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Decolonizing the United Nations Means Abolishing the Permanent Five

  • Hannah Ryder
  • Nov, 2020
  • 821
  • Argument

The inequalities of the past can’t set the rules of the present

This year, as the effects of COVID-19 continue to be felt around the world, leaders are preparing to meet virtually to mark 75 years of the United Nations: its “diamond” anniversary. But 2020 has brought into focus some sharp issues around the U.N.’s effectiveness, including its largest donor, the United States, pulling funds from the World Health Organization (WHO). There were mounting problems in the U.N. prior to this. The U.N. and its agencies are constantly fighting for new money to cover escalating costs of various missions such as on health, education, and peacekeeping, despite global improvements in poverty. In terms of maintaining peace and security-the U.N.’s record has been dismal-from dithering over apartheid in South Africa, to Iraq, Rwanda, Yemen, the 2008 financial crisis, and now, COVID-19.

The typical responses to the U.N.’s failure have been to enlarge the P5, the five permanent members of the Security Council who represent the chief victors of World War II. Bring in other global powers such as India or Turkey. Move around the representational seats and create new categories. Create more seats for Africa. Dilute the veto power exercised by the P5.

But all of these measures are tinkering. None are adequate. The only way forward is to acknowledge the key difference between 1945 and 2020, decolonization, and abolish the permanent members of the Security Council altogether. Here’s why and how.

The roots of the U.N. are deeply colonial. Back in 1945 four out of the five members of the P5 were colonial states. Over the 75 years of the U.N.’s existence, 80 former colonies have gained independence, from India to Kenya, to Nigeria and Kazakhstan.

This has meant a significant shift in population terms. In 1945 the P5-China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia-accounted for 10 percent of member states and over 50 percent of the world’s population, within their empires. Now, the P5 account for 26 percent of the world’s population, and just 3 percent of the U.N. member states.

Even with the 10 additional nonpermanent members of the Security Council-who have to compete to be elected to sit on the council for two years, which costs millions of dollars in lobbying-Security Council seats are distinctly Eurocentric. As our research shows, the Western European and Others Group and the Eastern European Group combined represent just 17.1 percent of the global population, but they have held 47 percent of Security Council seats.

And within these groups, the big countries almost always win. Japan has spent 22 years on the Security Council. Brazil 20 years. Within African countries, only Nigeria, with 10 years, comes close.

This poorly distributed allocation is reflected in other parts of the U.N.-in particular the secretary-general position itself. Since 1945, four out of the nine secretaries-general have been white European men. There has never been a Muslim secretary-general.

U.N. leaders have sought to address this by diversifying heads of agencies or undersecretaries-general, but individuals are not the answer. Take COVID-19. Despite an Ethiopian head of the WHO, who might be expected to advocate for the poorest countries in the world, the only resolution the P5-led Security Council has unanimously adopted referring to COVID-19 this year is resolution 2532-supporting a call made by the secretary-general in March for a global cease-fire to focus on efforts to fight COVID-19. This is important but hardly influential, and it’s largely irrelevant to the thousands of people who have since died prematurely due to lax COVID-19 responses and lack of international finance to manage the impacts of required lockdowns in the poorest countries. Instead, African leaders have turned closer to the African Union’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 advice, and to the unrepresentative yet powerful G-20 and IMF for financial support, not the U.N.

Why does this distribution matter? The shift in postcolonial (and post-Cold War) membership is essentially the U.N.’s only major shift in composition in 75 years.

Contrary to what many observers-especially economists like ourselves-might have us believe, there has not been a great economic rebalancing. Our calculations suggest-again including former colonies-that the P5’s share of global GDP in 1940 was around 47 percent. Today, the P5 accounts for just 2 percentage points more of GDP-49 percent of the global total.

Yes, China’s economic rise within the P5 has been notable-in fact, doubling in economic importance from accounting for 14 percent to 33 percent of the P5’s total wealth. But for the rest of the world, their economic relationship with the P...

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