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Time to Widen United Nations Security Council Membership

IN the last few months a debate has been brewing concerning expansion of the United Nations Security Council.

A number of countries have expressed interest in obtaining permanent seats on the council, including Germany, Japan, Brazil, India, and Nigeria. Supporters of expanding the number of permanent seats contend that, in the newly evolving global arena, the Security Council no longer adequately reflects the international structure.

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To justify the inclusion of Japan and Germany, arguments have been put forth that economic influence should now be considered in addition to political and military power. Those promoting permanent seats for nations such as Brazil, India, and Nigeria stress that developing countries must be given a greater role in deliberations that affect them.

Broadening the Security Council's constituency would certainly make it more democratic and more reflective of today's realities. In determining who should be granted permanent seats, the focus tends to be on whether a country is capable of carrying out the responsibilities of a Security Council member. The council's primary function is to maintain international peace and security and to guard against chemical, biological, and nuclear proliferation issues.

A nation's stance on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation would be a key factor.

Currently, the five permanent members - France, Britain, China, Russia, and the United States - represent the only overt nuclear-weapons states in the international system that have made it clear they plan to maintain their weapons status. With the exception of the US, all became permanent members before they were nuclear-weapons states. With the US, they are the only states in which possession of nuclear weapons is deemed acceptable by virtue of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The NPT was signed 25 years ago, on July 1, 1968, entering into force two years later, on March 5, 1970. With 157 current parties, the treaty codifies the values, standards of behavior, and rules of a nonproliferation regime. Based on an assumption that nuclear proliferation poses a threat to international security, the treaty sets three goals: limiting the lateral spread of nuclear weapons, decreasing the numbers of nuclear weapons in the existing arsenals, and promoting peaceful applications of atomic energy.

The fact that the only permanent members of the Security Council are nuclear-weapons states is important in two respects:

First, it encourages perception among states that nuclear weapons can confer status and political power.

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Second, it allows these five states (which have particular interests as nuclear-weapon powers), to act as the primary keepers of a system trying to stem the spread and ultimately rid the world of these very weapons.

With respect to the first issue, at the root of the nuclear proliferation debate is the question of what motivates states to build or otherwise acquire these weapons of mass destruction. The desire for nuclear weapons arises from a combination of political, military, and economic factors, including the following: States may desire nuclear weapons if they lack regional or global allies, if an opponent has a larger conventional force, if an adversary already possesses or has the capability to develop nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons are believed to be less expensive to maintain than conventional weapons, or because they are thought to accord international power and status.

Lawrence Scheinman, a prominent scholar and advocate of nuclear nonproliferation, has argued that one method of dissuading states from building nuclear weapons is by ``circumscribing their relevance'' so that those nations do not see an automatic connection between nuclear weapons and international influence. The question is how to do this in a system where nuclear arsenals still exist.

One possibility lies in restructuring the UN Security Council to include nuclear non-weapon states with an avowed interest in promoting the nuclear nonproliferation regime, thereby sending a message that there are other elements besides nuclear weapons that can provide status and power in the international system.

Granting permanent seats to states with an interest in preventing proliferation would also give them greater influence in a system dominated by the current nuclear powers, which are often viewed as maintaining the status quo.

Though the nonproliferation regime encompasses three goals, the nuclear non-weapon states have pointed out that emphasis is placed on limiting the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons, while the other goals of the regime are consistently neglected by the nuclear powers. If nonnuclear weapon states were granted the status of permanent members, they would have a stronger voice in deciding which goals to pursue.

Granting permanent seats to a select group of non-weapon states with a proven interest in maintaining the nonproliferation regime is hardly a panacea for limiting nuclear proliferation.

Nevertheless, it would certainly help bolster the regime by reducing one factor that motivates states to seek nuclear weapons. More importantly, it would give states with an avowed interest in maintaining the nonproliferation regime the voice they need and deserve.