The UN Security Council

Author: Zachary Laub, Online Writer/Editor
Updated: December 6, 2013

Shannon Stapleto/Courtesy Reuters

The Security Council is the United Nations' principal crisis-management body, empowered to impose binding obligations on the UN's 193 member states to maintain peace. The Council's five permanent and ten elected members meet regularly to assess threats to security, addressing issues that include civil wars, natural disasters, arms control, and terrorism. Structurally, the body remains largely unchanged since its founding in 1946, stirring debate among many members about its efficacy and legitimacy as an arbiter on matters of international security. Syria's civil war poses particular challenges to the Security Council amid concerns about regional instability, proliferation, and a mounting humanitarian crisis.

What is the Security Council’s structure?

Any one of the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council—China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States—can veto a resolution, a power not afforded to its ten elected members. The P5's privileged status has its roots in the UN's founding in the aftermath of World War II. The United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) were the outright victors of the war, and, along with the United Kingdom, they shaped the postwar political order. As their plans for what would become the United Nations took shape, U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted on Nationalist China's inclusion at the helm, envisioning international security presided over by "four global policemen." British prime minister Winston Churchill saw in France a European buffer against potential German or Soviet aggression and so sponsored its bid for restored great-power status.

The Council's presidency rotates on a monthly basis, ensuring some agenda-setting influence for its ten nonpermanent members, who are elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly to serve two-year, nonconsecutive terms. The main criterion for eligibility is contribution "to the maintenance of international peace and security," often defined by financial or troop contributions to peacekeeping operations or leadership on matters of regional security likely to appear before the Council.

A secondary consideration, "equitable geographical distribution," gave rise to the regional groups used since 1965 in elections: the African Group has three seats; the Asia-Pacific Group, two; the Eastern European Group, one; GRULAC (Latin America and the Caribbean), two; and WEOG (Western Europe and Other Groups), two. Each has its own electoral norms. An Arab seat alternates between the African and Asian blocs by informal agreement. Turkey and Israel, which has never served on the Council, caucus with WEOG.

Subsidiary organs that support the Council's mission include ad hoc committees on sanctions, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation, and international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Within the UN Secretariat, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support manage field operations. The Peacebuilding Commission, established in 2005 as a repository of institutional memory and "lessons learned," serves an advisory role.

What are the Security Council’s tools for conflict management?

The Security Council aims to reach peaceful resolution of international disputes under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Failing that, it is empowered to take more aggressive action under Chapter VII, such as imposing sanctions or authorizing the use of force "to maintain or restore international peace and security." Peacekeeping missions are the most visible face of the UN's conflict-management work; in late 2013 the Council was overseeing sixteen operations and nearly ninety-seven thousand uniformed personnel.

Constrained by U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the Security Council acted infrequently in the four-and-a-half decades between its founding and the close of the Cold War in 1989. During that time it authorized seventeen peacekeeping operations.

The Security Council has authorized fifty-one operations in the years since the Cold War, many responding to failing states, civil wars, or complex humanitarian emergencies, and deploying to conflict zones in the absence of cease-fires or parties' consent. Under more muscular mandates, they have combined military operations—including less restrictive rules of engagement that allow for civilian and refugee protection—with civilian tasks, including policing, electoral assistance, and legal administration. Developing nations provide the lion's share of personnel.

Top contributors to UN peacekeeping missions.

A number of these operations, including those in Cambodia and El Salvador, were touted as successes. But increasingly complex emergencies, which mushroomed in the 1990s, challenged the Council's ability to mount effective, coordinated responses.

Regional organizations have played an increasingly important role in peacekeeping and conflict resolution, in some cases prodding the Council to action and in others acting as subcontractors on its behalf. For instance, the Council authorized the use of force in Libya in 2011 after the Arab League called for a no-fly zone, which NATO then executed. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Mark Lagon also points to the increased will and capacity of the African Union, which has partnered with the UN in carrying out hybrid missions in Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan.

What coercive measures can the Security Council take?

