New York — Since the end of the Cold War, the UN Security Council has dramatically increased its activity and authority. Though the Council has exercised unprecedented global power, it has remained a very insular, secretive and undemocratic body, dominated by its five Permanent Members, armed with their notorious vetoes and benefiting from perpetuity in office.
The United States holds the leading position in this oligarchy. It is the "capo dei capi" - the boss of bosses - ruling with overwhelming authority and towering above the other four: the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.
The Council's 10 Elected Members, serving for only two years, have very little ability to influence Council action even though they have the electoral backing of all the other member states.
For the past 25 years, most of the world's governments have insisted on the need for Council reform to overcome these retrograde arrangements, made more than 70 years ago in a very different world.
They have sought to create a more open, representative and democratic Council. In 1994, the UN General Assembly set up a Working Group to consider far-reaching reform for a new era.
The New Zealand ambassador, who had served on the Council during the Rwanda genocide, said that the Council's practices were "nothing short of primitive." The Mexican Ambassador told the General Assembly that Permanent Membership was "obsolete."
From that time to the present, the Council oligarchy has continued to infuriate the international community by defending the status quo, while the UN General Assembly has continued to press for Council reform.
Some proposals, especially reform in Council membership, involve a change in the UN Charter, requiring a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, followed by a two-thirds endorsement by all national parliaments - subject, of course, to P5 veto.
Assembly members are well aware of this high hurdle, but they have examined hundreds of specific proposals and engaged in spirited debates on the issues. In light of the difficulty of Charter change, opposition by the Permanent Five (P5), and other problems, the Assembly has been unable to adopt noteworthy reforms.
In the shadows of all the debates, the P5 have firmly defended their privileges. To those that want to change the Council's stifling procedures, they have said that the General Assembly has no right to interfere in the Council, no right to tell the P5 how to run their shop. P5 resistance to change has at times been fiercely aggressive. Washington has forced governments to recall prominent UN ambassadors who have pushed too hard for change.
To blunt public engagement with the reform debates, the US has also pushed for heavy cuts in the UN's public affairs budget. P5 anti-reform leverage is backed up by economic and military power.
Beyond the oligarchs' opposition, there is another source of blockage - the inability of the other 188 member states to stand together and take up a common reform program. Most countries believe that new members on a reformed Council should be elected, but the so-called "rising powers" want to become permanent members themselves.
They want to join the Council oligarchy rather than to work to eliminate this odious privilege. So those who have the most clout to push through significant reforms have hijacked the reform debate to promote their own narrow interests.
The aspirants include Germany and Japan, India and Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria. They have insisted self-servingly that they themselves are the key to a diverse and fair Council, working to promote the peace.
The aspirants have insisted that their permanency would be a "realistic" approach to reform, but in fact their approach has proven to be far from realistic. The P5 remain unwilling to accept them into the inner circle. Nor do the aspirants command the two-thirds majority needed to advance their cause in a Charter amending process.
A bloc of regional rivals oppose new permanencies. Italy works against a German seat; South Korea and China are against Japanese permanency; and Argentina is unhappy about the elevation of Brazil. Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa vie for the hoped-for two African permanent seats. This complex political geometry makes success for the aspirants virtually impossible.
Adding a proposed six new permanent members, each with a veto, would create an impossible blockage on the Council. With more than twice as many veto-wielders, each one protecting their particular interests and manipulating the Council's machinery to suit their purposes, the Council would be even more oppressive than it is today.
The P5's multiple advantages in the UN system raise another set of issues. Would the new permanent members expect to have the same privileges as the P5 -- their own judge on the World Court, for example, or control of certain high-level appointments in the Secretariat?
The campaigning aspirants say nothing negative about the institution of permanency and they mute their comments about the existing system and its many abuses. They curry favor with the P5 so as to avoid a future veto - if and when their candidacy reaches the ultimate stage.
This favor-currying has been going on for twenty-five years and it has had poisonous effects on the reform process and on the regular business of the Council too. In recent years, when the aspirants have joined the Council as Elected Members, they have generally played a muted and unimpressive role. This is definitely not a pathway towards constructive Council renovation.
For years, the aspirants' campaign for new permanent members has overshadowed all other reform discussions. It has diverted energy from serious alternatives. Smaller states alone simply cannot challenge P5 domination without hefty assistance from the middle powers.
Presently, reform progress depends on the support of strong non-aspirant states like Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Korea, Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico and Argentina, in combination with the rest of the democratically-inclined UN membership.
Germany, where elite opinion about a permanent seat has long been divided, could break the ice and renounce its aspirations for permanency, leading the march towards a different future.
Political crises over the past twenty-five years have revealed the Council's despotic failures. They have shown that the foxes cannot be expected to protect the global chicken coop.
As crises multiply, it is time to step up efforts to radically reform this outworn institution, to mobilize broad support for fundamental change and to energize a world-wide citizen movement for Council transformation and UN renewal.