Athens (Brussels Morning) During the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in January 2021, its Turkish President drew attention to a five-item reform agenda that included permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
There were other issues pertinent to the balance of power in the UN: the question of the veto for permanent members of the Security Council and the relationship with the General Assembly, to name but a few. But the call for the expansion of permanent members of the Security Council from five to ten is the most controversial.
Should this expansion go forward to reflect an increasingly multipolar world order, it is likely that many of its members will seek a “golden membership” for a Muslim majority country. The most obvious candidates are Indonesia, Egypt, and Nigeria.
The Security Council
The candidancies of Nigeria, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, and India for the Security Council have been debated upon extensively over the past 20 years. The diplomatic negotiation entails a stated objective for emerging powers to be included in global governance, adding five more permanent members to the Security Council with full veto rights.
It is often said that at least one needs to represent the Muslim World.
Islam is the most rapidly growing religion globally and accounts for 20% of the world’s population. Perhaps more significantly, it represents a world view that insists on the political relevance of religious norms. Yet no “Islamic regime” or Muslim majority country is represented at the UNSC.
This fact tends to reinforce the perception that international institutions still reflect a colonial legacy. However, which country should represent the Muslim World in the UNSC is a divisive and polarising issue. Yet there are strong candidates with wider appeal.
Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest population. It is a Muslim-majority country with the biggest Muslim population of any country in the world.
Furthermore, Indonesia has been a member of the United Nations since 1950, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It’s anti-colonial credentials are matched by its centrality in the emerging Pacific economy: Jakarta hosts ASEAN, and Indonesia is also a member of the Cairns Group, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and an occasional OPEC member.
Although the country’s human rights standards are not the highest in the world, Jakarta has played a positive role in conflict management, playing a constructive mediation role in the Cambodia-Thailand conflict and assisting in the handling of the Myanmar crisis.
Echoing EU’s functionalist ethos, Jakarta has often argued that ASEAN can contribute to stability by promoting economic development and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.
At the same time, the country is facing serious environmental issues that threaten both its people and the ecosystem. Extensive pollution and deforestation is affecting the lives of millions in the country and is violating their rights, while at the same time not meeting the global standards.
Regarding general human rights, the country’s social policies require lot more commitment to freedom of speech, religion, and civil society.
The African contenders
Africa’s candidates are more contentious. As populous African powers and Muslim-majority countries, Egypt and Nigeria are strong candidates.
Egypt has a history of diplomatic activism both in the Middle East and in Africa. The country is a cultural hub for the Arab world and controls the Suez Canal, which is now expanded and will continue to play a key geopolitical role.
Nigeria has surpassed South Africa as the biggest economy in Africa and leads most UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.
The inclusion of those countries promises benefits in terms of collective security, as Egypt and Nigeria have the biggest armies in Africa. Together, they would project a sense of geographic and cultural balance in global governance.
On the other hand, there are some major concerns.
Egypt faces interconnected economic, climatic, and population challenges. The country’s political institutions have yet to recover from the Arab Spring. Adding a million people to its population every six months, Egypt struggles to satisfy a young population in need of jobs and housing while having to deal with fierce competition for control of the Nile.
While Cairo is certainly a stakeholder in every conflict in North Africa and the Middle East, it is unclear that it can contribute catalytically to their resolution.
Following the death of Boko Haram’s leader, Nigeria’s army will have to deal with further instability in the Gulf of Guinea. The country continues to be overly dependent on oil exports and is becoming a new epicentre for piracy. While the Nigerian military is a force to be reckoned with, it is not clear that the country can become a security provider or lead the region’s economy forward.
Both African contenders have an abysmal human development index record, particularly for women.