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United Nations Security Council

Background Information

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United Nations Security Council (English)
مجلس الأمن الأمم المتحدة (Arabic)
联合国安全理事会 (Chinese)
Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies (French)
Совет Безопасности Организации Объединённых Наций (Russian)
Consejo de Seguridad de
Naciones Unidas (Spanish)
UN security council 2005.jpg
UN Security Council chamber in New York
Org type Principal Organ
Acronyms UNSC

Security Council President (rotating)

March 2008: Russia
Status Active
Established 1946

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the organ of the United Nations charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. Its powers, outlined in the United Nations Charter, include the establishment of peacekeeping operations, the establishment of international sanctions regimes, and the authorization for military action. Its powers are exercised through United Nations Security Council Resolutions.


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

Since its first meeting, the Council, which exists in continuous session, has traveled widely, holding meetings in many cities, such as Paris and Addis Ababa. For the most part, however, it has remained located at UN Headquarters — first at Lake Success in New York and then at its current home in New York City.

Significant changes in the Council’s composition have occurred on three occasions. In 1965, amendments to articles 23 and 27 of the Charter came into effect, increasing the number of elected members from six to ten.

In 1971, the General Assembly voted to remove the Republic of China representative, establishing that a delegate from the People's Republic of China was the legitimate representative of China. Because the issue was presented as one that involved which delegation would properly represent China instead of admission or expulsion of a member, this issue required only action by the General Assembly. Under typical circumstances, removal of a member from the Council requires endorsement from Council itself, or the amendment to article 23 that specifies the identity of the permanent members on the Council.

Similarly, there was no amendment to article 23 following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. In much less contentious circumstances the Russian Federation acceded to the former Soviet seat.


The Security Council as of 2008, showing permanent members in blue and currently elected members in green.

The basic structure of the UNSC is set out in Chapter V of the UN Charter.

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 role of president of the Security Council involves setting the agenda, presiding at its meetings and overseeing any crisis. It rotates in alphabetical order of the Security Council member nations' names in English.

There are two categories of membership in the UN Security Council: permanent members and elected members.

Permanent members

The Council seated five permanent members who were originally drawn from the victorious powers after World War II:

Two of the original members, the Republic of China and the Soviet Union, were later replaced by recognized successor states, even though Article 23 of the Charter of the United Nations has not been accordingly amended:

Since the stalemate of the Chinese Civil War, there have been two states claiming to represent "China" and thus 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 (which had lost mainland China and been in Taiwan since 1949) soon lost membership in all UN organs. In 1991, Russia, being the legal successor state to the Soviet Union acquired the originally-Soviet seat, including the Soviet Union's former representation in the Security Council.

The five permanent members of the Security Council are the only nations recognized as possessing nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although it lacks universal validity, as some nuclear nations have not 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. India, Pakistan and North Korea possess nuclear weapons outside of the anti-proliferation framework established by the Treaty. Israel does not officially confirm or deny having nuclear weapons, but is believed to.

In 2004, four of the five permanent members were also the world's top four weapons exporters when measured by arms value; China was seventh.

Each permanent member has the power to veto any substantive resolution. (See Veto power, below.)

The Permanent Representatives of the U.N. Security Council permanent members are Wang Guangya, Jean-Marc de La Sablière (until November 2007), Vitaly Churkin, John Sawers and Zalmay Khalilzad.

Elected members

Ten other members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms starting on 1 January, with five replaced each year. The members are chosen by regional groups and confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly. The African bloc chooses three members; the Latin America and the Caribbean, Asian, and Western European and Others blocs choose two members each; and the Eastern European bloc chooses one member. Also, one of these members is an Arab country, alternately from the Asian or African bloc.

