United Nations Security Council

views updated May 29 2018

United Nations Security Council

The United Nations was created at the end of World War II. That war cost the lives of millions of people, some in battle, many others as a result of systematic and organized annihilation. When it was over, people everywhere longed for the creation of a better world and an end to all war.

Out of this desire, the United Nations came into being. Fifty-one governments agreed to sign the UN Charter, an international treaty that bound its signatories to a commitment to eliminate war and promote peace. The UN Charter begins with a promise to prevent the "untold sorrow" of war, after which it lists the rights and duties of each member government. Since its creation in 1945 the UN has grown to include 192 member nations. While the UN has not, so far, come close to fulfilling all the hopes and dreams of its founders, it remains the world's principal organization for the promotion of international peace and security.

The most powerful division of the UN is the Security Council, which all member states are bound by the UN Charter to obey. The Council comprises the representatives of fifteen member governments. Five of these are permanent members: China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. Each of these five states has a veto in the Council, which means any one of them can stop any decision they do not like. Ten other states, elected by the General Assembly, sit in the Council for a period of two years, after which ten different states are chosen. When disagreements between states occur, it is the job of the Security Council to mediate between them before disputes escalate to war.

The United Nations and Human Rights

Since the UN was created, its members have tried to set basic standards of behavior for the world to follow. In 1948 the UN General Assembly, which comprises every UN member, agreed to a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This outlined the rights that the members believed belonged to everyone in the world. The declaration recognized that the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights determines that people have the right to freedom and security, that they should be free from slavery, they should have the right to a fair trial, to marry, to own property, and to believe in whatever religion they choose.

The UN tries to monitor any country which is breaking these rules through a special organization called the UN Commission on Human Rights. Through such monitoring, the UN makes sure that the rest of the world is aware of each country's human rights record. This was the beginning of an historic effort to build an edifice of treaty law on behalf of human rights. The UN set itself the task of defining human rights standards and measuring the performance of individual states against the principles embodied in the UN Charter. In these early years, the organization recognized human rights violations vary both in degree and in nature, and therefore needed to be carefully categorized.

The 1948 Genocide Convention

Although the crime of genocide has been perpetrated throughout human history, little was done to prevent or punish it until the end of World War II. That war was the occasion during which the most comprehensive genocide of the twentieth century was committed: the systematic extermination of the Jews. To address this terrible crime, the UN drafted the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide—the world's first truly universal, comprehensive, and codified protection of human rights. The Genocide Convention, which preceded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by twenty-four hours, confirmed one of the great ideals of the UN Charter: a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

The Genocide Convention stood for a fundamental and important principle; that whatever evil may befall any group, nation, or people, it was a matter of concern not just for that group but for the entire human family. The crime of genocide is the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, just as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings. The Genocide Convention defines genocide to mean certain acts, enumerated in Article II, committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The Genocide Convention provides that conspiracy, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide shall be punishable by international law, and that there can be no defense of sovereign immunity.

In dealing with the crime of genocide on a multinational basis, the world governments, through the United Nations, appreciated that genocide was a matter of concern to all states. Before 1945, efforts to legislate internationally were very limited. Since 1945, however, multinational treaties have become the prime legal mechanism by which states entered into mutual commitments for common purposes. Under such treaties, states agree to act in accordance with rules agreed upon among their fellow nations.

At the heart of the Genocide Convention is the recognition of the principle that preventing and punishing of genocide requires international cooperation. The convention relies on the procedures and institutions of the United Nations to prevent genocide. It clearly recognized that the commission of certain extraordinary crimes anywhere in the world had an effect on the peace and security of all nations, and that it was usually associated with breaches of international peace and security. It noted that the most flagrant examples of genocide had historically occurred during major wars, and steps to curb genocide were thus considered part of the attempt to preserve peace.

The first recognition of genocide as a crime under international law was officially agreed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on December 11, 1946. After two years of consideration by committees at the United Nations, on December 9, 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention to outlaw genocide. The UN Security Council assumed a central role in the application of the Genocide Convention—it provides the measure of international enforcement outlined in the treaty.

