United Nations Security Council 101

2014•04•15 Peter Nadin

This is the first article in a series aimed at providing readers with an understanding of the UN Security Council. Here UNU’s own Peter Nadin offers a fundamental look at the origins, powers, instruments and activities of this premier forum in international politics. In part 2 you can learn what the UN Security Council is NOT before checking out ideas for its reform in part 3. See a full list of associated stories in the Related Articles section at the end of this page.

The United Nations Security Council is the premier forum in international politics. Through its decisions, mandated operations and enforcement actions the Council directly influences the present and future state of international peace and security. This article is the first in a series aimed at providing readers with an understanding of this most important institution. It is merely an introduction.

On 26 June 1945, at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, representatives of fifty countries signed the Charter of the United Nations. By inscribing their humble signatures to this document they would create the United Nations — an international organization imbued with humanity’s most generous impulses: charity, hope and faith. At the centre of this organization would reside arguably the most powerful institution of international relations ever conceived — the United Nations Security Council.

Under the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council is designated as the custodian of international peace and security. It has 15 members, each with one vote. The Council has the power to define threats to the peace and act on those threats by using a range of measures including peacemaking, sanctions and even the use of force.


The origins of the United Nations are found in the philosophical musings of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Roosevelt’s vision for post-war order was clear: “might be placed at the disposal of right”. For him and the other leaders this equation could only be answered by the institutionalization of the ‘Four Policemen’ concept. The idea being that in the post-war era — the Republic of China, the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Soviet Socialist Republics — should be enabled to act as the providers of security (or the ‘policemen’), while the other members of the international community would be the consumers of security.

The actual blueprints for the new organization were developed by the United States State Department and the United Kingdom Commonwealth Office, and debated at ‘the Washington conversations on the creation of an international peace and security organization’ held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC in the spring of 1944. At Dumbarton Oaks, discussion focused on the creation of a Council that would have the power and authority necessary to maintain international peace and security.

It was envisaged that the ‘Four Policemen’, later five (with France added at a later date), would act in concert through a Council and an international armed force would carry out the enforcement of decisions, with air power providing the backbone of such a force. Command and control of these forces would be managed by a Military Staff Committee, as an extension of the Combined Chiefs of Staff system that had operated in Europe during the Second World War. The committee would consist of military representatives of the Permanent Five plus other major states, to be included on the basis of contribution.

Force, however, was to be used only as a last resort. The Council possessed options and could first resort to the use of other instruments, notably sanctions. Chapter VII of the Charter sets out a very clear logical progression or escalation in a possible Council response. The first step in this progression of response is article 40, which refers to ‘provisional measures’ that can be taken in order not to inflame the situation. If compliance was not forthcoming, however, article 41 could be “employed to give effect” to the decisions of the Council. Article 41 contains a detailed list of possible sanctions that could be imposed in order to elicit compliance. If sanctions proved inadequate, step three — the final stage along the line of escalation — was the use of force; the basis for which is provided in Article 42.

The veto

The most contentious issue discussed at Dumbarton Oaks, and later at San Francisco, was the issue of the veto. In technical terms the veto is found in article 27 (3) of the Charter:

“Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members…”

In simple terms, the veto power allows any permanent member to cast a negative veto to block a resolution of the Council.

The veto was designed to act as an effective safeguard on the interests of the Permanent Five (P-5). This is because the permanent members could exercise the veto to protect their own interests or the interests of an ally or proxy; they could do this whenever they felt that the Council is encroaching on their ‘space’. Although, the veto can elicit paralysis, it also serves a useful function. This function is known as the concert function. By instituting the veto the UN was virtually insuring the participation of all the Great Powers. And so the world was presented with a stark choice at San Francisco in 1945, between “an organization with great power privilege” and “no organization at all”.

The veto allows the permanent members to manage their interactions in regard to their interests. When they all agree, action can be taken. When they disagree, action can be blocked. Areas of contention are therefore avoided and the Great Powers are separated, effectively averting direct confrontation.

