The Multilateralist

A modest proposal: grade Security Council candidates

One of the salutary trends in the world of international organizations has been heightened attention by the media and civil society to which countries and individuals get plum global posts. Light is slowly filtering into multilateral selection processes that were once opaque; outside observers are paying more attention than they once did to which countries ...

One of the salutary trends in the world of international organizations has been heightened attention by the media and civil society to which countries and individuals get plum global posts. Light is slowly filtering into multilateral selection processes that were once opaque; outside observers are paying more attention than they once did to which countries get spots on selective multinational forums such as the UN Human Rights Council and to what individuals are awarded judgeships on bodies like the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

Last month, I was at the UN for the election of six new judges to the ICC. Electing international judges has often been an exercise in national horse-trading, with  little attention to the merits of the candidates. The result has been a very mixed pool of judges. Many are outstanding, but too often international judges are friends of presidents and ministers with little else to offer. For the first time this year, an outside body of experts assessed the merits of all those nominated for ICC judgeships, deeming them qualified or unqualified. By most accounts, the system was influential, if certainly not determinative. In the UN conference room where the elections took place, countries circulated colorful flyers touting the qualifations of their favored candidate.  

Curiously, no such outside grading system has emerged for what are arguably the world’s most coveted global spots: the ten elected seats on the UN Security Council. These seats are parceled out by region (Africa gets three or four seats, Latin America gets two, eastern Europe gets one, etc.), and regional caucuses at the UN normally agree internally on who they’ll be supporting in a given year. In those cases, the regional candidate’s election by the UN General Assembly is all but assured. Occasionally, a fight breaks out within a regional caucus and the General Assembly voting can then turn contentious; voting has gone on for days before one country secures the needed two-thirds majority.

For the most part, though, selecting Security Council members is a game of regional deals with little attention to whether the country in question can contribute to global peace and security, which is, after all, the Council’s mandate. The results are predictable: the Council regularly includes members either not up to the task or with very unclean hands. Pakistan just settled into a seat. Bosnia, which has a barely functional government, just vacated one. Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya was on the Council from 2008-2009. It gets even more perverse. In 1994, the Rwandan government carrying out a genocide was a Council member.

It would be fanciful to think that Security Council selection can somehow become an entirely merit-based process. Regional politics will always be an important ingredient, and states that haven’t served on the Council recently will demand their turn. What’s more, there’s no consensus on the metrics that would be used to assess merit. But the elections certainly could be a much better process than they are now. Here there’s a potential role for the smart, well-informed non-governmental organizations that follow the Council’s work. Why not develop a set of defensible metrics (including internal stability, contributions to peacekeeping, etc.) and rank states, by region, in terms of their Security-Council worthiness? Civil society organizations and the media could then cajole, pressure, and shame regional caucuses to nominate states that are qualified–or at least pass over the least qualified.

Plenty of UN member states would have an obvious retort: why hold elected Council members to a higher standard than the five permanent members? The P5, after all, never have to defend their records or persuade the world that they deserve the enormous privilege of permanent membership. It’s a fair response, but also irrelevant. The UN Charter is what it is, and it’s not likely to change in the near future. (Even if the Security Council is reformed, there’s zero chance existing permanent members will lose their seats.) In the meantime, the world can do a much better job of ensuring that the P5 are surrounded by states that have earned their seats. 

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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