Article VIII of the convention recognizes that "any contracting party may call upon the competent organs of the UN to take such action under the Charter of the UN as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any other acts enumerated in Article III." This article, although it adds nothing new to the UN Charter, is important in that it states explicitly the right of states to call upon the UN with a view to preventing and suppressing genocide. It is the only article in the Genocide Convention that deals with prevention. For the most part, however, the Genocide Convention emphasizes punishment. It was intended as a warning that those who supported or executed a policy of genocide would not be tolerated or excused. Rather, they would have to answer for their sins to the world community of states. The Genocide Convention, despite its title, concentrates almost exclusively on the punishment of the offender rather than prevention of the offense.

Since the enactment of the Genocide Convention there have been major international disputes justified by claims of ethnic, racial, and religious hatreds. The use of genocide during conflict seems to have increased over the years, some experts have said that genocide occurs so often in some regions that it has come to be considered normal. It is estimated that genocide and politicide—state sponsored massacres—have claimed more than twice as many victims as war and natural disasters since 1945. Yet the Genocide Convention is a weak instrument with which to deal with the modern occurrence of genocide. It has become important only for its symbolic value because there has been no Security Council action taken to punish any of the numerous genocides that have taken place since 1945.

Complaints of genocide have been brought to the United Nations since the end of World War II, but even so, the UN has never formally applied the Genocide Convention to any of them. The complaints have not been wholly ignored. Too often, however, they have been redefined as disasters requiring humanitarian assistance. In the absence of internationally sanctioned intervention, such humanitarian aid is often all that is available for genocide victims. Recurring debates on the Genocide Convention have taken place in the Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a part of the Commission on Human Rights, but there does not yet exist a committee charged with ensuring that the Genocide Convention is implemented.

The Genocide Convention is only as effective if the UN member states are willing and determined to employ their power and influence to implement it. It is up to the Security Council to decide when force should be deployed to prevent and suppress it. In the last years, however, the Security Council has allowed a respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity to take precedence over the concern for protection against genocide. Without stern and timely action by the Security Council, the Genocide Convention has been mostly meaningless in deterring this and other gross violations of human rights. It was not until the creation of two tribunals—the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia in May 1993, and the International Criminal Tribunal For Rwanda in November 1994—that redress was provided for the crime of genocide. These represent the first legal mechanisms created to punish the crime of genocide. In July 1998, the international legal venue for the punishment of such crimes, promised by the 1948 Genocide Convention, was finally created, with the UN adoption of the Rome Statute and the formation of the International Criminal Court.


During the cold war, the UN was unable to do the job for which it was created and international co-operation proved to be a difficult goal to attain. During these years, a more modest and realistic role for the UN was devised. As a neutral organization, it could help mediate conflict, monitor ceasefires, and aid in the separation of hostile armed forces. Two novel missions were undertaken through the Security Council at this time. In 1947 a mission of unarmed military observers—the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO)—was created, first used in the Balkans and then in Palestine. In 1956 an armed peacekeeping force was established in the Sinai to monitor a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel. Both these missions continue today.

Over the years there have been a total of fifty-two peacekeeping missions. UN peacekeepers rely on minimal force to defuse tension and prevent fighting. The soldiers for UN missions are provided by member governments, who loan troops from their national armies. With the effective use of the peacekeeping forces, the UN has contributed to the containment or resolution of conflicts. The achievements of UN peacekeeping were recognized in 1988 with a Nobel Peace Prize.

A New World Order

It was widely accepted during the cold war that the unilateral use of force to save victims of gross human rights abuses was a violation of the UN Charter, which restricted the right to use force on the part of individual states to purposes of self-defense. The Security Council is empowered under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to authorize the use of force to maintain international peace and security. However, there has always been controversy about how far this allows the council to authorize intervention to stop gross human rights violations that occur inside state borders. To enforce the global humanitarian norms that evolved in the wake of the Holocaust challenges, however, the Security Council must confront a very strongly held principle—that of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states.

In 1990, with the end of the cold war, it suddenly seemed possible to aspire to the creation of a New World Order—an international community based on the rule of law and collective security. At the first summit meeting of the Security Council in January 1992, the UN was given ambitious new goals of nation building and peacemaking. It was a hope that the close of the twentieth century would witness the civilized evolution of the global community and the gradual eradication of endless, regional bloodletting throughout the world.

