United Nations Unit Upgrade
Weak States and Scofflaws Have No Business on the Security Council
It's time for the U.N. to take its most important body seriously.
By PAUL KENNEDY, The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2008
Mr. Kennedy, a history professor at Yale, is the author, among other books, of "The Parliament of Man:
The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (Vintage, 2007).
As the global financial crisis grinds on, many are unaware that the 192 members of the
United Nations General Assembly will today cast a first-stage ballot over which five of
their number should replace the outgoing nations as two-year rotating members of the
Security Council. Many are also unaware that the likes of Iran, Iceland, and Austria are
lobbying hard for seats on the Council. Yet this is a matter of some import, and not just to
those like myself who feel that we are going to need significant strengthening of our
international structures to face the many turmoils of the 21st century.
By the U.N.'s rules, a majority of nine votes out of the 15 on the Security Council is
required for agreement on procedural matters. On all other matters, such as issues like
imposing sanctions or authorizing a peace-enforcement mission, the permanent five have
to "concur" (meaning, in practice, not veto), but a majority of at least nine votes is also
still required for a resolution to pass. Simple arithmetic tells us, then, that the non-
permanent members' votes do count, and in some cases -- the question of action against
Iraq in early 2003, for example -- have counted decisively. The big boys cannot alone
decide an urgent Security Council matter.
Because of this special voting privilege, the drafters of the U.N. Charter were careful to
specify what sort of countries would qualify as rotating members. Since this fact seems to
have escaped the attention of pretender-governments and their regional backers, it is
worth recalling what those preconditions were.