The sanctions provisions provided for by Article 41 of the UN Charter lay dormant through much of the Cold War, only to become one of the Security Council's most frequently employed tools. Sanctions were imposed just twice prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall: in 1966, a trade embargo was enacted against the white-minority government in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), and in 1977, an arms embargo was enacted against apartheid-era South Africa. Yet the Council began to make regular use of sanctions in the early 1990s in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Haiti.

These comprehensive embargoes wrought unintended humanitarian consequences, as Iraq highlighted in particular. After Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, the United Nations coupled a successful disarmament regime with severe sanctions. The UN subsequently established the Oil-for-Food Program to alleviate their human toll. The program was marred by exploitation and corruption, however, and in a major institutional setback, an independent inquiry led by Paul Volcker found that some two thousand firms—many of them based in P5 countries—paid kickbacks to the Iraqi government totaling nearly $2 billion.

So-called "smart sanctions" emerged in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the "blunt instrument" on display in Iraq, targeting discrete economic and political matters and specific individuals deemed to threaten international security. Certificate-of-origin regimes have curtailed the trade in "blood diamonds" that finance several civil wars, for example. Arms embargoes, travel bans, asset freezes, and import/export bans on individual goods are now the norm, rather than comprehensive embargoes, with roughly a dozen regimes in effect at any given time.

CFR Senior Fellow Stewart Patrick says the Security Council has played an important role in setting a floor for sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program and harmonizing international policy on terrorist financing.

But targeted sanctions have raised human rights concerns of their own. UN-imposed regimes have a "ratchet effect," Lagon says. In order to be delisted, blacklisted individuals, entities, and items—often those with dual uses, such as agricultural or medicinal applications—require an affirmative vote of sanctions committees in which all Security Council members are represented.

The Council also has the power to refer cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity to the prosecutor of the independent International Criminal Court. It did so for the first time in 2005, resulting in an outstanding warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on charges regarding Darfur.

Is force unsanctioned by the Security Council legitimate?

Under the United Nations charter, the use of force is legal only in cases of self-defense or when it has been authorized by the Council. The question of legitimate use of force—as distinct from strict legality—remains contentious.

NATO's seventy-eight–day-long air war in Kosovo is the most oft-cited case in arguing for the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions outside Security Council authorization. The bombing campaign was undertaken to protect Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing by Serbs, then leading rump Yugoslavia, after Russia had indicated it would block authorization in the Council. An independent commission of scholars later deemed the intervention "illegal but legitimate."

The emergence of the responsibility to protect (R2P) in the early 2000s appeared to justify the use of force outside Council authorization by qualifying the principle of noninterference in sovereign affairs. The doctrine, as adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, stipulates that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from crimes against humanity; the international community has a responsibility to use peaceful means to protect threatened populations; and when a state "manifestly fails" to uphold its responsibilities, coercive Chapter VII measures should be collectively taken.

Successive U.S. administrations have argued that intervention can be undertaken with regional organizations or "minilateral" coalitions of the willing, conferring legitimacy. But UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has rejected this position, saying, "The responsibility to protect does not alter, indeed it reinforces, the legal obligations of Member States to refrain from the use of force except in conformity with the Charter." This debate was revived in the run-up to the 2011 NATO-led Libya intervention and continues with the ongoing Syrian civil war.

"Legitimacy is very much in the eye of the beholder." —Jeffrey Laurenti, The Century Foundation

"Legitimacy is very much in the eye of the beholder," veteran UN analyst Jeffrey Laurenti says. Some experts caution that by lowering the threshold the United States claimed for legitimacy as it sought to intervene in mass atrocities—most recently, following allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria in August 2013—the United States may achieve its short-term objectives while setting precedents counter to its long-term interests.

What criticisms has the Security Council faced?

A number of critics, including member states from the developing world, charge that the Council's structure is anachronistic. The Council was expanded from six elected members to ten in 1965, and the People's Republic of China took the permanent seat previously occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan), in 1971. Since then, the body's composition has remained unchanged.