As cold war tensions eased, there was enhanced cooperation in the Security Council. Opportunities were provided to resolve long-standing conflicts, but the end of the cold war also saw new conflicts erupt into violence, many couched in nationalist terms, with hostilities based on ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic differences. Responding to this new world disorder the Council turned to the UN Security Council's peacekeeping force, which grew rapidly in size and scope. The complexity of the situations facing the peacekeepers increased, as well.

The end of the cold war led to the hope that the UN could move beyond peacekeeping and into peace enforcement. Unfortunately, the financial, organizational, and operational resources that such a change required were never provided by the Security Council or other UN members. The demand for peacekeeping outstripped the supply of troops and political will. There was a failure by member nations to recognize that the UN could only do as much or as little as its members were willing to agree and pay for.

The last decade of the twentieth century saw a series of tragedies, in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, and the former Yugoslavia. Crimes against humanity were committed and documented, including genocide, mass killings, and massive refugee flows. Civilians in these countries were the main targets of armies and militia. The UN missions sent to cope with these disasters were as much engaged in nation building as in performing their military function, and they required civilian experts and relief specialists to work in parallel with soldiers. In Mozambique and El Salvador, the UN peacekeeping missions helped to demobilize combatants, destroy weapons, coordinate massive humanitarian assistance programs, and monitor human rights. Missions in Haiti, Somalia, and Cambodia were tasked with rebuilding state infrastructures, creating or reinstating judicial systems and organizing and observing elections. In these years, maintaining neutrality proved difficult. Many UN peacekeepers had to confront situations in which civilians were victimized, or when they themselves were attacked or killed. Where governmental authority broke down, there was a limit to the effectiveness of UN actions.

Security Council Resolution 688

In 1991 the debate in the Security Council focused on the question of whether the Council could legitimately address humanitarian concerns raised by Iraq's repression of the Kurdish people without violating the ban on UN Charter's ban on intervention in the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states. At first, the Western nations argued that force was not an option. Soon, however, a flood of press coverage showed the suffering of the people of northern Iraq who had been forced to flee into the mountains and were now dying from hypothermia, exhaustion, and disease. These images went a long way to reverse the noninterventionist policy. On April 5, 1991, Security Council Resolution 688 was passed, authorizing the use of force against Iraq to protect the Kurdish minority from atrocities. In the Council, the United States argued that Iraq's treatment of its civilian population threatened regional stability. Great Britain and France were the only two countries to argue that the domestic jurisdiction did not apply to human rights because such rights were not essentially domestic. After all, it was argued, the Council had invoked Chapter VII, the enforcement powers of the UN Charter, to enforce a mandatory arms embargo against the apartheid state, South Africa. It should therefore be possible to do so again in this new context.

Although Resolution 688 did not authorize military action to enforce human rights, it was only the second time that the Security Council had collectively demanded an improvement the protection of human rights as a contribution to the promotion of international security. (The first time was when the Security Council imposed a mandatory embargo on apartheid South Africa.) Resolution 688 enumerated the consequences of Iraq's repression as a threat to international security, and is believed to provide a justification for military action aimed at enforcing human rights for Iraq's Kurds. This argument was later deemed flimsy, but the Western powers that relied upon it as legal cover for taking military action nonetheless used it to publicly justified their intervention in humanitarian terms.

The operation to save the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 depended upon meeting three objectives. First, humanitarian aid had to be brought to the refugees who were dying on the mountains. Second, the people had to be rescued and provided with safe haven. Third, a secure political environment had to be created in order for the Kurds to return to their homes. There is no doubt that thousands of people were saved by the intervention of Western-led forces, but the underlying political reasons for the distress of the Kurds remained to be addressed. It had been the Iraqi government's oppression of the Kurds that had caused the humanitarian crisis, and that government did not restrict its oppression to the Kurds. Western humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq did nothing to assist the equally persecuted Shi'ite people in the south of the country.

The intervention on behalf of Iraq's Kurds was, nonetheless, an example of the reconfigured role adopted by the UN Security Council of the post–cold war era. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Security Council played a decisive role in legitimizing the threat or use of force in defense of humanitarian values. How much of a change in international behavior could be attributed to the Security Council's new stance is still debated.


