The UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)  is never far from the news headlines, and it's arguably the most important body of the UN. Its core purpose is to carry out the UN's mission to ensure global peace and stability, and it has the power to deploy troops to do so. However, in the last few decades, the UN's peacekeeping activities have been severely criticised, and some would argue that the UNSC's structure makes it incapable of ensuring peace. In this article, we dive into the key issues that surround the United Nations Security Council. 

The UN Security Council The UN Security Council

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Table of contents

    The UN Security Council Responsibilities

    The UN Security Council is the main international body responsible for maintaining security and peace in the world. The Council has fifteen members, each of whom is entitled to one vote. When decisions are passed by the UNSC all members of the UN General Assembly are required to abide by these decisions as set out in the Charter of the UN.

    It is the responsibility of the Security Council to determine whether there is a threat to peace or whether an act of aggression has taken place. The Council then encourages the parties involved to settle their dispute peacefully and amicably wherever possible. As the UNSC's role is primarily that of peacekeeper, its initial approach to acts of aggression and threats is to encourage dialogue and peaceful resolution. The UNSC doesn't generally resort to the use of military intervention or to the imposition of economic sanctions as soon as threats to peace arise. Whilst the UNSC does indeed have the option of military intervention at its disposal, it is intended as a last resort.

    The General Assembly represents all 193 members of the UN. In addition to being a major representative body, it is also the UN's most important mechanism for deliberating and formulating policy.

    The UN Security Council United Nations Security Council in New York City StudySmarterFig. 1 United Nations Security Council in New York City

    The Role of the UN Security Council

    As previously mentioned the UNSC is charged with the responsibility of maintaining peace. There are a number of ways the UNSC uses to try to ensure that peace is maintained. Let's take a look at some of these.

    When trying to facilitate an agreement between parties, the UNSC is able to carry out mediation efforts and launch investigations into the dispute between the two parties. The UNSC also reserves the right to deploy envoys or a special mission in order to broker peace.

    The UNSC cannot always ensure that disputes do not escalate, however, when disputes do escalate the UNSC explores attempts to bring about and end to the hostilities. This can take the form of issuing directives for a ceasefire between the disputing parties or dispatching UN peacekeepers to the region that is experiencing hostilities.

    One of the most powerful tools the UNSC has in its arsenal is its ability to apply economic sanctions against aggressors.

    In 1988 the UNSC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of its peacekeeping missions. However, the decisions made by the UNSC in the subsequent years in regard to the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda resulted in severe criticism of the UNSC as a peacekeeping body.

    Sanctions

    There are many different types of sanctions that the UN Security Council can impose in order to avoid resorting to the use of force. Thirty sanctions regimes have been established by the Security Council since 1966. Sanctions regimes include general economic and trade sanctions to more targeted measures including travel bans and an arms embargo. Through sanctions, the Security Council has attempted to protect human rights, support peaceful transitions, deter unconstitutional change, and quell terrorism.

    The success or failure of sanctions is however not to be determined in a vacuum. Sanctions are at their most effective when utilised as a part of a broader programme that is inclusive of peacebuilding and peacekeeping. Currently, the UN Security Council has fourteen sanctions regimes in place.

    The UN Security Council Members

    The UN Security Council has 15 members. 5 of the 15 members are permanent members and have sat on the Security Council since its inception in 1946. Permanent members of the Council are afforded the right to veto proposals and decisions made by the Security Council. This means that if just one of the 5 permanent members of the UNSC is opposed to a decision made by the rest of the Council members, they have the ability to block it. The 10 non-permanent members sit on the council for a 2-year term before a replacement is elected by the UN General Assembly.

    The five permanent members of the UNSC are China (whose position was occupied by Taiwan until 1971), the UK, France, the USA and Russia (whose position was occupied by the USSR until 1991). These five members were the winning powers in the Second World War and their position as permanent members of the UNSC represents their importance in global politics after the war.

    The UN Security Council Map showing in blue the 5 permanent members of the UN security council StudySmarterFig. 2 Map showing in blue the 5 permanent members of the UN security council

    Since the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, China has been one of its original 51 members. At the inception of the UN, the Republic of China (ROC) held a seat in the UN General Assembly as well as on the UN Security Council as a permanent member. However, in China, a civil war was taking place between the Chinese nationalist party of the ROC government and the Chinese Communist Party. By 1949, the Chinese Communist Party had forced the ROC government to retreat to Taiwan and proclaimed a new People's Republic of China (PRC). By 1950 the PRC government controlled mainland China whilst the ROC controlled only the island of Taiwan and a few small regions.

    The PRC claimed to be the successor government of the deposed ROC, whilst in Taiwan, the government claimed to be the successors of the ROC. In both cases, the PRC and the ROC claimed to be the only legitimate Chinese governments and neither organisation maintained diplomatic relations with countries that recognised the other as legitimate. In the UN the Republic of China, whose government was now based in Taiwan still held the seat for China in the UN, until 1971 when Resolution 2758 was passed. According to Resolution 2758, the PRC is the sole legitimate representative of China. As a result, the government in Taiwan and its population are no longer represented in the UN General Assembly. Tensions between Taiwan and mainland China still persist.