Developed and emerging powers such as Japan, Germany, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria have sought Council enlargement and a permanent seat for themselves. Others have called for a common European seat to replace the British and French permanent seats as the EU moves toward a common security policy. The debate about expansion is often framed as a tradeoff between legitimacy and efficacy.

Other critics of the Council include advocates of R2P, who say the veto gives undue deference to the political interests of the P5, leading to inaction in the face of mass atrocities. It is not just P5 members who have demonstrated reluctance to use force. Beyond Russia and China, aspirants to permanent-member status including Brazil, India, and Germany have views on intervention and sovereignty at odds with those espoused by the United States.

While R2P advocates criticize the Security Council and its members for a lack of political will, others question the UN's conflict-management capacity, often citing 1990s peacekeeping crises in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.

In the shadow of its 1993 experience in Somalia, in which eighteen Army rangers were killed in an attempt to capture a warlord, the United States was among the powers that prevented a robust UN response in Rwanda, where in 1994 an estimated eight hundred thousand people were killed in a genocide committed against ethnic Tutsis.

The UN also suffered humiliating defeats in the Balkans, where peacekeepers were used as human shields in the siege of Sarajevo and failed to protect civilians in the designated safe area of Srebrenica from massacre. Experts say these missions were undermined by both logistical and political problems, including muddled mandates, inadequate resources, and the parochial interests of major powers.

Peacekeeping mandates continue to be the focus of scrutiny for their scope, cost, and cases in which peacekeepers themselves have committed abuses. A 2000 self-evaluation, commissioned by then secretary-general Kofi Annan and led by veteran envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, said the UN had "repeatedly failed," and would continue to absent "significant institutional change and increased financial support."

But Laurenti says the UN's overall track record is relatively strong: "Peacekeepers have produced stabilization in highly explosive conflicts, contained them, and more often than not, slowly, painstakingly helped resolve them."

Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of declining a Security Council seat in October 2013, announcing a day after it was elected to a 2014–2015 term that it would not serve in the absence of institutional reform. While Riyadh cited the Council's failure to broker peace in the Syrian civil war and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Patrick says the episode is better understood as "misplaced pique directed at the United States" as it tilted away from Saudi interests in dealings with Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Jordan ran unopposed to fill the vacated "Arab swing seat" and was elected by the General Assembly in December 2013.

What are the Security Council’s prospects for reform?

Prospects for substantial reform are seen as remote because amending the UN Charter requires an affirmative vote and domestic ratification by two-thirds of UN member states. This includes all of the Security Council's permanent members, who are unlikely to take measures that curb their own influence. While there is broad agreement among UN members that the Security Council's makeup is outdated, each of the various proposals for reform inevitably leaves some aspirants alienated. Some proposals call for additional permanent members, and others for a new class of elected seats with the possibility of renewal.

CFR's Patrick and former International Affairs Fellow Kara McDonald wrote in a 2010 Council Special Report that a state's contribution to collective action should be the primary criterion for permanent membership.

In the absence of charter reform, smaller states have advocated for procedural changes, including greater transparency and closer consultations with troop-contributing countries.

Additional Resources

CFR's Global Governance Monitor evaluates the international regime for armed conflict and discusses policy options for strengthening the UN's conflict prevention and management capacities.

As the case for U.S. intervention in Syria came to a head, Yale Law School's Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro argued that the use of force absent Security Council authorization would only further undermine global security, while Northwestern University's Ian Hurd stressed that international law has since evolved, rendering Security Council authorization moot.

The Security Council Report, a New York–based organization that provides independent analysis, offers a comprehensive preview of 2013 Council elections.

The International Peace Institute evaluates the Security Council's mixed record of involvement in civil wars since the Cold War.

British NGO Transparency International argues that UN peacekeeping missions have been undermined because of an institutional culture that sees corruption as a marginal issue.

The United Nations maintains a list of P5 vetoes from 1946 to the present.

More on this topic from CFR