The current (2008) elected members, with the regions they were elected to represent and their Permanent Representatives, are:

Country Regional bloc(s) Ambassador
Belgium Belgium Western Europe and Other Johan Verbeke
Burkina Faso Burkina Faso Africa Michel Kafando
Costa Rica Costa Rica Latin America and Caribbean Jorge Urbina Ortega
Croatia Croatia Eastern Europe Neven Jurica
Indonesia Indonesia Asia Marty Natalegawa
Italy Italy Western Europe and Other Marcello Spatafora
Libya Libya Africa, Arab Giadalla Azzoz Belgasem Ettalhi
Panama Panama Latin America and Caribbean Ricardo Alberto Arias
South Africa South Africa Africa Dumisani Kumalo
Vietnam Vietnam Asia Lê Lương Minh

Until 2000 Israel was the only United Nations member country not a member of any regional group and so could not be elected to the Security Council or become involved in many consultative UN bodies. Israel would normally fall within the Asia group but many Arab states blocked Israel's inclusion in this group. In 2000 Israel was granted temporary membership in the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) and this was extended indefinitely in 2004. Israel is limited in the activities that it can undertake as part of WEOG.

Veto power

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, 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 despite the wording of the Charter. Since the Security Council's inception, China (ROC/PRC) has used its veto six times; France 18 times; Russia/USSR 122 times; the United Kingdom 32 times; and the United States 81 times. The majority of Russian/Soviet vetoes were in the first ten years of the Council's existence. Since 1984, China (ROC/PRC) has vetoed three resolutions; France three; Russia/USSR four; the United Kingdom ten; and the United States 43.

Procedural matters are not subject to a veto, so the veto cannot be used to avoid discussion of an issue.

Status of non-members

A state that is a member of the UN, but not 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 interpreted this loosely, enabling many countries to take part in its discussions or not depending on how they interpret the validity of the country's interest. Non-members are routinely 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.

Then United States Secretary of State Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax while giving a presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. Foreign ministers and heads of government often appear in the UNSC in person to discuss issues.

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, or by any means 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 centre 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, although sometimes not. 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 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes that the Security Council has authority to refer cases to the Court, where the Court could not otherwise exercise jurisdiction. The Council exercised this power for the first time in March 2005, when it referred to the Court “the situation prevailing in Darfur since 1 July 2002”; since Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute, the Court could not otherwise have exercised jurisdiction. Australia and New Zealand have called on the Council to refer Robert Mugabe's alleged crimes to the International Criminal Court.


UN Security Council Resolutions
1 to 100 (1946–1953)
101 to 200 (1953–1965)
201 to 300 (1965–1971)
301 to 400 (1971–1976)
401 to 500 (1976–1982)
501 to 600 (1982–1987)
601 to 700 (1987–1991)
701 to 800 (1991–1993)
801 to 900 (1993–1994)
901 to 1000 (1994–1995)
1001 to 1100 (1995–1997)
1101 to 1200 (1997–1998)
1201 to 1300 (1998–2000)
1301 to 1400 (2000–2002)
1401 to 1500 (2002–2003)
1501 to 1600 (2003–2005)
1601 to 1700 (2005–2006)
1701 to 1800 (2006–2008)
1801 to 1900 (2008–2009)
1901 to 2000 (2009–2011)
2001 to 2100 (2011–present)

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. Resolutions made under Chapter VI, however, have no enforcement mechanisms and are generally considered to have no binding force under international law. In 1971, however, a majority of the then International Court of Justice (ICJ) members asserted in the non-binding Namibia advisory opinion that all UN Security Council resolutions are legally binding. This assertion by the ICJ has been countered by Erika De Wet and others. De Wet argues that Chapter VI resolutions cannot be binding. Her reasoning, in part states:

Allowing the Security Council to adopt binding measures under Chapter VI would undermine the structural division of competencies foreseen by Chapters VI and VII, respectively. The whole aim of separating these chapters is to distinguish between voluntary and binding measures. Whereas the pacific settlement of disputes provided by the former is underpinned by the consent of the parties, binding measures in terms of Chapter VII are characterised by the absence of such consent. A further indication of the non-binding nature of measures taken in terms of Chapter VI is the obligation on members of the Security Council who are parties to a dispute, to refrain from voting when resolutions under Chapter VI are adopted. No similar obligation exists with respect to binding resolutions adopted under Chapter VII... If one applies this reasoning to the Namibia opinion, the decisive point is that none of the Articles under Chapter VI facilitate the adoption of the type of binding measures that were adopted by the Security Council in Resolution 276(1970)... Resolution 260(1970) was indeed adopted in terms of Chapter VII, even though the ICJ went to some length to give the opposite impression.

