United Nations Security Council

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The United Nations Security Council is the most powerful organ of the United Nations. It is charged with maintaining peace and security between nations. While other organs of the UN only make recommendations to member governments, the Security Council has the power to make decisions which member governments must carry out under the United Nations Charter. The decisions of the Council are known as UN Security Council Resolutions.

UN Security Council chamber in New York
UN Security Council chamber in New York



The Security Council held its first session on January 17, 1946, at Church House, London.


A Council member must always be present at UN headquarters so that the 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 crises. The presidency of the security council is rotated and lasts for one month.

The role involves setting the agenda, presiding at its meetings and overseeing any crises. It alternates in alphabetical order of the members' names in English.

There are two categories of membership in the UN Security Council: Permanent Members and Elected Members.

Permanent members

The Council has five permanent members:

The permanent members were originally drawn from the victorious powers after World War II: the Republic of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1971, the People's Republic of China was awarded the Republic of China's seat in the UN. In 1991, the Russian Federation acquired the seat originally held by the Soviet Union, including the Soviet Union's former representation in the Security Council.

Currently the five members are the only nations permitted to possess nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which lacks universal validity, as not all nuclear nations have signed the treaty. This nuclear status is not the result of their Security Council membership, though it is sometimes used as a modern-day justification for their continued presence on the body. North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel (allegedly; Israel has never admitted to nuclear weapons possession), and some other countries that are not permanent members of the UN Security Council do possess nuclear weapons outside of the anti-proliferation framework established by the Treaty.

Each also have veto powers to void any resolution, a single blocking vote that outweighs any majority.

Elected members

Ten other members are elected by the General Assembly for 2-year terms starting on January 1, with five replaced each year. The members are chosen by regional groups and confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly. The African group chooses two members; the North/South American, Asian, and Western European blocs choose two members each; and the Eastern European bloc chooses one member. The last seat rotates every two years between Asia and Africa, currently Africa.

The current (2005–2006) elected members are:

  1. Algeria (Africa)
  2. Argentina (Latin America)
  3. Benin (Africa)
  4. Brazil (Latin America)
  5. Denmark (W. Europe)
  6. Greece (W. Europe)
  7. Japan (Asia)
  8. Philippines (Asia)
  9. Romania (E. Europe)
  10. Tanzania (Africa)

See Elected members of the UN Security Council for other years.

Membership reform

There has been discussion of an increase in the number of permanent members. The countries who have made the strongest demands for permanent seats are Japan, Germany and India. Indeed, Japan and Germany are the UN's second and third largest funders, respectively, while Germany and India are among some of the largest contributors of troops to UN-mandated peace-keeping missions.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has asked a team of advisors to come up with recommendations for revamping the United Nations by the end of 2004. A proposed solution is to increase the number of permanent members by five, which, in most proposals, would include Japan, Germany, India, Brazil (G4 nations), one seat from Africa (most likely between Nigeria and South Africa), and/or one seat from the Arab League. On September 21, 2004, those four countries issued a joint statement mutually backing each other's claim to permanent status, together with an African country. France and the United Kingdom declared that they support this claim. Currently the proposal has to be accepted by two-thirds of the UN General Assembly which translates to 128 votes.

See Reform of the United Nations: Security Council reform for additional information.


Japan is the second largest contributor to the U.N. regular budgets. Its payment even surpasses the sum of those of the United Kingdom, France, the People's Republic of China and Russia. Japan has been one of the largest ODA donor countries. Thus Japan is considered the most likely candidate for one of the new permanent seats.

Japan's eagerness to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council meets with strong opposition from East Asian countries, especially the People's Republic of China, South Korea and North Korea. There are frequent large anti-Japanese protests in both mainland China and South Korea. Although they associate their movements with Japan's past, others speculate that these countries, especially the PRC, are motivated by more current problems such as territorial disputes. In late April 2005, large anti-Japan protests broke out in mainland China. The reasons for the protests are varied, but include tensions between Japan and China over the future of the Security Council. While the protests were not officially sanctioned by the PRC, some analysts suggested that the PRC government allowed the protests to proceed in order to upset Japan's bid to be added to the Security Council. Others still argued that the Chinese government did not want the protestor's anger to be focused on them, as preventing these demonstrations would be construed as supporting Japan. However, the PRC government then forbade further protests when it became concerned that such protests might become more about domestic issues.

Many other Asian nations have expressed strong support for Japan's application. Japan's backers in the region include Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam. Other countries such as Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States also back Japan's bid.


Germany is the third largest contributor to the U.N. regular budgets.

France has explicitly called for a permanent seat in the UN for Germany: "Germany's engagement, its ranking as a great power, its international influence—France would like to see them recognized with a permanent seat on the Security Council", French president Jacques Chirac said in a speech in Berlin in 2000. The German Chancellor also identified Russia, among other countries, as a country that backed Germany's bid. Italy and Netherlands on the contrary suggest a common EU seat in the Council instead of Germany becoming the third European member next to France and the UK. The German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Germany would also accept a common European seat, but as long as there is little sign that France and the UK will give up their own seats, Germany, a much larger country, should also have a seat. Thus, the German campaign for a permanent seat was intensified in 2004. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made himself perfectly clear in August, 2004: "Germany has the right to a seat". . Its bid is supported by Japan, India, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and Russia, among other countries.