In the case of Somalia, the Security Council broke new ground by authorizing armed intervention on humanitarian grounds. Council Resolution 794, which authorized U.S. intervention in Somalia in December 1992, suggested that humanitarian intervention was securing a significant status in a new world order. The intervention was given milestone status, because it seemed as though Western armies would now be used for greater protective effect throughout the world. It was the first time that the UN Security Council invoked the enforcement powers of the UN Charter against sovereign government without seeking that government's consent and for a purely humanitarian reason. Somalia would also mark a turning point of a different sort, however, for it was a military failure that reduced the UN peacekeeping force to chaos.

In 1991 Somalia had been gripped by famine due to the collapse of the state, a civil war, and the failure of humanitarian agencies to supply assistance. Within a year, there were hundreds of thousands of people dying of malnutrition. A humanitarian disaster of catastrophic proportions developed. On December 3, 1992, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 794 to allow the U.S. military to enter Somalia to protect the food and medical supplies that were being shipped to the starving but were being looted by armed gangs. The resolution determined that the humanitarian crisis in Somalia was a threat to international peace and security, but what was most extraordinary was that it permitted intervention even though the sovereign power (the Somalian government) was incapable of giving its consent, having collapsed with the onset of the civil war.

In March 1993 the U.S. operation was transferred to the UN, and the mission immediately became more ambitious. Now the goal was to restore law and order and compel the Somali militia to disarm. UN Security Council Resolution 814, another landmark document, gave the UN troops a mandate to restore law and order. The new mission, called the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II) got under way, but by this time the security situation in Somalia had deteriorated badly. Warlords vied for power, particularly around the capital city of Mogadishu, and they tested the Security Council's resolve. It was in Mogadishu that the pitfalls of combining force with peacekeeping were tragically exposed. In June 1993, twenty-three Pakistani peace-keepers were murdered by rampaging mobs while trying to inspect weapons that were under UN supervision. After that, the Security Council passed Resolution, 837, mandating its troops to arrest the warlord deemed responsible for the murders. Meanwhile, elite U.S. forces also mounted a series of raids in an effort to capture the warlord, and an untold number of Somalians were killed in consequence of these raids. Although these U.S. operations were outside the command and control of the UN Security Council, the UN was widely blamed for the violence. There were objections from other troop-contributing countries about the United States' insistence on working outside the control of UN mission's command and control structure. On October 3, 1993, a total of eighteen U.S. servicemen lost their lives in a badly bungled arrest attempt. To the jubilation of the Somalian warlords, the United States immediately announced that it was pulling out its troops and urged all western nations to do likewise.

The Security Council commissioned a report on what had happened in Somalia. It recommended that the UN return to peacekeeping, to the principles of consent, neutrality, and impartiality. The report recommended that the UN should never again try to mount an enforcement action. Another result of failure in Somalia was quickly evident in Washington, D.C., where both the U.S. administration and Congress evinced a sudden and dramatic reduction in support for UN endeavors. It was an ignominious end to the United Nation's first attempt at rebuilding a failed state, resulting in a dramatic loss of UN credibility and prestige.


The question of humanitarian intervention in former Yugoslavia was another Security Council preoccupation during the 1990s. In spring 1992 Serbia, having laid waste to parts of Croatia, turned its attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Witnesses provided graphic, indisputable evidence of the ethnic cleansing of whole regions, the demolition of entire villages and murder of their inhabitants, the bombardment of civilian populations, and the creation of camps where thousands of men were starved and tortured and women were systematically raped.

The Council passed numerous resolutions condemning Serb aggression and authorizing the use of "all necessary measures" to halt it. However, none of the UN member nations were willing to provide the means to enforce the measures, so the resolutions remained moribund. The UN Protection Force, (UNPROFOR), as a strictly peacekeeping mission, provided armed escorts for relief convoys, but there was a general failure to defend and demilitarize the UN-established "safehavens," for which an estimated thirty thousand peacekeeping troops were considered necessary. The failure of states to volunteer adequate numbers of troops led to these supposedly safe areas being over run. UN peacekeepers were forced to stand by as helpless observers of the massacres in Bosnia. International respect for the United Nations as a credible presence sank to the lowest point in its history. The UN mission for former Yugoslavia, the largest and most expensive in UN history, turned out to be barely capable of protecting itself.

