The UN’s Security Council has the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. It enjoys robust powers including the imposition of sanctions and authorisation of military action when international peace is threatened.
Given the Council’s preeminent role in international affairs it is not surprising that most states aspire to membership.
The composition of the Security Council has been controversial for a long time. Only five UN member states – the US, UK, Russia, China and France – have permanent seats. They are known as the P5. The other 188 member states can be elected to non-renewable two-year terms. Only 10 member states can fill those non-permanent slots at a time. These means that at any one time, there are 15 member states sitting on the Council.
While the Council’s decisions are taken by a qualified majority, requiring support from nine of its fifteen members, only the P5 can individually exercise a veto to block a decision.
Calls for reforms to the composition of the Security Council have gathered pace in recent years. As I found in my research these have been fuelled by allegations that the dominance of the current P5 has produced an outdated body, which isn’t representative of the wider international society.
The result has been an inconsistency in the Council’s approach to matters of international concern. Critics point, for example, to its close attention to situations affecting Europe, while African interests are often overlooked.
As the debates rage on, the competition for non-permanent membership continues to remain high. This year Kenya is among the African member states vying for one of the 10 slots that will fall vacant in January 2021.
In my view the country stands a good chance. Kenya has served twice previously as a member of the Council – in 1973-74 and 1997-98. Its return would maintain a record of serving in 24-year intervals.
This time around, it can bring to the table its experience of supporting unstable governments in Somalia and South Sudan, and in assisting refugees in the region. These ongoing situations of tension are likely to consume some of the Council’s attention during Kenya’s term. Kenya is also a leader in East Africa.
Non-permanent members are chosen according to a formula devised to ensure broad representation of the regions across the world.
Three seats are filled by African states. Niger and Tunisia will replace the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea in January 2020, while the seat to which Kenya aspires will become vacant in January 2021 when South Africa’s term expires. The election will take place in June 2020.
Kenya is up against Djibouti for the seat. The African Union (AU) recently endorsed Kenya’s candidacy by a considerable 37-13 margin. If non-permanent members are regarded as representative of their regions, Kenya’s endorsement by the AU is likely to count heavily. As such, it must be regarded as the current favourite for the seat.
But the final decision will be made by the UN General Assembly which means that Djibouti remains in the race. Djibouti appears intent on playing up Kenya’s boundary dispute with Somalia to question the country’s candidacy for a body tasked with the maintenance of world peace.
There is also a possibility that Kenya and Djibouti could share the seat. This has happened before, most recently in the 2016-2017 when The Netherlands and Italy shared a seat.
Security council reform
The biggest obstacle to reform of the Security Council has been that states can’t agree on what form it should take. There’s broad consensus that the council should be bigger. But the debate has, perhaps unhelpfully, focused on the creation of new permanent members. This would be a particularly problematic exercise given the various competing claims advanced by major powers within Africa, Asia and Latin America.
There is no consensus on how such claims might be evaluated.
The lack of progress makes a non-permanent seat a valuable prize both for those states whose aspirations to permanent membership continue to go unfulfilled, and those unlikely ever to be contenders for such a privileged status.
It is within this second category that the likes of Kenya find themselves. While lacking the privileges of the P5, non-permanent membership is not insignificant. The P5 can veto Council decisions but they cannot proceed without the backing of at least four non-permanent members. These members may, on occasion, be well placed to extract concessions in exchange for their support.
In addition, by virtue of their place at the table, non-permanent members have a voice on the pressing issues of the day. For instance, states such as Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and Sweden all made significant contributions to the Council’s response to humanitarian issues arising from the conflict in Syria.
Non-permanent membership also offers greater scope to provide leadership on thematic areas of concern to the UN, for example climate change, human rights and international development.
Ultimately, in the greater scheme of Security Council reform, Kenya’s position is consistent with that of most African states. It has served on the AU’s committee which explored the reform agenda, and it supports the Ezulwini consensus agreed by AU member states. The consensus calls for two permanent and five non-permanent seats for African states to be filled by candidates agreed by the regional body.