India, a nuclear power, represents approximately a sixth of the world's population and is therefore the world's largest democracy. It is also the world's fourth largest economy in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. Its bid is unequivocally backed by permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and Russia.

Though initially opposed by the People's Republic of China due to geo-political reasons (China being an ally of India's arch-rival Pakistan and the country also having fought a brief war with India in 1962), recent history has turned China's official support for India's candidature from negative to neutral to positive. On April 11, 2005 China announced it would support India's bid for a permanent seat. Although the US officially does not back India's bid - for various reasons, some of which remain decidedly unclear - it has privately been eager to work with India and to support the nation (which translates to not using a veto). Taking into account its huge population and growing economic and political clout, India is a strong contender to clinch a permanent seat. Another factor which bolsters India's candidature is the fact that it was one of the founding members of the UNSC and has participated in several UNSC's activities, including UN operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyprus, Cambodia, Yemen, Somalia, Rwanda and Namibia, among others.


Prospects for a permanent Brazilian seat are looking up. Brazil recently received strong indications that the US was willing to support its membership, but without a veto. Another prospect that possibly looms is the sharing of the permanent seat with Argentina, and possibly Chile as well. The case for Brazil receiving a security council seat is strong. It is the largest country in Latin America in population, economy, and land area. But what it is lacking is a Spanish speaking population, which links the rest of South America together (bar the Guyanas). Brazil also recently received backing for a permanent seat from Russia.

The Islamic member (a point of controversy)

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the predominantly Islamic Middle East has been an area of persistent international conflict, and the periodic flare-ups in the region have been the subject of many UN security council debates and resolutions. Therefore, the prospect of introducing a permanent Islamic member to the security council is highly sensitive, especially if such a member were to be granted the power of veto.

Outside the Muslim world, commentators from mainly the United States, have raised concerns that an empowered Islamic member could wield its veto to restrict the UN's ability to act forcefully in the Middle East or on the boundaries of the Islamic world (e.g. Kashmir and Chechnya), rendering the UN impotent in those regions. The lack of democracy in Middle Eastern states that are predominantly Muslim is another reason cited by some Western commentators who argue against the idea of including these countries in the club of permanent, veto-wielding states.

At the same time, the draft G-4 reform proposals may leave over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide without any permanent representation on the UN security council. This is a highly controversial issue within the Islamic world and would adversely impact the UN's credibility in the hotspots of the Middle East and in the Islamic world. In June 2005, the foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called for a permanent Muslim seat on the UN Security Council.

Recent resistance to the reform draft proposals emanating from the G-4 states can be attributed in part to this highly sensitive issue. The US and several Western states have objected to any proposal that gives new members any veto powers, and within the African Union, Egypt has led resistance to a proposal by Nigeria to adopt a version of the G-4 proposals that removes the right of veto for new members, and may enable the creation of a reformed council that does not have any permanent members with a predominantly Muslim identity.

Role of members and non-members

Decisions in the 15-member Security Council on all substantive matters—for example, a decision calling for direct measures related to the settlement of a dispute—require the affirmative votes of nine members. A negative vote—a veto—by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal, even if it has received the required number of affirmative votes. Abstention is not regarded as a veto. Since the Security Council's inception, China (ROC/PRC) has used 5 vetoes; France, 18; Russia/USSR, 122; the United Kingdom, 32; and the United States, 79. The majority of the USSR vetoes were in the first ten years of the Council's existence, and the numbers since 1984 have been: China, 2; France, 3; Russia, 4; the United Kingdom, 10; and the United States, 42.

A state that is a member of the UN, but not of the Security Council, may participate in Security Council discussions in which the Council agrees that the country's interests are particularly affected. In recent years, the Council has interpreted this loosely, enabling many countries to take part in its discussions. Non-members routinely are invited to take part when they are parties to disputes being considered by the Council.

Role of the Security Council

Under Chapter Six of the Charter, "Pacific Settlement of Disputes", the Security Council "may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute". The Council may "recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment" if it determines that the situation might endanger international peace and security. These recommendations are not binding on UN members.

Under Chapter Seven, the Council has broader power to decide what measures are to be taken in situations involving "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression". In such situations, the 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 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. Decisions taken under Chapter Seven, such as economic sanctions, are binding on UN members.

The UN's role in international collective security is defined by the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the power to:

  • Investigate any situation threatening international peace;
  • Recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute;
  • 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; and
  • Enforce its decisions militarily, if necessary.

The United Nations has helped prevent many outbreaks of international violence from growing into wider conflicts. It has opened the way to negotiated settlements through its service as a center of debate and negotiation, as well as through UN-sponsored fact-finding missions, mediators, and truce observers. UN peacekeeping forces, comprised of troops and equipment supplied by member nations, have usually been able to limit or prevent conflict. Some conflicts, however, have proven to be beyond the capacity of the UN to influence. Key to the success of UN peacekeeping efforts is the willingness of the parties to a conflict to come to terms peacefully through a viable political process.


The legally binding nature of Security Council Resolutions has been the subject of some controversy. It is generally agreed that 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. The Council is also empowered to make resolutions under Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes); most authorities do not consider these to be legally binding. The International Court of Justice suggested in the Namibia case that resolutions other than those made under Chapter VI can also be binding, a view that some Member States have questioned. It is beyond doubt however that those resolutions made outside these two Chapters dealing with the internal governance of the organization (such as the admission of new Member States) are legally binding, where the Charter gives the Security Council power to make them.

See also

External links

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