United Nations Security Council

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a principal organ of the United Nations and is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. UN Security Council Chamber in New York is also known as the Norwegian Room.

Powers of UNSC

The Powers of the UNSC are outlined in the United Nations Charter. These include:

  • Establishment of peacekeeping operations
  • Establishment of international sanctions
  • The authorization of military action.

The powers of UNSC are exercised through United Nations Security Council resolutions, which are enforceable in nature, comprising both legally binding and legally non-binding nature.

Permanent Members or P5 Countries

Basic structure of the UNSC is set out in Chapter V of the UN Charter. There are 15 members of the Security Council, consisting of five veto-wielding permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and 10 elected non-permanent members with two-year terms.

  • Security Council members must always be present at UN headquarters in New York so that the Security Council can meet at any time. This requirement of the United Nations Charter was adopted to address a weakness of the League of Nations since that organization was often unable to respond quickly to a crisis.

The Security Council’s five permanent members have the power to veto any substantive resolution. They are known as P5 Countries. Out of them US, UK and France are the main victorious powers of World War II.

  • The China’s seat was originally filled by the Republic of China, but due to the stalemate of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, there have been two states claiming to represent China since then, and both officially claim each other’s territory. In 1971, the People’s Republic of China was awarded China’s seat in the United Nations by UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) soon lost membership in all UN organizations.
  • Russia, being the legal successor state to the Soviet Union after the latter’s collapse in 1991, acquired the originally-Soviet seat, including the Soviet Union’s former representation in the Security Council.

Please note that five permanent members of the Security Council are also the only countries recognized as nuclear-weapon states (NWS) under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, membership of the UN Security Council is not dependent on nuclear weapons status.

Non-permanent Members of UNSC

The 10 Non-permanent members of UNSC are elected by the United Nations General Assembly for two-year terms starting on 1 January, with five replaced each year.

To be approved, a candidate must be receive at least 2/3 of all votes cast for that seat, which can result in deadlock if there are two roughly evenly matched candidates; in 1979, a standoff between Cuba and Colombia only ended after three months and 154 rounds of voting, when both withdrew in favor of Mexico as a compromise candidate.

How the Non-members participate in activities of UNSC?

A country which is member of the UN, but neither permanent nor non-permanent member of the Security Council, may participate in Security Council discussions in matters by which the Council agrees that the country’s interests are particularly affected. In recent years, the Council has allowed many countries to take part in its discussions. Non-members are routinely invited to take part when they are parties to disputes being considered.

How President of the UNSC is selected?

The Presidency rotates monthly in alphabetical order of the Security Council member nations’ names in English. This means that a President of UNSC is elected for a month’s period. The monthly rotation takes place in alphabetical order of the member states’ official United Nations names in English. From India B N Rau served as the President of the United Nations Security Council in 1950.

Veto Power of the P5 Nations

Under Article 27 of the UN Charter, Security Council decisions on all substantive matters require the affirmative votes of nine members. A negative vote, or veto, also known as the rule of “great power unanimity”, by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal, even if it has received the required number of affirmative votes (9). Abstention is not regarded as a veto despite the wording of the Charter. Since the Security Council’s inception, China (ROC/PRC) has used its veto 6 times; France 18 times; Russia/USSR 123 times; the United Kingdom 32 times; and the United States 82 times. Please note that procedural matters are not subject to a veto, so the veto cannot be used to avoid discussion of an issue. The same holds for certain decisions that directly regard permanent members.

How UNSC works?

The chapter VI & VII of the UN Charter deals with the mechanism of working of the UNSC. The UN Charter authorizes the Security Council to take action on behalf of the members, and to make decisions and recommendations. Charter mentions neither binding nor non-binding resolutions. Please read the following carefully.

Under Chapter VI, which is titled “Pacific Settlement of Disputes”, the UNSC may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute. If the UNSC determines that the situation might endanger international peace and security, it would first recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment. These recommendations are not binding on UN members.

Under Chapter VII which titles “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression” if it determines that there is threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression, then Council is not limited to recommendations but may take action, including the use of armed force “to maintain or restore international peace and security”. This was the legal basis for UN armed action in Korea in 1950 during the Korean War and the use of coalition forces in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991 and Libya in 2011. Decisions taken under Chapter Seven, such as economic sanctions, are binding on UN members.The UNSC may also call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications, or to sever diplomatic relations.

  • Thus, Security Council Resolutions are legally binding if they are made under Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression) of the Charter.

However, there is a general agreement among legal scholars outside the organization that resolutions made under Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes) are not legally binding. This is because they have no enforcement mechanism, except self-help, they may not be legally binding. However it (binding or non-binding nature) has been always a subject of discussion. In one document, UNSC said explicitly that no UNSC resolution is Non-enforceable.

