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Updated on 7 Sept. 2019



Determining the new voting majority for an enlarged Council carries political risk (with Table)


On 6 July 2019, the Co-Chairs of the General Assembly’s Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform (IGN), the Permanent Representatives of Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, circulated a document setting out “elements of commonality and issues for further consideration” which had emerged from the IGN discussions during the Assembly’s 73th session.  One issue mentioned in this document is the majority required for decision-making – also known as the “action threshold” or “voting majority” – for an eventually enlarged Security Council.  The document states that


“the number of affirmative votes required should be in line with the current practice, with the exact number of votes required to emerge from the discussions of Member States on the key issues of categories of membership, regional representation and the question of veto.”


The document then sets out “examples” of the number of required affirmative votes, in the event the Council expands within a range of 21 to 27 members:


If 21 or 22 members, 12 votes required

If 23 or 24 members, 13 votes required  

If 25 or 26 members, 14 votes required

If 27 members, 15 votes required


It is important to consider the impact that a new action threshold for an enlarged Council might have on the credibility of resolutions adopted with only the minimum number of required votes.  Our book (pages 674-5) states:


“The minimum number of affirmative votes necessary to adopt a resolution . . . would have to be carefully thought out as part of any decision in the General Assembly to enlarge the Security Council.  With a Council of fifteen members, a draft resolution which is not vetoed can be adopted with six Council members voting against it.  A resolution adopted by such a vote inevitably conveys a message that support for it on the Council is weak.  If the Security Council were to be enlarged, for example, to twenty-four members, the equivalent voting ratio would mean that a resolution which was not vetoed could receive nine or ten negative votes and still be adopted.  Although the legal validity of such a resolution would not be in question, such a significant negative vote might mean that the resolution would be viewed as politically compromised.”


In this context, the figures set out in the 2019 IGN document could potentially create an even greater risk.  Although the document states that the required votes “should be in line with the current practice”, it is silent as to how its examples have been calculated.  That is because for several years, participants in the Intergovernmental Negotiations have been divided over whether or not the voting majority should be linked to a specific percentage.[1]


Nonetheless, a percentage is calculable for the current practice.  Of the Council’s present 15 members, the requirement of nine affirmative votes translates to exactly 60 percent.  If this same percent is applied to an enlarged Council, the number of votes required would in all but one instance be greater than those set out in the IGN document, as follows:


If 22 members, then 13 rather than 12 votes required

If 23 or 24 members, then 14 rather than 13 votes required  

If 25 or 26 members, then 15 (or even possibly 16[2]) rather than 14 votes required

If 27 members, then 16 rather than 15 votes required


No explanation has been given in the 2019 IGN document for the fact that its examples actually are, in reality, not “in line with the current practice”.  Only in the case of a Council of 21 members does the IGN example equate to 60 percent, that is, 12 affirmative votes (see Table below).  In its numerically highest example, on a Council of 27 members, a resolution, if not vetoed, could be adopted with 12 negative votes.


The issue of whether the Council’s voting majority should be calculated on the basis of a percentage, or whether political considerations should be determinative, is not new.  In fact, the original rationale for requiring seven affirmative votes on a Council of 11 members was primarily political.  The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary states that


“During the San Francisco Conference, several proposals were put forward according to which the necessary number of votes in order to reach a majority should be eight (Ecuador), nine … (Egypt), or a simple majority for procedural and a two-thirds majority … for substantive questions (Cuba).  In San Francisco the issue was finally solved in favour of a required majority of seven votes, as had already been proposed by the four ‘Sponsoring Powers’ [China, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States].”[3]


According to Ruth B. Russell, initially the Sponsoring Powers themselves held diverging positions: 


“The British and Chinese papers had proposed a two-thirds majority; the American and Soviet papers, a simple majority.  In the Steering Committee, the British pointed out that a simple majority would require only one vote in addition to those of the five permanent members in order to carry a decision, which would minimize the influence of the elected members in Council proceedings.  As a possible compromise, the United States suggested that consideration be given to requiring an affirmative vote of seven members.”[4]


On an 11-member Council, a two-thirds majority would be 7.33 votes.  Thus, the two-thirds majority proposed by China and the United Kingdom in fact equated to the seven votes ultimately chosen for political reasons and set out in the original Article 27 of the UN Charter.  Interestingly, this means that this initial, implicit two-thirds majority in the Council paralleled the “two-thirds majority of the members present and voting” required by Article 18(2) when the General Assembly votes on “important questions”.