In 1995, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with authorization from the Security Council, initiated widespread air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. Some observers believe that this action persuaded Slobodan Milosevic, then President of the rump Yugoslavian state, to enter peace negotiations. The NATO action was the first time a group of states justified force against another on humanitarian grounds without an explicit Security Council resolution to provide legitimacy for the action.

The success of the 1995 NATO air strikes led some nations to believe that the threat and use of bombing could achieve quick results. This meant that in March 1999, when evidence of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo led to a new intervention by Western states. The Western states were not prepared to bear the burden of potentially negative public opinion should there be troops casualties, which would be inevitable in a ground-based war. Through a combination of bombing and the threat of a ground force, Milosevic was forced to accede to demands that Kosovar refugees be allowed to return to their homes and for a UN civil administration to help build a multiethnic society based on the rule of law.


The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 is one of the most blatant examples of the ineffectiveness of the Genocide Convention. The genocide began in April 1994, when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had been under way for more than two years, and little had been done by the UN Security Council to stop it. The lack of action in Bosnia and Herzegovina is thought to have encouraged the Rwandan perpetrators that they could act with impunity. For three months, between April and July 1994, genocide was central to the task of Hutu rebels who had seized power and claimed to constitute an interim government. Up to one million people were killed.

The genocide in Rwanda was a planned political campaign that made effective use of racist propaganda to incite hatred and violence against a minority. The widespread participation in genocide and the brutality of the killings have no parallels in modern history. Making the situation worse was the brazenness of the perpetrators, who made no attempt to conceal what was happening. The killings took place in broad daylight, in full view of the international media.

There was ample evidence of the extensive preparation and planning for the genocide went on for months in advance of the first killings. Nonetheless, the UN Security Council did not make any move to implement the Genocide Convention, either to prevent its occurrence or to stop it once it began. This raises the fundamental question: Why?

In October 1993, the UN Security Council decided to create the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), comprising a small force of peacekeepers. The UNAMIR force was duly shipped to Rwanda, and was kept there even as the environment grew increasingly hostile. The mission had a weak mandate and minimal force capacity. Some have argued that this feeble effort actually encouraged the Hutu genocide conspirators, signaling they could continue with their plans without fear of intervention.

The failed Somalia intervention was still fresh in the Security Council's memory. When it came to Rwanda, the most important consideration was to devise a mission that was as small and as cheap as possible and that would avoid any effort at peace enforcement, even after the genocidal killings were ended. In order to comply with these considerations the Council altered the terms of Rwanda's peace agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, a neutral force was to ensure security throughout Rwanda but the Security Council decided instead that the peacekeepers should only assist in ensuring the security of the capital city of Kigali. Although the original peace accords called for peacekeepers to confiscate arms and neutralize the armed gangs throughout the country, the UN Security Council refused. There would be no "peace enforcement" and no "mission creep," whereby increasingly difficult mandates might be given to the UN mission.

Instead, the UN Security Council devised a peacekeeping mission that was extremely limited in its engagement within Rwanda. No attention seems to have been focussed on Rwanda's serious human rights abuses, even though they had been clearly outlined in the publication of two landmark human rights reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The author of one of these reports, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, was the Special Rapporteur for the Commission on Human Rights for Extrajudicial Summary, or Arbitrary Executions. He provided evidence that, in Rwanda, the Hutu political leadership was desperate to cling to power and was fueling ethnic hatred with a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign. The massacre of Rwanda's Tutsis was intentional and well organized. Ndiaye recommended that the militia should be disbanded, the distribution of arms should cease, and anti-Tutsi propaganda silenced. There could be no impunity for the killers. Finally, Ndiaye called for communal policing and immediate and effective measures to protect civilians at risk. In spite of this report, the ten nonpermanent members of the Security Council insisted on viewing the Rwanda debacle as a small civil war.

