Why Security Council Elections Matter

The Security Council is holding elections for half of its non-permanent member seats.  The two year terms of Togo, Morocco, Pakistan, Guatemala and Azerbaijan expire in 2014, so there are five open seats. As it happens, there are precisely 5 nominees for these seats: Chad and Nigeria (to replace Togo and Morocco), Saudi Arabia (to replace Pakistan), Chile (to replace Guatemala) and Lithuania (to replace Azerbaijan). To win, each candidate needs to receive two thirds of the votes of the General Assembly.

This is what is known as a clean slate election, and it is kind of terrible for the UN system.

Like elections to most UN bodies, Security Council elections proceed under a rubric known as “equitable geographic distribution” meaning a specific number of seats are set aside for each region of the globe. This makes sense from an equity point of view (there are more countries in Africa than there are in Latin America, so Africa gets more seats on any given body than Latin America) but it also means that a region can collude amongst itself to put forward an equal number of candidates as there are open seats.

This is what happened today, and it undermines the UN system by denying General Assembly members the option of voting for countries that deserve UNSC membership, rather than rubber stamp what is in front of them. This can have real-world consequences. For example, until a few weeks ago it looked like the Gambia was going to vie for one of the African seats. Since Nigeria is a regional powerhouse, it is basically assured one of the seats so the real competition would have been between Chad and The Gambia. Most countries would probably throw their weight behind The Gambia because Chad has violated the instructions of the Security Council by hosting visits from Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who is wanted for genocide.

But The Gambia dropped out–probably under pressure from other African countries — so now members of the General Assembly don’t have that option. And Chad doesn’t really pay a price for its defiance of the Council.

The Security Council report offers some historical context of clean slate elections.

There has never been an election in which all five available seats were contested. There has always been one or more “clean slate” seat. However, pure “clean slate” elections, where all five available seats are uncontested, have not been the norm in recent times. Prior to this year, there have only been five pure “clean slate” elections in the last twenty years (1994, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2009).

We really ought to get to the point where every non-permanent seat is contested. There is prestige and power conferred by membership to the Security Council. Most of the Council’s work proceeds by consensus, which gives any individual member a great deal of power. Non-permanent members do not have the veto, but they can and do steer the work of the council.

The Security Council is an imperfect body–lord knows it could use some reform to reflect 21st century realities — but UN member states ought to be more deeply invested in making it a better body. Simply holding competitive elections for the 10 permanent seats ought to be de riguer. Instead, it’s kind of rare.