    Current Members of the UN Security Council

    As of April 2022, the current members of the UN Security Council are the five permanent members in addition to the following countries - the end of their term is given in brackets:

    1. Gabon (2023)
    2. India (2022)
    3. Kenya (2022)
    4. Norway (2022)
    5. Brazil (2023)
    6. Ghana (2023)
    7. Ireland (2022)
    8. Mexico (2022)
    9. The United Arab Emirates (2023)
    10. Albania (2023)

    The non-permanent members of the UN Security Council are elected by the UN General Assembly. In order to be elected the member must receive a two-thirds majority vote. When a member finishes its term on the Council they are can't be re-elected immediately to sit on the next Security Council, but they can be elected to sit again in future. Only 5 of the 10 non-permanent seats on the Council are filled each year, which means that not all 10 members start and finish their two-year term at the same time.

    As of 1963, the Security Council's non-permanent members are elected according to the following system: Five non-permanent members should be elected from Asian and African states. Two members should be elected from Latin America. One member should be elected from Eastern Europe and two from Western Europe and other states. Traditionally an Arab nation fills one of the five allocations given to African and Asian states. In the current composition of the Security Council, this seat is occupied by the United Arab Emirates.

    Problems With The UN Security Council

    The structure of the UN Security Council is criticised by many UN members particularly members who are from the developing world. This is because the position of the 5 permanent members is viewed as being outdated. Since the People's Republic of China was added as a permanent member of the council in 1971 the composition of the council has remained unchanged, despite the growth in the regional power and influence of other members such as Germany, Brazil and India.

    The use of vetos by the permanent 5 members of the Security Council is also viewed as a problem with the structure of the UNSC and its efficiency. This is because vetos often place undue importance on the interests of the 5 permanent members and often cause delays in the response of the council to crises.

    During the Cold War, both the USA and the Soviet Union sat on the Security Council whilst effectively being at war with one another. This meant that they often utilised their power of veto to block any proposals that would allow the other side to achieve any gains in the war or any proposal that would negatively hinder their own position in the war. However at one point during the Cold War in 1950, the Soviet Union boycotted the UNSC over the UN's decision not to recognise the People's Republic of China. This left the Security Council open for the USA to push its agenda and led to the deployment of US forces in the Korean War.

    The United Nations Security Council - Key takeaways

    • The UN Security Council is the main international body responsible for maintaining security and peace in the world.
    • In extreme circumstances, the Security Council can authorise a military intervention in order to restore peace. It can also deploy a peacekeeping mission to prevent fighting in conflict zones.
    • The UNSC also has the ability to apply economic sanctions against aggressors.
    • Through sanctions, the UNSC has attempted to protect human rights, support peaceful transitions, deter unconstitutional change, and quell terrorism.
    • The UN Security Council has 15 members and 5 of the 15 members are permanent members.
    • The five permanent members of the UNSC are China, the UK, France, the USA and Russia.

    • The Non-permanent members of the UN Security Council are elected by the UN General Assembly. In order to be elected, a member must receive a two-thirds majority vote.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 United Nations Security Council in New York (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United_Nations_Security_Council_in_New_York_City.JPG) by MusikAnimal (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MusikAnimal) licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2 UNSC P5 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UNSC_P5.PNG) by Mátyás (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:M%C3%A1ty%C3%A1s) licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about The UN Security Council

    What is the role of the UN Security Council? 

    The UN Security Council is the main body charged with maintaining global peace and security. 

    Can a permanent member of the UN Security Council be removed? 

    Not without their agreement or consent. This would require an ammendment to the UN Charter, which requires ratification by two thirds of general assembly members, but all five of the permanent members of the Security Council. 

    Who are the 15 members of the UN Security Coucil? 

    The 15 permanent members of the UN Security council are the five permanent members - China, Russia, France, the United States and the United Kingdom - and 10 non-permanent members who are elected by the UN General Assembly to serve a two year term. 

    Why are there 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council? 

    The five countries who are permanent members of the UN Security Council represent the winning side in WWII and the biggest military powers in the world at the time. The idea of permament membership is to keep the five biggest military powers in the world engaged in the work of maintaining peace and security by giving each one an equal voice in the Security Council. 

    How does the UN Security Council work? 

    The UN Security Council discusses threats to security and can act in a number of ways. First it seeks to mediate between conflicting parties, or engage with a militay aggressor. If no cooperation is forthcoming, the Security Council can impose economic or other sanctions on the aggressor. deploy UN peacekeepers and - in extreme circumstances - authorise a military intervention to secure peace. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many sanction regimes have been established by the UNSC since its inception?

    What power is afforded only to permanent UNSC members?

    How many members sit on the UNSC?

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