UK & France Should Relinquish Permanent UN Seats

Vijay Prashad challenges the right of two old colonial powers to lord over present-day geopolitics.

Pamela Singh, India, “Treasure Map 006,” 2014–15.

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

At its 15th summit in August, the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) group adopted the Johannesburg II Declaration, which, amongst other issues, raised the question of reforming the United Nations, particularly its security council. 

To make the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) “more democratic, representative, effective, and efficient, and to increase the representation of developing countries,” BRICS urged the expansion of the council’s membership to include countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

The declaration specifically noted that three countries — Brazil, India and South Africa — should be included if the UNSC’s permanent members are expanded.

For at least the past 20 years, these three countries (all founding BRICS members) have sought entry into the UNSC as permanent members with veto power.

Over the decades, their aspirations have been thwarted, spurring them on first to create the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) group in 2003 and then the BRICS group in 2009.

The composition of the security council and the question of which states have veto power as permanent members have been central issues for the U.N. since its founding. 

In 1944, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the main Allied powers (Britain, China, the U.N.ion of Soviet Socialist Republics and the U.N.ited States) gathered to discuss how to shape the U.N. and its main institutions. These states — also known as the “Big Four” — decided that they would have permanent seats in the UNSC and, after much deliberation, agreed that they would have the power to exercise a veto over UNSC decisions. 

Though the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not keen to bring France into their ranks because the French government had colluded with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944, the United States insisted on France joining the group, which would in turn become known as the “Big Five.” 

The U.N. Charter, signed in San Francisco in 1945, established in Article 23 that the council would consist of these five countries as permanent members (also known as the “P5), along with six other non-permanent members who would be elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms.

Dumile Feni, South Africa, “Figure Studies,” 1970.

In July 2005, a group of countries known as the G4 (Brazil, Germany, Japan and India) brought a resolution forward at the U.N. General Assembly that raised the issue of reforming the UNSC. 

Brazil’s ambassador to the U.N., Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg, told the assembly that 

“accumulated experience acquired since the founding of the United Nations demonstrated that the realities of power of 1945 had long been superseded. The security structure then established was now glaringly outdated’. 

The G4 proposed that the UNSC be enlarged to 25 members from 15, with the addition of six permanent and four non-permanent members. 

Most of the members who spoke at the debate pointed to the fact that no countries from Africa or Latin America had permanent seats in the UNSC, which remains true today. To remedy this would itself be a substantial act of equity for the world. 

To make this change, the U.N. Charter required approval from two-thirds of the General Assembly members and ratification by their legislatures — a process that has only happened once before, in 1965, when the council was enlarged to 15 members from 11. 

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The 2005 resolution was not brought to a vote and has since languished, despite the passing of a resolution in 2009 on the “question of equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters.” Nonetheless, these efforts opened a long-term dialogue that continues to this day.

The G4 countries have not been able gather sufficient support for their proposal because the current permanent members of the UNSC (Britain, China, Russia, the U.S. and France) cannot agree on who amongst their allies should be granted these seats. 

Even in 2005, a divide opened amongst the P5 countries, with the United States and its G7 allies (Britain and France) operating as one bloc against both China and Russia. 

The U.S. has been willing to expand the permanent seats on the council, but only if it means bringing in more of its close allies (Germany and Japan), which would allow the UNSC to effectively remain dominated by five of the seven members of the G7. This, of course, would not be acceptable to either China or Russia.

Today, as the question of comprehensive U.N. reform is gathering momentum, the U.S. government is once again trying to co-opt the issue, calling for the expansion of the UNSC in order to counter Chinese and Russian influence. 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s high officials have openly said that they favour bringing in their allies to tilt the balance of debate and discussion in the UNSC. 

This attitude towards U.N. reform does not address the fundamental questions raised by the Global South about international democracy and equitable geographical representation, particularly the call to add a permanent member from Africa and from Latin America.

Omar Ba, Senegal, “Promenade masquée 2” or “Masked Walk 2,” 2016.