From the very beginning of the Rwanda disaster, in December 1993, it was clear that the UNAMIR mission confronted enormous problems. In the weeks immediately preceding the genocide, it received detailed information about militia training, arms dumps, political murders, hate propaganda, and death lists. The rising level of ethnic extremism in Rwanda was also of great concern to the Belgian government, which provided the troops for the Rwanda mission. In February 1994 the Belgian ambassador to the UN, Paul Noterdaeme, attempted to warn everyone that the peacekeepers of UNAMIR were in grave danger and in need of immediate reinforcements and a stronger mandate—no one listened.

When the genocide began, two permanent Security Council member states—the United States and the United Kingdom—insisted on referring to the Rwandan violence as a civil war, and focused Security Council discussion on obtaining a ceasefire. In the first weeks of genocide, no one paid attention to civilian mass killings, even though the massacres were taking place nowhere near the actual fighting. Another permanent member of the Security Council, France, was intimate with the affairs of Rwanda, but kept silent about the realities of what was happening, even during council meetings.

Some of the non-permanent members of the council, notably New Zealand, Spain, Nigeria, and the Czech Republic tried to convince the United States and the Great Britain to pay attention to the daily murder of thousands upon thousands of civilians. However, none of the permanent members were willing to discuss stabilizing, reinforcing, or even re-supplying the UNAMIR peacekeepers, who were still trying to carry out rescue missions in Kigali. At the end of April 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and France refused to publish a Presidential Statement, drafted on the initiative of New Zealand Ambassador Colin Keating, that officially acknowledged the genocide that was now in full swing in Rwanda.

The Force Commander of UNAMIR, Major-General Dallaire, was later openly critical of the permanent member states in the Security Council who had the means to help, but refused. He bemoaned the lack of political will in Great Britain, and the United States that permitted the spread of the genocide and the slaughter of thousands of people trapped inside schools, churches, and clinics.

SEE ALSO Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; Humanitarian Intervention; International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Peacekeeping; Rwanda; United Nations; United Nations Commission on Human Rights; United Nations General Assembly


Bellamy, Alex J., Paul Williams, and Stuart Griffin (2004). Understanding Peacekeeping. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict (1997). Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.

Dallaire, Romeo A. (1996). "The Changing Role of UN Peacekeeping Forces: The Relationship between UN Peacekeepers and NGOs in Rwanda." In After Rwanda: The Co-Ordination of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance, ed. Jim Whitman and David Pocock. London: Macmillan Press.

Durch, William, ed. (1996). UN Peacekeeping, American Politics, and the Uncivil Wars of the 1990s. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Fein, Helen (1993). "Accounting for Genocide after 1945: Theories and Some Findings." International Journal on Group Rights 1:79–106.

Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (1996). The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience: Synthesis Report. Copenhagen: DANIDA.

Prunier, Gérard. (1995). The Rwandan Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wheeler, Nicholas J. (2000). Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Linda Melvern

United Nations Security Council

views updated Jun 27 2018

United Nations Security Council


The United Nations Charter was ratified by its founding members on October 24, 1945. Three years later, the member nations convened the first official meeting of the Security Council, as well as the other UN committees. The outstanding mission of the entire United Nations organization is to promote global peace and good relations among nations. The Security Council fulfills the UN mission through diplomacy, sanctions, and peacekeeping operations.

Membership, organization, and voting. The United Nations is divided into one large meeting body, the General Assembly, and three smaller operational committees. Every member nation, as well as observer missions, is represented in the General Assembly, and on two committees, the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council. Membership in the third and most powerful UN committee, the Security Council, is selected by established protocol. Five nations, reflecting the global balance of power when the United Nations was created, have permanent membership on the Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. The ten other seats on the Security Council are filled by UN member states on a rotating basis, for two terms. The presidency of the Security Council changes every month, rotating according to the English alphabetical listing of represented countries.

The Security Council itself is divided into two standing committees, the Committee of Experts on Rules of Procedure and the Committee on the Admission of New Members. The council contains several ad hoc committees, which are created to draft resolutions, investigate issues, and mediate conflicts. Working groups are often formed to conduct preliminary, investigative research on a resolution, or to facilitate the evolution of policy regarding a long-standing crisis.

In the UN General Assembly, each member state has one vote. The same applies to voting on resolutions within the Security Council. Passage of a resolution requires either a simple majority or a two-thirds majority, depending on the rule of parliamentary procedure under which the vote was called. However, the permanent members of the Security Council reserve special voting rights. Permanent members reserve the right of veto, or the ability to strike down resolutions with their singular vote.