In 1963, as consensus was developing in the General Assembly for expanding the Security Council, the question of the action threshold was secondary to the number of seats to be added.  Our book (page 140) notes that the original proposal for enlarging the Council was the one tabled by the Latin American States for 13 seats.  Subsequently, a last-minute change in the Soviet position “emboldened the Afro-Asian Group to propose a draft resolution expanding the Council to fifteen seats.” 


The Afro-Asian Group proposed raising to nine the number of required affirmative votes for a Council of 15, on the grounds that this corresponded to the percentage of the original Council.  But as pointed out above, seven affirmative votes on the original Council could have been seen as applying a standard of either 60 percent or a two-thirds majority.  A 60 percent standard applied to a Council of 15 indeed equated to nine affirmative votes.  On the other hand, a two-thirds ratio would have equated to ten affirmative votes for the new Council.  And in fact, in 1963 some Member States, including France and the Soviet Union, initially supported a majority of ten for the enlarged Council before accepting the nine affirmative votes set out in the draft Assembly resolution.


Some academic authors have theorized as to the political impact of the voting requirement on a future enlarged Council.  Sabine Hassler suggests that a higher action threshold “would compel permanent members [P5] to acquire more support for any winning coalition”.[5]  Similarly, The Once and Future Security Council states that even slightly raising the number of affirmative votes required to adopt a resolution would strengthen “the hands of nonpermanent members, who can band together in a bloc”.  That book notes that such an effect already occurred after the Council’s increase in 1966, when it became “easier for the non-aligned to find a nine-vote majority in favor of a resolution opposed by the U.S., and thus to force the United States to use the veto.”  On the other hand, that book also suggests that on an enlarged Council, the permanent members will “have a bigger pool” for finding the necessary additional votes.[6]


To the extent such assessments are based on an assumption of P5 unanimity, they leave open the question of how a new voting threshold on an enlarged Council would affect the adoption of resolutions when the permanent members are divided.  Perhaps the most likely scenario for an enlarged Council, irrespective of the precise number of required affirmative votes, is suggested by Dimitris Bourantonis.  He observes that after the Council’s expansion to fifteen, it became “difficult for any power or group to force a decision of importance”.[7]  On a further enlarged Council, this may even more be the case.


It remains to be seen whether the ongoing discussion in the IGN will lead to a more precise standard for calculating the eventual voting threshold for an enlarged Council.  However, in the interim, it is worth considering whether substantive decisions by the Security Council should have less stringent requirements than “important questions” in the General Assembly.


(This update supplements pages 675-676 of the book.)                             


[1] An “elements of convergence” paper dated 17 May 2016 was the last IGN document to set out prospective voting requirements explicitly calculated on a 60 percent basis, but this element disappeared from the next such paper issued on 11 July 2016.  The number of required votes set out in the this latter paper are those carried over to the 2019 IGN document.

[2] If the number of seats for a 26-member Council would be “rounded up”.

[3] Bruno Simma et al. (eds.), 3rd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 878.

[4] History of the United Nations Charter, Washington, D.C., The Brookings Institution, 1958, p. 448.

[5] Reforming the UN Security Council Membership: The illusion of representativeness, London, Routledge, 2013, p. 116

[6] Bruce Russett (ed.), New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1997, p. xi.

[7] The History and Politics of UN Security Council Reform, London, Routledge, 2005, p. 29.

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