Reforms in the United Nations Security Council

There are 5 issues pertaining to the reforms in the United Nations Security Council. They are as follows:

  • Categories of membership
  • The question of the veto held by the five permanent members
  • Regional representation
  • The size of an enlarged Council and its working methods
  • Security Council-General Assembly relationship.

We should note that reforms in the United Nations security council require the votes of at least two-thirds of UN member states and that of all the permanent members of the UNSC, enjoying the veto right.

Why reforms are demanded for UNSC?

The original design of the United Nations was a response to the desire to prevent any more wars like those that occurred in the first half of the 20th century. To a large extent they reflected the situation at that time and in the domain of peace and security, the victors of the World War II obtained a privileged position within the institutional design of the United Nations. The design of the UN system has a number of shortcomings, looking at the plethora of changes in the world order in last 60 years .The retricted number of permanent members of the Security Council and the UN body with binding authority weakens the chances of the UN having greater legitimacy and enforcement capacity, in particular with regard  to its role in maintaining world peace and security.

Over time, some of the democratic deficiencies and imbalances of the system have been highlighted by the corrosion of the original mandates governing certain organizations. The UNGA, which was very active in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Security Council was paralysed due to rivalry between the superpowers, began to play an increasingly minor role after the late 1980s when, with the end of the Cold War, the UNSC was reactivated.

The war in Iraq and other serious recent events of worldwide concern have revealed the divorce between certain decisions at the level of world politics and the opinion of citizens around the world, as well as the inability of the nation states to find peaceful, collective and enduring solutions to the grave problems affecting all of us. The international institutions must substantially improve their capacity for conflict prevention and the maintenance of peace. This means that the organizations responsible for the domains of peace and security should collect all viewpoints in a balanced fashion, accept them universally as legitimate, as well as being empowered to implement their decisions. Global justice should be empowered in order to contribute towards eradicating international impunity, not only with respect to criminal law, but also in the civil, economic, social and environmental spheres. To make all this possible, steps must be taken towards a worldwide juridical framework that would ensure the proper application of the present system of international treaties, reinforce the already-existing international institutions, and create the necessary institutions in other spheres with all the appropriate and necessary mechanisms.

An Agenda for Peace – By Boutros Ghali

Over the decades of existence of United Nations, the imbalance between the number of seats in the Security Council and the total number of member States has become evident and the only significant reform of the Security Council came to pass in 1965 after the ratification of two thirds of the membership, including the five permanent members of the Security Council (that have a veto right on Charter changes). The reform included an increase of the non-permanent membership from six to 10 members. With Boutros Boutros-Ghali elected as Secretary-General in 1992, the reform discussions of the UN Security Council were launched again as he started his new term with the first-ever summit of the Security Council and thereafter published “An Agenda for Peace”. His motivation was to restructure the composition and anachronistic procedures of the UN organ recognizing the changed world.

The G4 Bloc

By 1992, Germany and Japan had become the second and third largest contributor to the United Nations and started to demand a permanent seat. Also Brazil (fifth largest country in terms of territory) and India (second largest country in terms of population) as the most powerful countries within their regional groups and key players within their regions saw themselves with a permanent seat. This group of four countries formed an interest group later known as the G4.

The Coffee Club

On the other hand their regional rivals were opposed to the G4 becoming permanent members with a veto power. They favoured the expansion of the non-permanent category of seats with members to be elected on a regional basis. Italy, Spain, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Pakistan started to form an interest group, known as the “Coffee Club” and later “Uniting for Consensus”.

Simultaneously, the African Group started to demand two permanent seats for themselves, on the basis of historical injustices and the fact that a large part of the Council’s agenda is concentrated on the continent. Those two seats would be permanent African seats that rotate between African countries chosen by the African group.

The existing permanent members, each holding the right of veto on Security Council reform, announced their positions reluctantly. The United States supported the permanent membership of Japan and India and a small number of additional non-permanent members. The United Kingdom and France essentially supported the G4 position, with the expansion of permanent and non-permanent members and the accession of German, Brazil, India and Japan to permanent member status, as well as an increase the presence by African countries on the Council. China supported the stronger representation of developing countries, voicing support for the Republic of India. Russia, India’s long time friend and ally has also endorsed the fast growing power’s candidature to assume a seat of a permanent member on the Security Council.

In Larger Freedom- By Kofi Annan

On March 21, 2005, the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on the UN to reach a consensus on expanding the council to 24 members, in a plan referred to as “In Larger Freedom”.  He gave two alternatives for implementation, but did not specify which proposal he preferred. The two options mentioned by Annan are referred to as Plan A and Plan B. Plan A calls for creating six new permanent members, plus three new nonpermanent members for a total of 24 seats in the council. Plan B calls for creating eight new seats in a new class of members, who would serve for four years, subject to renewal, plus one non-permanent seat, also for a total of 24.

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