Global Policy Forum

Security Council


By Professor Dan Sarooshi*


The Security Council of the United Nations has primary responsibility under the UN Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security, and its resolutions are binding on all member states. During the first forty-five years of its existence, the Council was largely paralysed by the Cold War, but since 1990 and the thawing of the global political climate, it has been very active.

The Security Council is composed of fifteen UN member States, five of which are permanent members -- United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Federation, and China. The permanent members have the power to ‘veto’ a substantive decision of the Council by voting against it. The veto is cast much less often now than it was during the Cold War, but it is still very much in use as a threat which blocks Council action.

The other ten members of the Council are elected by the General Assembly to two-year non-renewable terms, with five new members elected each year. The ten elected members, known in Charter language as "non-permanent members," are selected according to a distribution formula from each of the world's major regions. The Security Council meets formally in both private and public sessions. The meetings normally take place in the Security Council Chamber at UN headquarters in New York and there the Council votes on resolutions and conducts other official business. The Security Council meets occasionally in private, mainly to decide on its recommendation of a candidate for the position of the UN Secretary-General. Since 1990, the Council has conducted most of its business in private "consultations" (informal and off-the-record meetings) which are held on most weekdays during the year. Meetings are chaired by the powerful President, an office that rotates each month on an alphabetical basis among the Council's membership.

In addition to recommending the name of new secretaries-general, the Council recommends new State members of the UN, and it elects judges to the International Court of Justice, jointly with the General Assembly. In the key realm of peace and security, it performs three main functions. It assists in the peaceful settlement of disputes. It establishes and oversees UN peace-keeping forces. And it takes enforcement measures against recalcitrant States or other parties.

Acting under Chapter VI of the Charter, the Council ‘shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties’ to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means such as negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, or judicial settlement (Article 33). And it may, if all the parties to a dispute request, make recommendations to the parties with a view to a peaceful settlement (Article 38). In practice, the Council often asks the Secretary-General or one of his Special Representatives to mediate or negotiate under guidelines the Council has established. Increasingly the Council members themselves have travelled to conflict areas in an effort to directly negotiate settlements or mediate conflicts.

Though the first UN peace-keeping force was established by the General Assembly, subsequent forces have been established by the Security Council, which exercises authority and command over them. The Council delegates to the Secretary-General its powers to organize and to exercise command and control over the force, but it retains close management and oversight -- too much so in the view of many Secretariat officials and military commanders. Though the Charter does not expressly provide powers to the Council for peace-keeping forces, the International Court of Justice in a 1962 case found that the Council has an implied power for this purpose.

Peacekeeping forces are usually deployed by the Council only after ceasefires have been agreed upon and so the peacekeepers are only lightly armed and should not be confused with an army fighting an opposing force. In the post-Cold War period, with greater consensus among its members, the Council has established far more peacekeeping operations than in the past. At a peak in the mid-1990s there were over 70,000 peacekeepers deployed. Some large and complex operations not only include soldiers but also civilian police, election monitors, de-mining and demobilization experts, and civilian administrative personnel.

The Security Council may also take enforcement measures which are more robust than peacekeeping. These enforcement powers are contained in Chapter VII of the Charter, which authorises the Council to determine when a threat to, or breach of, the peace has occurred, and authorises it among other things to impose economic and military sanctions.

The ‘peace’ referred to in Article 39 may involve conflicts other than those between states. At the time the Charter was established, it was envisaged that conflicts within the borders of a state could also constitute a threat to or breach of the peace, and thus that the Council could order the use of enforcement measures. The Council has broadened its definition of these cases over time, so that gross violations of human rights may now be seen as a threat to the peace, as was the case with the genocide in Rwanda.

In exercising its enforcement powers, the Security Council has imposed economic sanctions against a number of States and other parties. The great majority of these sanctions regimes have been imposed in the post-Cold War period. The Council imposed general trade sanctions on Iraq in 1990, but since then the Council has preferred to imposed more "targeted" sanctions such as arms embargoes, travel bans, restrictions on diplomatic relations, and bans on key commodities like petroleum and diamonds.

Under Article 42 of the Charter, the Security Council has the power to order the use of force to maintain or restore peace and security. However the collective use of force as a military sanction does not operate in the way originally intended. It was envisaged that States would conclude agreements with the United Nations, enabling the Council to require troop contributions to create and carry out military enforcement operations. Due to the Cold War this procedure was not implemented, and more recently there has not been the political will to return to the original intentions of the Charter.

Nonetheless the Security Council has delegated its Chapter VII powers to member States who volunteer their forces to carry out the enforcement action. These delegations of power include a delegation of a power of command and control over such forces, usually to those volunteering. Recently, the Council has delegated its enforcement powers to NATO in certain Balkan conflicts, to a force assembled by the Economic Community of West African States in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to a multinational force led by Australia in East Timor. These are sometimes referred to as "coalitions of the willing." The best-known case is the coalition led by the United States that assembled under Resolution 678 in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The Council has delegated its Chapter VII powers to member States for the attainment of various objectives including to counter a use of force, to carry out a naval interdiction against a state, to achieve humanitarian objectives, to protect UN declared 'safe areas,' and to ensure implementation of a peace agreement. Member states are often less than satisfied with the results of these operations, which are frequently seen as reflecting the interests of the powerful states taking part, and not sufficiently reflecting the will of the Council or the international community as a whole. But as long at the United Nations is relatively weak and short of resources, such compromises in the face of urgent crises are likely to continue.

States and non-state actors have made a wide variety of proposals concerning potential reform of the work, size, and composition of the Security Council. Concerning size and composition, the General Assembly adopted resolution 48/26 in 1993 which established an Open-ended Working Group to ‘consider all aspects of the question of increase in the membership of the Security Council’. The non-permanent membership of the Security Council has already been enlarged once in 1965 from six to its present ten. However any changes in the membership of the Security Council requires an amendment of the Charter which can only take place with the consent of ‘all the permanent members’. As such, it is highly unlikely that any formal changes concerning membership of the permanent members or their veto powers will be adopted.


- Dan Sarooshi, The United Nations and the Development of Collective Security (Oxford, 1999).

- Sydney D. Bailey and Sam Daws, The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1998).

- David M. Malone, Decision-Making in the UN Security Council (Oxford, 1998).

About the Author: Dr. Dan Sarooshi is Professor of Public International Law, University of Oxford.

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