Under the rules of the UN charter, the Security Council must meet at least once every year. However, the Security Council is designed to operate continuously. The non-permanent seats have staggered terms, so that the council changes five members every year, instead of ten members every two years. One member of each national delegation to the Security Council must be present at the United Nations at all times so the council can meet on a moments notice. On the few occasions that the council has met at a location other than the United Nations, Security Council member states observed this rule by leaving a member of their delegation at headquarters.

Duties of the Security Council. The Security Council's main objective is the promotion of peace. To that end, the council has at its disposal several means of dispute resolution, ranging from mediation to military action. When a threat against international peace is brought to the attention of the Security Council, the council first attempts to

negotiate a settlement between the disputing parties. The council may use its own member delegations, refer the issue to discussion in the General Assembly, or appoint the Secretary-General, the head of the United Nations, to act as mediator.

If no peaceful agreement can be reached, and the disputing factions use violence, intimidation, or force, the Security Council can then enact policy resolutions to solve the conflict or restore peace. Sometimes this policy includes economic sanctions, such as trade embargoes or prohibitions on governments borrowing from international funds. Under the Security Council regulations, however, humanitarian aid can never be withheld from any nation or group of people. In the past, the United Nations has applied sanctions to nations in violation of non-proliferation of weapons agreements, or whose governments perpetuated human rights crimes. The Security Council also reserves the right to recommend expulsion of any UN member state in gross violation of the UN charter and international law, though the dismissal must be voted on and passed in the General Assembly.

The Security Council is the only United Nations organization that can authorize military action and maintain a military-trained peacekeeping force. In violent international dispute, the Security Council can send intervening peacekeeping troops to secure areas in turmoil.

Peacekeeping forces are supplied by various individual UN member states but under the direction of UN command. Peacekeeping forces do not participate in the military agenda of any specific member state, and are neutral in all disputes. The role of peacekeeping troops in the international community is to preserve order, to protect civilian infrastructure and safety, and guard the delivery of humanitarian aid to better facilitate the diplomatic resolution of conflicts.

The Security Council is further responsible for overseeing compliance with international agreements involving weapons, the rules of engagement (conduct during war), the illegal spread of nuclear technology, and other threats to international peace. To enforce these treaties, such as international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation, the Security Council can authorize UN-led inspections of a nation's military arsenal. In addition, the Security Council can order sanctions or authorize military action.

Impact on the international community. Actions taken by the United Nations Security Council have had a significant impact on the international community, with varying success. Long-standing sanctions against South Africa helped end the nation's practice of apartheid and rehabilitated its standing in the international community. On the other hand, resolutions and UN mandates regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been frequently breached, and those enforced failed to abate violence in the region. In the past decade, the Security Council has intervened in conflicts in from Bosnia to western Africa. Though peacekeepers in most tumultuous regions have managed to help dissemination of humanitarian aid and enforce the rule of law, root diplomatic solutions have lagged behind.

In 2002 and 2003, the UN Security Council was at loggerheads over the question of Iraq. Although the entire Assembly voted in favor of weapons inspections in the nation, the issue of subsequent military intervention was contentious. The United States and Great Britain, as well as other UN member nations, opted to invade Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein without the express consent of a new, specific Security Council resolution, but with the implied consent of previous Resolution 1441. However, United Nations organizations have continued to provide humanitarian aid to the region.

In early 2003, the Security Council supervised fifteen ongoing peacekeeping missions and considered resolutions seeking to implement more. In its almost sixty-year tenure, the Security Council has authorized 55 separate peacekeeping operations. Holding to the principles of the UN charter, many nations participate in ongoing peacekeeping efforts.



United Nations. <http://www.un.org> (1 April 2003).


United Nations. Sources: Basic Facts about the United Nations. Sales No.E.98.I.20., Press Release GA/9784, 2000.


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United Nations Security Council

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United Nations Security Council Council responsible for taking action against any nation or faction considered to represent a threat to the security or continued wellbeing of a member state. Such action can be political, economic or, as a last resort, military. The Council also has the power to hold a formal investigation into matters of common concern. There are five permanent member states: the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China.


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United Nations Security Council