When it comes to matters of peace and security, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is both the most important forum in the world and also hopelessly out of sync. The council’s five veto-wielding permanent members – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – once reflected power balances underpinning the postwar international order but it no longer appears fit for purpose. African countries, in particular, have long argued that a more representative UNSC would include at least one permanent seat for their continent.
The ambivalence of some African states towards Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has unsettled Western leaders, as has Moscow’s growing influence on the continent. Having Africa at the decision-making table – either in the form of one African Union seat or two country seats – makes sense for several reasons. The continent’s weight in the UN General Assembly is greater than any other, carrying 28 per cent of the votes, ahead of Asia with 27 per cent, the Americas with 18 per cent and western Europe with 15 per cent. Africa is predicted to soon become the world’s most populous continent; by 2050, almost one in four people on Earth will live there.
Reform of the UNSC is impossible without the support of its existing members, and Russia and China have notably been lukewarm when it comes to expanding the Big Five to include Africa. At a meeting of the UNSC last October, they were the only members not to endorse African representation explicitly, thus showing the hollowness of their claims of solidarity with the Global South. Moscow and Beijing risk frosty relations with African states if – as is likely – support for an African seat on the council becomes a test for bilateral engagement. With Russia’s farcical UNSC presidency having come to an end on Sunday, to be replaced by Switzerland, now would be a good time for its permanent members to make a gesture of reform. The path to a more equitable world order leads through Africa and the UNSC needs to wake up to this.