Martin Daniel Niemetz, Reforming UN Decision-Making Procedures: Promoting a deliberative system for global peace and security (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015), 214 pp.

Reviewed by Jess Gifkins (Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland).

UNSC First Session Photo Credit: UN Photo/Marcel Bolomey

UNSC First Session Photo Credit: UN Photo/Marcel Bolomey

Calls for reform of the United Nations system are common, yet there is little consensus on how the organization should be reformed. Dissatisfaction most frequently relates to the structure and voting of the UN Security Council, however this is also the most difficult reform to achieve as it requires an amendment of the UN Charter. It is also difficult to find enough consensus on exactly what a better model would involve. Debates on UN reform often stagnate on these two points of feasibility and the specifics of reform. This book makes an insightful and comprehensive contribution to the debates on United Nations reform by systematically analysing proposed changes, showing both what is plausible and what is likely to have positive effects. Similar to others, the author highlights the capacity of the Security Council for informal change, describing it as the “Polymorph Security Council”. Niemetz concludes that the most likely options are reforms which do not require a formal amendment to the UN Charter, such as changes to the Security Council’s working methods. While this conclusion is not novel in itself, the comprehensiveness of the analysis presented in this book is unique, and the author offers a range of recommendations for both states and NGOs who want to maximise their input into UN decision-making. While not the stated intention of this book, it also provides a broad and accessible account of current practices in the Security Council, in order to consider possible options for the future. The author has conducted interviews with individuals who are currently involved in UN decision-making to ensure that the analysis reflects current practice. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in UN reform, and is strongly recommended for diplomats, academics and higher-level students who engage with the UN system. As a practical guide, it would be of particular use for states that are taking up an elected seat on the Security Council and for NGO staff who are looking for ways to maximise their influence in the decision-making process.

The goal of this book is to review and evaluate all proposals for UN reform that specifically relate to decision-making procedures on peace and security, so naturally it focuses primarily on the Security Council. Part 1 sets out a framework for evaluation and outlines the proposals for reform that currently exist. The framework for evaluation establishes criteria to assess proposals on both their ‘desirability’ and ‘feasibility’. Each of these criteria are given a numerical value which is added to determine the overall desirability and feasibility of each proposal. Making a clear distinction between what may be preferred by some states and what is plausible is a useful way to bypass the deadlock that often exists in debates on reform. It is also an effective way of representing large volumes of qualitative considerations in a simple and accessible manner, although not without its limitations which I will return to. In addition to justifying the framework, the opening section offers a detailed outline of the politics of UN reform, both in terms of proposals and the levels of support they have. The chapter on ‘The Politics of UN Reform’ is a particularly useful overview of the states and blocs that support different proposals.

In Part 2 the framework is applied to four different aspects of UN decision-making; the Security Council’s membership and voting; the Council’s working methods; the relationship between the Council and the General Assembly; and the relationship between the Council and civil society. This section is detailed and comprehensive, while still being accessible. Each proposal for reform is analysed individually and arguments on the desirability and feasibility of each proposal are put forward. The end of each section has a table which allocates scores on the desirability and feasibility for each proposal, based on the preceding qualitative discussion. These tables are useful overviews which reinforce the conclusions made by the author.

Security Council Adopts Resolution on Iran Nuclear Deal (UN Photo)

Security Council Adopts Resolution on Iran Nuclear Deal (UN Photo)

The analysis of proposals for reform largely reaches logical conclusions. For example, almost all the proposals for reform to membership or voting in the Security Council are found to be either undesirable, unfeasible or both. In line with other literature on UN reform, the author concludes that informal reform is more achievable than formal reform which requires an amendment to the UN Charter. Proposals with the highest desirability and feasibility include; increased use of teleconferencing, more meetings with troop contributing countries, more regular ‘wrap-up’ sessions, and greater use of the NGO Working Group on the Security Council. As such, the strength of this book is not in reaching novel conclusions, but in providing a particularly comprehensive and thorough analysis of all reform proposals which helps to clarify the debate. For example, given that there is contestation over so many different individual proposals for reform (on methods, membership, voting etc) the author highlights that there is no advantage to be gained by reform packages which seek to link different proposals together as that increases the likelihood of resistance (p.186). Niemetz therefore argues that incremental change is more likely to succeed.

The criteria for numerical assessments of proposed reforms are explained in the opening chapters, however there are not specific explanations on how the numerical values are arrived at for each individual proposal. Largely the resulting numbers were logical, however in some instances these raised questions. ‘Desirability’ scores ranged from +6 to -6 (where higher scores are more desirable), and ‘feasibility’ scores ranged from +4 to -4. A few scores stood out as somewhat counterintuitive. For example, “shorten ‘seizure list’” had the highest desirability score of +6, and while it would be a useful initiative to clarify the agenda of the Security Council it has a higher ‘desirability’ score than initiatives such as additional meetings with troop contributing countries (+5) or better integration of incoming members (+3) which would arguably have more impact on the process and outcome of decision-making. Particularly in instances like this I would have liked to see the ‘workings’ by which the author arrived at the individual numerical analysis.

Another score which stood out as somewhat counterintuitive was “explaining vetoes to the GA” with a “highly desirable” score of +4. The author argues that this would enhance the accountability of the Security Council to the General Assembly, and highlights that this proposal would increase the deliberative synergy between the two bodies (p.79). As the author notes however, permanent members already offer explanations for negative votes via a statement in the Security Council at the time of a vote. This proposal would require them to deliver (presumably) the same explanation to the General Assembly. It also raises logistical questions given that the Council meets almost daily and the Assembly meets in the last four months of the year or in special sessions. Would the General Assembly need a special session to hear the explanation for a veto, or would vetoes be justified together at the end of the year? Logistics aside, this proposal seems to do little to enhance the decision-making interaction between the two bodies, as the decision has already been finalised (and blocked) by the time this mechanism is triggered.

While there are some limitations to the numerical representation of the analysis, the strengths of this approach still outweigh the weaknesses. The tables allow large volumes of data to be represented succinctly and provide useful summaries of analysis at the end of each section. The author includes a summary of all proposals which are both desirable and feasible, which is a particularly useful tool to guide debates and action on reform (pp.176-177).

Overall, this book offers a very useful contribution to debates on UN reform. It is comprehensive in reach and thorough in analysis and helps to move the debates from proposals with a low likelihood of success (such as reform of Security Council membership and voting) to areas where more achievable change could make a substantive difference to decision-making (particularly on working methods). It is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in UN reform.