Africa’s Absence As Permanent Member a ‘Flagrant Injustice,’ Says UN Chief

United Nations — As the UN continues its never-ending saga on the reform of the Security Council (UNSC), one of the political anomalies that keeps cropping up is the absence of Africa, among the five permanent members (P5)–a privilege bestowed only on the US, UK, France, China and the Russian Federation.

The African continent, which has been shut out, consists of 55 states with a total population of over 1.4 billion people.

Providing a list of his “priorities for 2024”, Secretary-General Antonion Guterres singled out the reform of the Security Council– a lingering issue in an institution which is nearly 79 years old–when he told delegates on February 7, “it is totally unacceptable that the African continent is still waiting for a permanent seat”

Guterres said: “And indeed our world badly needs: Reform of the Security Council; Reform of the international financial system; the meaningful engagement of youth in decision-making; a Global Digital Compact to maximize the benefits of new technologies and minimize the risks and an emergency platform to improve the international response to complex global shocks.”

Responding to a question at a press conference during the South Summit in Uganda last month, Guterres was critical of what he called “a clear injustice, a flagrant injustice, that there is not one single African permanent member of the Security Council’.

And, he said, one of the reasons was that most of the countries of Africa were not independent when the UN institutions were created.

“But in recent public declarations, I’ve seen the permanent members being favourable to at least one African permanent member. United States said so, the Russian Federation said so, China has been positive in this regard, UK and France too”.

“So, for the first time, I’m hopeful that at least a partial reform of the UN Security Council could be possible for this flagrant injustice to be corrected, and for Africa to have at least one permanent member in the Security Council”.

But it is not guaranteed, he cautioned, because nothing depends on the Secretary-General. “It depends exclusively on Member States, on the General Assembly, but for the first time I think there are reasons to be hopeful.”

Meanwhile, the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, which has over 670 million people, with 12 Latin American countries and 21 self-governing territories, mostly in the Caribbean, is also missing from permanent membership in the UNSC.

Martin S. Edwards, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told IPS: “I think that we should be talking seriously about issues of representation in the Security Council, but the challenge is how to move from rhetoric to a serious proposal”.

There are different ways to frame this, he pointed out.

“The G20 added the African Union (AU) as a member, and of course, we could also think about regional seats along the lines of the Human Rights Council. But this having been said, the key issue is what is the ask.”

The US position has been to increase regional representation without a veto. “I realize that this might not go as far as advocates would want, but since there is already a significant movement underway to delegitimize the veto, insisting on the veto would put those efforts at cross purposes.”

But the bigger and unaddressed challenge for all proposals for reform is that they do not respect the realities of US domestic politics.

The US Senate would have to approve any proposed change to the charter, and the window for any proposed reform is now largely shut because of the realities of the US electoral calendar, declared Edwards.

Responding to a question at a news briefing last month, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the Secretary-General’s opinion is reflective of a lot of people’s opinion.

“That you have a whole continent, where in fact, a lot of the UN’s peace and security work is ongoing. And no Member State from that continent sits on the body that discusses and decides policies relating to peace and security”.

“And he’s talked about the injustice of those countries that were former colonies that were penalized twice — once by being colonized and second, by not even being at the table when the architecture of the multilateral system was discussed.”

“How Member States decide on Security Council reform, what that will look like, will be up to them. He’s made his feelings known, and I think it’s not the first time he’s said something like that. But in the end, it will be up to Member States themselves to decide. And whether or not they take into account the view of António Guterres is, we will see”, said Dujarric.

Purnima Mane, Past President and Executive Director, Pathfinder International and a former Assistant Secretary General (ASG) and Deputy Executive Director (Programmes) at UNFPA, told IPS the Secretary-General’s regret at the injustice of the absence of even a single African permanent member of the Security Council opens up a long-standing debate on the relevance of the original framework used in the appointment of permanent members of the Security Council.

She said the discussion on the relevance of the current permanent membership of the Security Council is not new but has not really gone anywhere. The issue of the relevance in the modern world of permanent membership based on historical reasons has been somewhat circumvented by establishing the possibility of non-permanent membership.

“The SG in his comments stated that each of the five current permanent members have expressed their openness to this change but when the rubber hits the road, coming to clear rules of implementation will not be easy.

She posed several pertinent questions: “Will the existing rules of the UN SC membership be altered entirely? How many such permanent positions will be created? And will this membership be limited to a specific country like the current membership, or based on regional allocation like Africa as the SG suggests? “