In 2005, then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote a report, In Larger Freedom, in which he called for the expansion of the UNSC to 24 members from 15 members. 

This expansion, he said, must be done on a regional basis, rather than allocating permanent seats along historical axes of power (as with the Big Five). 

One of the models that Annan proposed would provide two permanent seats for Africa, two for Asia and the Pacific, one for Europe and one for the Americas. This allocation would more closely represent the regional distribution of the global population, with the UNSC’s centre of gravity moving towards the more populous continents of Africa (population 1.4 billion) and Asia (population 4.7 billion) and away from Europe (742 million) and the Americas (1 billion).

Meanwhile, Britain and France, two permanent members of the UNSC, currently have minuscule populations of 67 million and 64 million respectively. It is puzzling that these two European countries — neither of them the most powerful country in Europe (which in economic terms is Germany) — have retained veto power despite their dramatically declining role in the world. 

The recent setbacks for France’s colonial ambitions in Africa, as well as France’s inability to lead a European agenda for peace in Ukraine, show how increasingly irrelevant this European country has become for world affairs.

Equally, Britain’s declining position in the world after Brexit and its failure to provide a vision for a Global Britain suggest that, despite Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s anger at the use of the term, it is correct to consider it a “midsize country” with an inflated sense of itself.

Britain and France’s permanent seats in the UNSC illustrate the anachronism of the council’s architecture since neither one inspires confidence when it comes to providing leadership for security and development in the world.

Nicolas Moufarrege, Egypt & Lebanon, “The Fifth Day,” 1980.

“The present is an innocent lie,” Samih al-Qasim (1939–2014) wrote in the poem “After the Apocalypse.” “To see the future, you must consult the past,” he noted, thinking of his native Palestine and its occupation by Israel. 

The colonial past sits heavily on the present. The colonisers’ power remains intact, with the Banque de France and the Bank of England remaining repositories of the wealth stolen from the colonies. 

What gives these old colonial powers, Britain and France, permission to remain overlords of the present, even when their basis for this position has long eroded? (It is worth noting that, in addition to being nuclear powers, these countries are also among the world’s major arms exporters.) The power that these and other colonial powers have seized in the past remains a barrier to the needs of the present.

The United States, which has lost its place as the most powerful country in the world, seeks to hold onto inherited advantages (such as having close allies in the UNSC) and to spend overwhelming amounts of money on war (as evidenced by the fact that it accounts for half of the global arms expenditure, for instance). 

Rather than allow for a more democratic and robust United Nations, the U.S. continues to try to neuter this global institution either by dominating its forums or by violating its charter whenever it pleases. 

At the recently concluded 78th U.N. General Assembly session, Biden spoke of the importance of “sovereignty, territorial integrity, [and] human rights” — all three routinely violated by the United States through war, sanctions and its prison at Guantanamo Bay. Absent moral authority, the United States uses its muscle to block the advance of democracy in institutions such as the United Nations.

Thus far, many proposals hailing from all sides of the political spectrum have called for the expansion of the UNSC, which requires votes in the General Assembly and the legislatures of the member states. It is far easier to create equity in the council if two of the members withdraw themselves from the horseshoe table and turn their seats over to countries in Africa and Latin America, which remain unrepresented amongst the permanent members.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin U.N.iversity of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations.  His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and, with Noam Chomsky, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “UK & France Should Relinquish Permanent UN Seats

  1. Paula
    September 29, 2023 at 20:32

    How can you be called “United Nations” when half the world isn’t part of it? So, I guess it’s not “World United Nations” just some nations deciding to be “united” against what? I do not know. Africa, Asia and Latin America are not included. How could that be so and still be a “United Nations”? Guess is that USA controls the strings. Too bad. A United Nations could be and could do a great deal more if it included all nations, not just those united against some perceived enemy. In my estimation, the perceived enemy is not the enemy.

  2. Wind Calls Mary
    September 29, 2023 at 14:14

    Trained Poodles do not deserve a place at the table. All the current system does is give the Yankees three vetoes from which to choose.

