US backs expansion of Security Council: Britain resists change that would dilute its Permanent Five position

THE FOREIGN OFFICE was buzzing with irritation yesterday following a public declaration by Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations, that Washington would work actively for German and Japanese permanent membership of the Security Council.

The usual arguments were being wielded to resist an expansion of membership, which would dilute Britain's position as one of the P5 - the five existing, veto-empowered permanent members. 'The argument remains that if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' said a British official. 'The Security Council is now working properly for the first time.'

British officials have been aware since President Bill Clinton's election campaign that he favours expanded membership. But they privately expressed surprise at the public and categorical nature of Ms Albright's speech on Tuesday night, which confirmed that expansion of the Council would be a cornerstone of the US's proposals for the reform of the UN.

Such recommendations are to be submitted by all member-states by the end of this month in response to a request from the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is due to present a report on the subject later this year. The Foreign Office said Britain's recommendation would focus on maintaining 'the effectiveness of the Council, which was now working with an unprecendented degree of consensus'. Expanding the permanent membership from five to seven would obviously diminish Britain's voice. It could also revive the proposal of a joint EC seat to replace the individual European members, which with German accession would amount to three out of seven. Other populous regional contenders, such as India, Brazil and Indonesia, are knocking on the door. As one British diplomat said: 'It's a bit glib to just stick on a few more countries of the rich man's club variety.'

The change would require a re-drafting of the UN Charter, which not only states that China, France, the United Kingdom and the US 'shall be permanent members of the Security Council', but also establishes that 'the term 'enemy state' . . . applies to any state which during the Second World War has been an enemy' of the original signatories.

British officials argue that the Charter, 48 years on, remains 'a pretty good read'. Yet amendments are not unprecedented: one of several adopted in the 1960s was the expansion of the number of non-permanent Council members from six to 10.

Japan and Germany, constitutionally prevented from taking part fully in UN operations such as peace-keeping, have been careful not to make vociferous claims to a seat so far. 'We know our limitations fairly well,' said a Tokyo official. 'We must therefore pursue this with utmost caution. It would not be in our interest for Japan to state a categorical claim.'

But, he added, 'we are no longer in the Cold War period, where only might could count.' Political and economic power, such as contributions to financial burden-sharing, also stood for something.

Moreover, by the time the reforms take place - 1995 at the earliest - Japan's legal position on peace-keeping will also have evolved, a Japanese official said. Two members of Japan's severely limited UN contribution to Cambodia were killed recently: 'As a result, people in Japan have started acknowledging the harsh nature of peace-keeping, and realising that when you send troops you must ensure their safety,' one Japanese official said.

British diplomats resist drawing on the nuclear weapons link to justify their seat. Although all the declared nuclear powers are also in the P5, there are plenty of undeclared ones that make the link tenuous. But they do sometimes argue that Britain and France have a natural home on the Security Council because of their constituents in their former colonies - the Commonwealth and the Francophonie Group - and that in the post-Cold War era these countries rely on their former colonial masters as a conduit. 'It sounds old-fashioned,' a Japanese official argued. 'Japan is anyway one of the biggest donors of aid to the Third World.'

The UN Secretary-General is expected to recommend that a working group be set up this autumn. British officials admitted yesterday that, should the issue continue to gather momentum, they would have to yield eventually.

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