Leading Article: An anachronism that works

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THE COMPOSITION of the United Nations Security Council is anachronistic: crudely put, that is the accusation levelled both by the new European Commissioner for External Affairs, Hans van den Broek, and the even newer US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Both believe that Germany and Japan could or should, on the basis of their economic and political weight, join the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France as permanent members of the 15- member council. This view is widely (though far from generally) shared in Japan and Germany, which are respectively the second- and third-largest contributors to UN funds.

There is further pressure for change from within the European Community, with Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries favouring some form of collective EC representation. Large Third World countries such as India, Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia argue that the northern hemisphere is grossly over-represented on the decision-taking body of a supposedly universal organisation. Under existing rules, they can become one of the 10 rotating members of the council for only two years at a time. Unlike the permanent five, rotating members have no right of veto.

The validity of these arguments cannot be weighed without going back to the UN's origins. It was created by the powers deemed to have been victorious in the Second World War, with China eventually replacing Chiang Kai-shek's regime in Taiwan. Its charter speaks unequivocally of 'enemy states', meaning Japan and Germany. The Security Council itself was intended to be able to intervene in the name of peace, using the forces of its member states. The constitutions of the two 'enemy states', largely devised by the Allies, specifically excluded the use of their armed forces except for self-defence. In both Germany and Japan, constitutional changes to permit participation in peace- making as well as peace-keeping operations are being fiercely debated. But even if these arguments are resolved, historical factors are likely to exclude the Germans from the Middle East and the Balkans, and the Japanese from much of Asia.

The British and French are in just the opposite situation. Their relative economic and political weight has dropped. But thanks to their histories as imperial powers, they have continued to conduct more or less global foreign policies. Alone in Western Europe, they have both the ability and the political will to deploy significant forces across the world in support of UN resolutions. Their contributions to the Gulf war and the UN's humanitarian mission in Bosnia prove the point.

Hence John Major's comment yesterday, when asked about possible changes, that he would not like anything done that would make the Security Council less effective; and Douglas Hurd's reminder of Britain's historic links around the world and wish to go on playing a worthy part in averting a slide into international disorder. On any realistic calculation, there is much to be said for the existing division of labour, with Germany and Japan acting primarily as providers of funds. Any significant changes are likely to open a Pandora's box of conflicting demands. What looks like an indefensible anachronism may, on closer inspection, represent the best hope of the UN being an effective force for world peace.