New U.N. Security Council Makeup Could Pose Challenges for U.S.

By Patrick Goodenough | October 13, 2010 | 5:16 AM EDT

India’s delegation is congratulated in the U.N. General Assembly chamber after India’s election on Tuesday, October 12 to a two-year term on the Security Council. (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

( – The election on Tuesday of five new U.N. Security Council members sets up a challenging year ahead for the United States. The five new members begin their two-year terms next January.

Although non-permanent members do not have veto power, their views do carry weight as the UNSC requires the support of nine of the total 15 members to pass resolutions.

On issues ranging from keeping up international pressure on Iran to acting against human rights abusers, the potentially most influential newcomers to the Council, India and South Africa, frequently have taken stands at odds with those of the U.S. and its Western allies.

India repeatedly has voiced opposition to sanctions against Tehran and did not support U.N. General Assembly resolutions last year relating to human rights violations in Iran, Burma and North Korea.

South Africa, which has developed close relations with Iran, has a mixed record on support for international response to its nuclear program.

It abstained when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governors’ board voted in 2006 on referring Iran to the UNSC; as a member of the Security Council in 2007-8 South Africa voted in favor of two sanctions resolutions, while stressing it was doing so reluctantly.

During its last stint on the UNSC, South Africa also sided with China and Russia in opposing a U.S.-backed resolution against Burma’s military regime, while in the General Assembly last year it abstained in votes critical of rights abuses in Iran and North Korea.

India and South Africa have also both drawn criticism for voting records at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that align them with autocratic states like Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China rather than with fellow democracies. India and South Africa were elected in New York Tuesday as non-permanent members of the UNSC for 2010-11, along with Colombia, Germany and Portugal. In the only contest of the day, Canada lost out to Germany and Portugal in a three-way race for two vacancies for the Western group.

The U.N. General Assembly elected five member states to two-year terms on the Security Council in New York on Tuesday, October 12 2010. (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

The newcomers will replace Japan, Uganda, Mexico, Austria and Turkey. They will serve alongside five current members whose tenure extends until the end of 2011 – Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gabon.

Rounding out the 15-nation Council are the five veto-wielding permanent members – the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France.

The election of India and South Africa gained most attention Tuesday as they, together with current member Brazil, have been working together since 2003 to strengthen the influence of developing nations on the world stage.

They are also among a small group of emerging powers pressing for permanent UNSC seats, should a decades-long effort to reform and enlarge the U.N.’s most important body ever be finalized.

Voting patterns

An examination of recent voting practices at the U.N. suggests that the U.S. could find it more difficult winning support for its positions in 2011 than it has in the recent past.

Under U.S. law, the State Department reports to Congress on voting patterns at the U.N., measuring how other member-states voted in comparison with the U.S. voting record.

In 2009, it identified 12 “issues which directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively.” They included resolutions relating to Cuba, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the elimination of nuclear weapons, human rights abuses in North Korea, Iran and Burma, and the Islamic bloc’s campaign against “religious defamation.”

On those 12 key measures, India’s voting coincided with the United States’ position only 11 percent of the time during 2009, while South Africa’s vote matched that of the U.S. 33 percent of the time.

The equivalent percentages for the other three countries that were elected to the Council on Tuesday were Colombia (60 percent), Portugal (88 percent) and Germany (89 percent).

By comparison, unsuccessful candidate Canada’s voting coincided with the United States’ position 92 percent of the time on those 12 key votes in 2009.  (The only countries scoring higher were Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – all 100 percent – while Australia’s score matched Canada’s.)

The scores for the 10 countries currently on the UNSC were as follows: Gabon (17 percent), Lebanon (36 percent), Nigeria (36 percent), Uganda (38 percent), Brazil (38 percent), Turkey (46 percent), Mexico (64 percent), Japan (86 percent), Bosnia-Herzegovina (86 percent) and Austria (88 percent).

And the scores for the permanent members were China (18 percent), Russia (33 percent), France (86 percent) and Britain (88 percent).

On average, therefore, the 14 countries that will join the U.S. in next year’s UNSC voted with the U.S. position 52 percent of the time on the 12 key issues, compared to 54 percent in the case of the current Council makeup.

Although the difference is small, the lowest-scoring countries among the new members, India and South Africa, are regarded as far more influential leaders among developing nations than the countries they are replacing, Japan and Uganda.

‘Voice of moderation’

Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna said after Tuesday’s vote India would be a “voice of moderation and constructive engagement” on the UNSC, and would “work with like-minded countries and groups for bringing about much needed structural reform” to the body.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, he reiterated New Delhi’s opposition to sanctions against Iran, saying in that context “we believe all questions between nations can be resolved through mutual discussions.”

Next year will see all four members of the so-called BRIC group – Brazil, Russia, India and China – as UNSC members, and Indian envoy to the U.N., Hardeep Singh Puri, has predicted strong BRIC coordination on important issues.

(The first summit of BRIC leaders, held last year, produced a declaration calling for a “multipolar world order” – a veiled reference to the U.S. position as sole superpower.)

India is also involved in another loose grouping, IBSA, with Brazil and South Africa. IBSA leaders at a summit in Brasilia last April voiced doubts about sanctions against Iran, calling for a “diplomatic solution” instead. Two months later Brazil voted against an Iran sanctions resolution in the UNSC.

The non-profit research organization Security Council Report noted in a forecast that five aspirants for permanent UNSC membership – India, South Africa, Brazil, Germany and Nigeria – will be on the Council next year.

“By any standards the Council in 2011 could be the strongest group of U.N. and global stakeholders ever assembled on the Council. This could create a unique dynamic,” it said. “However, it is difficult to predict whether this will in fact foster a more proactive and effective Security Council.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow