception, the Security Council Members have not hesitated to utilize their veto power.  That being said, the usage of the veto power has varied among the Big Five countries.  Throughout history, the USSR/Russia has been the most frequent user of the veto power.  More specifically, the USSR accumulated 107 vetoes during the Council’s initial years and has amassed 122 vetoes in total.  However, the United States has been responsible for the most vetoes out of the Big Five since 1970, with 82 in total. China has utilized the veto power 17 times as both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China.  Since 2011 in particular, Russia and China have cast vetoes more consistently, with 26 vetoes by Russia and 12 vetoes by China.  The United Kingdom has activated its veto power 29 times and France has used it 16 times, but the two countries “have not cast a veto since 23 December 1989.”  Even within the Council, the veto power is used at contrasting regularity among the nations.  The veto function remains a primary method of influencing international policy by national powers.

Impact of the U.N. Security Council on International Law

As a product of international law, the United Nations Security Council is integral to international relations.  The Council is responsible for various important international decisions that impact countries across the world.  Several articles in the United Nations Charter grant legal authority to the Council to act both politically and legally, fully binding on its Member States.  The Charter gives authority to the Council to declare when peace is threatened and how to respond to it.  This response can include mobilization of Member States to take action such as “economic sanctions, and military actions.”  This enables the Council to “create[] new legal obligations where none existed before.”  As time has passed, the reach of the legal scope of the Council has expanded, making it a dominant player in the international legal community.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Council is limited by its inability to intervene in the domestic and international affairs of a jurisdiction, meaning that “as a matter of law the Council cannot take action with respect to the internal jurisdiction of countries.”  Whether a particular threat is deemed international or domestic is determined by the Council under Article 39 of the Charter.

In an article published in The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Ian Hurd  describes the world as an “‘anarchy’ of independent states.”  This implies that each country around the world is entirely independent of one another.  Further, it suggests chaos and a lack of authority.  However, the existence of the United Nations and its Security Council remains contrary to this notion with its concerted efforts to mitigate anarchy and chaos among countries.  Instead, under the United Nations, each signatory nation is bound by the decisions of the Security Council.  As Hurd suggests, “the Council has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in this international hierarchy.”

Overall, the impact of the Security Council and the United Nations as a whole is significant. Bardo Fassbender, in an article published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, refers to the United Nations Charter as the “constitution of the international community.”  In its unique position among nations, the Security Council plays an impactful role on the international stage, but questions of the disproportionality of benefits afforded to certain nations remain.

Likelihood of change?

The status of the Security Council is a rather contentious subject, and many around the world call for its restructuring.  Such a change would be unlikely, however, considering the Big Five would need to vote against maintaining the high level of power they currently hold.  Further, the chances of reform are presumed to be small because “amending the UN Charter requires an affirmative vote and domestic ratification by two-thirds of UN member states.”  The Big Five are included in that two-thirds vote requirement and many predict they would never vote to give up their permanent seats.

A multitude of suggestions exist for altering the Security Council’s composition.  Most efforts focus on creating more transparency through procedural changes.  Critics claim that this could be accomplished by increasing the number of seats on the Council.  Some seek to add additional permanent members, while others demand an increase in non-permanent members.  Specifically, nonpermanent members Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan (also referred to as the “G-4”) seek permanent membership, or at least “special status within the Security Council.”  The G-4 countries have previously proposed to “increase the membership of the Security Council to 25 seats by adding six new permanent members, including one each for themselves and two for Africa.”

Within the Security Council itself, France has endorsed reform.  Despite being a permanent member, the country began to advocate for change in the mid-2000s.  It has called for “a voluntary restraint on the veto on the part of the permanent members.”  During a General Assembly meeting, the High Commissioner for Human Rights openly supported France’s pursuits and others called for the Big Five to “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale.”  However, as many predicted, not all members of the Council have shown their support for France’s initiative.  Rather, the only nation of the permanent members to approve of France’s pursuit is the United Kingdom.

More recently in 2021, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, indicated a desire to reform the Security Council.  While speaking at an informal General Assembly meeting “on intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reform,” President Bozkir’s discussed the modern realities of concerns surrounding the legitimacy of the Security Council and insisted that any reforms should be consistent with those realities.  Specifically, President Bozkir insisted that “[t]he implementation of the Council’s decisions, and its very legitimacy, could be enhanced if the Council was reformed to be more representative, effective, efficient, accountable and transparent.”  Much of this hope for rebuilding the Security Council comes down to the Member States themselves. President Bozkir urged members to engage in discussion to figure out how to best solve the reform issues and how to best create a modern, “more democratic Security Council.”

Moving forward, it seems unlikely that any reorganization will occur unless the United Nations Member States, and more specifically the Big Five, take the initiative.  While substantial reform is unlikely, the more incremental changes suggested by President Bozkir might be the next step in modernizing the United Nations Security Council.

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About Kimberly Byrd (1 Articles)
Kimberly Byrd is a third-year law student at Campbell University and serves as the Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Kimberly was born and raised in Concord, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and minors in History and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Kimberly has completed an internship at the North Carolina Court of Appeals with the Honorable Judge Jefferson Griffin and has an interest in international law, trusts and estates law, and business law.