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The UN Legitimacy Series, Part IV: the Security Council

Aug 02, 2011 Written by  Casey L. Coombs


“Legitimacy is a belief on the part of people in the right of an institution to issue commands.  It’s a belief in the rightfulness of an authority--either an institution or a rule...it gives people a reason to acquiesce to powerful institutions.  And so in one lens it is a tool for social order, a social control mechanism for those in power.  But it can also be a tool for resistance to those in power where the belief vanishes as we see in many domestic settings, and those in power lose a good deal of their influence.”


~ Professor Ian Hurd




PANEL: Jean-Marc Coicaud, Co-organizer of the Legitimacy Series, Director of United Nations university in New York, and former speechwriter for Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Ian Hurd, Co-organizer of the Legitimacy Series, Professor of international relations at Northwestern University and visiting fellow at the Niehaus Center on Globalization and Governance at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton university; Tom Christiano, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona and is currently at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University; and Sam Daws, Director of the UN Governance and Reform project at the University of Oxford.


MR. COICAUD prefaced the fourth panel by noting that the Council is the most powerful institution in the UN system by virtue of its focus on matters of war and peace.  Yet its composition and structure reflect neither the growth in GA membership nor the changes in global power distribution that have taken place over the last fifty years.  Tremendous power thus rests in a Council unreflective of the twenty-first century’s international landscape, a reality which has fueled calls for change for decades.


PROFESSOR HURD views the UNSC's historically unique legal position in the international system as its ultimate source of legitimacy: “As an elite body of governments with the legal authority to take decisions on behalf of the whole membership of the organization,” the UNSC exercises unprecedented power.  But in the absence of fairness  -- as Professor Tyler pointed out in a the first panel -- that power can be undermined through decreased legitimacy.  Though these are not the only ways in which UNSC legitimacy is at risk, according to the next panelist.


PROFESSOR TOM CHRISTIANO, one of the guest academics of the day, outlined three traditional western bases for legitimacy, all of which instill in followers a moral duty to comply with an authority’s command.  It is this moral duty, he argues, that makes collective action possible.  And since collective action is the means by which the UNSC implements decisions, legitimacy via moral duty is crucial to the institution’s power base.


The first basis for legitimacy is functional: if an authority generally pursues worthwhile aims and is effective in doing so, it should be followed (Thomas Hobbes supported this position).  The second is consent-based: one entity establishes legitimacy in the eyes of another when the latter has consented to the former’s rule, a position supported by John Locke and Hugo Grotius.  The third and most recent is the democratic conception, fostered by the emergent norm that people across the world are equal.


Professor Christiano finds that the UNSC satisfies two of the three traditional conceptions.  Functional legitimacy is fulfilled by the Council’s stated aims to maintain international peace and security, as well as enforce human rights.  The consent-based notion too is satisfied, as states choose to participate in the UN and thus authorize the UNSC to make decisions on their behalf.  The democratic conception, however, falls short, due to the Council’s anachronistic composition.


SAM DAWS, as the panel’s practitioner of the day, focused on the practical challenges of UNSC reform, and how legitimacy enters the equation.


One of the main points of disagreement in the present reform debate is whether to extend permanent seats.  The main aspirants to permanency are the states comprising the Group of Four (G4) -- Japan, Germany, Brazil and India -- which seek recognition (and power and status as Mr. Daws explains below) as heavyweights on the international stage.


Standing in the G4’s way, however, is the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) bloc which cites an ever changing balance of power (BoP), accountability concerns, and conflicts of interest as evidence against permanency.  Regarding BoP, who is to say, UfC queries, that G4 countries will be as influential in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?  After all, Brazil and India had no serious plans (due to their relative insignificance on the global stage) to join the Council at the beginning of the current reform debate less than twenty years ago; most of their development occurred in the latter half of the 1990s and throughout first decade of the millennium.


Accountability too becomes a serious concern, Mr. Daws points out, when a state no longer has to prove its dedication to the international community as part of the non-permanent seat election process. The third potential pitfall of permanency, he argues, is that aspirant countries are motivated more by the prospect of status and power than by perceptions of illegitimacy in the present structure -- which makes concerns about accountability all the more relevant.  For all these reasons, UfC countries support non-permanent seats, perhaps of longer duration and with the option of renewal as the answer to the UNSC’s representative deficit.


Yet whether the Council extends permanent seats, non-permanent seats or a combination of the two, any change faces a formidable Charter amendment process: a reform proposal first requires an initial two-thirds vote from the GA; then two-thirds of the parliaments of Member States need to ratify the proposal; finally, the Council’s five permanent members (P5), who benefit most from the status quo, must unanimously endorse the amendment.



Reform or Resistance


As the panelists illustrate, legitimacy and the Security Council is a multifaceted debate.  Mr. Coicaud notes that while the Council is the most powerful institution in the UN system it is unrepresentative of UN membership and the global balance of power.  Recalling an insight of Professor Tyler’s from the first panel, Professor Hurd explains that a lack of fairness (unrepresentativeness) can erode legitimacy, which undermines power.


After discussing traditional sources of legitimacy, Professor Christiano concludes that the UNSC lacks legitimacy by the standards of democratic representation. Yet as Mr. Daws details, shoring up the representational deficit is a formidable challenge, both in terms of settling on a specific reform package and overcoming the procedural hurdles to implement it.


But doing nothing has its consequences as well.  As Professor Hurd’s opening quote illustrates, legitimacy can become a tool for resistance when believers lose faith in an authority, as witnessed this spring across North Africa and the Middle East.

Last modified on Monday, 15 August 2011 20:39


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