In practice, the Security Council does not consider its decisions outside Chapter VII to be binding.

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.

If the council cannot reach consensus or a passing vote on a resolution, they may choose to produce a non-binding presidential statement instead of a Resolution. These are adopted by consensus. They are meant to apply political pressure — a warning that the council is paying attention and further action may follow.

Press statements typically accompany both resolutions and presidential statements, carrying the text of the document adopted by the body and also some explanatory text. They may also be released independently, after a significant meeting.

Security Council Chamber

The designated Security Council Chamber in the United Nations Building, designed by the Norwegian architect Arnstein Arneberg, was the specific gift of Norway. The mural painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from its ashes, symbolic of the world reborn after World War II. In the blue and gold silk tapestry on the walls and in the draperies of the windows overlooking the East River appear the anchor of faith, the wheat stems of hope, and the heart of charity.

Criticisms of the Security Council

There have been criticisms that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (who are all nuclear powers) have created an exclusive nuclear club whose powers are unchecked. While the General Assembly has true international representation, the United Nations Security Council doesn't. This has led to accusations that the UNSC only addresses the strategic interests and political motives of the permanent members, especially in humanitarian interventions - for example, protecting the oil-rich Kuwaitis in 1991 but poorly protecting resource-poor Rwandans in 1994. Any nation may be elected to serve a temporary term on the Security Council, but critics have suggested this is inadequate. Rather, they argue, the number of permanent members should be expanded to include non-nuclear powers, which would democratize the organization. Still other nations have advocated abolishing the concept of permanency altogether; under the government of Paul Martin, Canada advocated this approach.

Another criticism of the Security Council involves the veto power of the five permanent nations. As it stands, one veto from any of the "Big Five" (Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and France) can halt any possible action the Council may take. One nation's objection, rather than the opinions of a majority of nations, may cripple any possible UN armed or diplomatic response to a crisis. For instance, John J. Mearsheimer claimed that "Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members." However, Russia (and the Soviets) issued 122 vetoes while the United States only issued a total of 81 vetoes since the formation of the Security Council. The practice of the permanent members meeting privately and then presenting their resolutions to the full council as a fait accompli has also drawn fire; according to Erskine Childers, "the vast majority of members -- North as well as South -- have made very clear...their distaste for the way three Western powers behave in the Council, like a private club of hereditary elite-members who secretly come to decisions and then emerge to tell the grubby elected members that they may now rubber-stamp those decisions."

Other critics and even proponents of the Security Council question its effectiveness and relevance because in most high profile cases, there are essentially no consequences for violating a Security Council resolution. The most prominent and dramatic example of this became the Darfur crisis, in which Arab Janjaweed militias, supported by the Sudanese government, committed repeated acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the indigenous population. Thus far, an estimated 300,000 civilians have been killed in what is the largest case of mass murder in the history of the region, yet the U.N. has continuously failed to act against this severe and ongoing human rights issue. Another such case occurred in the Srebrenica massacre where Serbian troops committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims in the largest case of mass murder on the European continent since World War II. Srebrenica had been declared a U.N. "safe area" and was even protected by 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers, but the U.N. forces did nothing to prevent the massacre.

Other critics object to the idea that the U.N. is a democratic organization, saying that it represents the interests of the governments of the nations who form it and not necessarily the individuals within those nations. World federalist Dieter Heinrich points out that the powerful Security Council system does not have distinctions between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches: the UN Charter gives all three powers to the Security Council.

Membership reform

The G4 nations (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) support one another’s bid for permanent seats on the Security Council.

There has been discussion of increasing the number of permanent members. The countries who have made the strongest demands for permanent seats are Brazil, Germany, India and Japan. Indeed, Japan and Germany are the UN's second and third largest funders respectively, while Brazil, the largest Latin American nation, and India, the world's largest democracy and second most populous country, are two of the largest contributors of troops to UN-mandated peace-keeping missions. This project has found opposition in a group of countries called Uniting for Consensus.

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

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