    The UN could always choose Democracy … you remember that, don’t ya …. one person, one vote.

    At the very least, it might give the American oligarchs an incentive to raise life expectancy and decrease childhood mortality, instead of their current policies.

  3. Vera Gottlieb
    September 29, 2023 at 08:33

    And why not the US too??? A different type of colonialism but still…I would eliminate the Security Council and have the ENTIRE General Assembly do the work.

    • Wind Calls Mary
      September 29, 2023 at 14:16

      I second that motion. So, lets call it to a vote. One person, one vote. OK, so the Golden Billion votes no They lose 7 to 1.

  4. September 29, 2023 at 08:19

    I doubt that those countries can do it. The problem here is for some permanent members who look at the expansion in terms of wanting to bring on board only allies who they think can tilt the balance of affairs in their favour.But, that’s becoming or will become increasingly impossible given what is happening in the world today. The world has changed and will continue to. So,the best thing to do for whoever is making difficult to reform the UNSC is to recognise that it’s no longer business as usual and that no matter what they do,things will never be as they used to and that they come to terms with the new realities and try to blend in as quickly as they could or else they’ll lose.

  5. herm
    September 28, 2023 at 23:33

    Why should there be any permanent seats on the Security Council? Why should there even be a Security Council? I’d need to be convinced of the latter first. But even if such a structure is necessary, the permanent seats are a privilege no country should have.

  6. Gypsy33
    September 28, 2023 at 21:07

    I see no call by the author for a representative from the Middle East, despite its vast importance to the rest of the world. Why is this?

  7. September 28, 2023 at 16:45

    The only meaningful reform of the United Nations would require elimination of the Security Council and turning the General Assembly into a Parliament, perhaps with action requiring a majority vote of both members and population, and having it elect a weak collective executive body solely responsible for implementing General Assembly actions, perhaps with geographic composition (e.g., the North Atlantic as currently embodied by NATO; India; China; Africa; Latin America; the Middle East; a bloc comprised of Russia and non-NATO former Soviet Republics; and, a bloc comprised of non-Chinese Asia) required to operate by two thirds majority without veto but subject to General Assembly control.

    • Wind Calls Mary
      September 29, 2023 at 14:23

      Personally, I think the current “United Nazis” has served its purpose and should fade away. Like the League of Nations before it.

      It was a nice idea, but while Eleanor and Franklin could have made it work, the Cold Warriors of Truman onwards have destroyed the dream.

      The only difference between the 1930 and the 2020’s is that in the 1930’s the Nazis withdrew, while in 2020 they just took it over and made it work in their favor. Either way, the forum of nations that was supposed to help keep the peace was turned into useless junk….. which of course is what the fascists of various stripes always want. As people working together is the last thing they want to see. They can’t take over such a world, and whether we are talking about the ‘master race’ or the ‘exceptional people’, they can’t stand anything that gets in their way.

  8. Caliman
    September 28, 2023 at 15:46

    Ideally, France and UK would leave and be replaced by Germany. Unlikely to get these old colonialists to drop out however, therefore dilution needs to be the solution: expand to 25 total as stated. Add (at least) India, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, and Nigeria as permanent members. Also, the veto rule should be changed to where two votes from the permanent members are needed to kill an item, not one.

    • Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.Babu Sahib
      September 30, 2023 at 06:07

      Your suggestions are generally reasonable except that France must be allowed to hold its security council seat and India’s debut within the Security council, though totally justified, must be weighed down on issues concerning Kashmir and Pakistan for India’s record on these have been frankly deplorable !

  9. Christian Chuba
    September 28, 2023 at 14:18

    France and the U.K. are just two more U.S. votes. Add India and let the EU choose one (possibly rotating) member. Germany, or France, or the U.K.

    • Wind Calls Mary
      September 29, 2023 at 14:41

      That would be interesting, especially since the UK told the EU to go bleep off.

      German and France compete to be the lead bell cow of the Europe herd. The UK is now officially once again the pirate nation off the northwestern coast, by their own request. All of course obey Uncle Sam’s orders.

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