Council activities

The envisaged processes of response of the Council were done away with, out of sheer practicality, and the Council began to work very differently from what was imagined at the outset. In its early years, the Council dealt with the ‘questions’ of Spain, Greece, Free Trieste, Iran, Indonesia, and India-Pakistan, before taking on the now immovable Palestinian question, the Suez Crisis, the Congo, Cyprus and later South-Western Africa. In addressing these questions the Council employed the use of military observers and later interposition peacekeepers, as well as commissions of investigation; the Council even went as far as to establish an international protectorate known as the Free Territory of Trieste and deployed a UN force in the Congo.

Since the end of the cold war, the previously underutilized Council became hyperactive — dealing with multiple situations across four continents. During the 1990s, the Council began to intervene in a particularly traumatic and complex series of internal conflicts.

The Council launched effective assistance missions in El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique and a more ambitious transitional administration mission in Cambodia (which was relatively effective). Emboldened by the positive outcomes, member states carrying heightened expectations grew ever more ambitious. They soon deployed large numbers of peacekeepers to Somalia and the former Yugoslavia to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The conceptual ground on which missions were based was flawed and both operations were ultimately ineffective. The sudden retrenchment (a reduction in number of missions authorized) in UN peacekeeping following the hasty withdrawal of the UN Mission from Somalia (UNOSOM II) resulted, in part, in the collapse of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). The failure of the Security Council to halt the genocide in Rwanda is surely its supreme failure.

Today, the Council generally responds to three types of situations: (1) chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons proliferation; (2) international conflict; and (3) intra-state conflict. More recently, the Council has also developed a (4) crosscutting and (5) quasi-legislative agenda (table 1).
Table 1: The Situations of the UN Security Council

Situations Description Examples
International Conflict International conflicts are situations of violent armed conflict fought between two or more member states. Usually these conflicts are waged over issues such as border disputes, access to resources, historical grievances, opposing strategic interests or the annexation of territory for reasons of culture or ethnicity (including the protection of minority in a neighboring country). Iraq-Iran,
Aouzou Strip (Libya-Chad),
Intra-state Conflict These types of conflicts can involve a range of actors — non-state actors and national governments. Intra-state conflict is rooted in the complex fabric of the society of a country and usually defined by matters of ethnicity, sectarianism, economic inequality and government effectiveness. El Salvador,
Sierra Leone,
Democratic Republic of the Congo,
South Sudan
Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation The Council views weapons proliferation as a threat to international peace and security, because these weapons when deployed have the potential to kill large numbers of people. The Council, however, does not view all such weapons programmes as threats to international peace and security. Iran,
North Korea
Quasi-legislative Since the US terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the Council has acted in a quasi-legislative manner. The effectiveness of the Council in its legislative capacity relies on the implementation of legislative resolutions by member states. Resolutions 1373 and 1540 pertaining to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction compelled states to adopt changes to their domestic law as ‘legislated’ by the Council. Terrorism,
Non-state actors, Weapons of mass destruction
Crosscutting The Council has also undertaken crosscutting or thematic work, passing resolutions on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, women in peace, conflict and children and armed conflict, and small arms. Protection of civilians,
Women in peace and conflict,
Children and armed conflict,
Small arms


Over the past 70 years, the Council has developed a set of instruments (table 2) that it has used to respond to these situations. In an increasingly complex environment, the Council has proven itself remarkably innovative. At the same time, the Council has also made significant blunders in the use of these instruments and has at times failed to learn from past mistakes. In Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, the Council adopted responses that were later proven to be wholly inadequate. These abject failures damaged the credibility of the Council and tarnished the UN brand.

Table 2: The Instruments of the UN Security Council

Instrument Description Example
Traditional Peacekeeping Involves the deployment of lightly armed troops whose task it is to monitor and report on the disputant parties’ adherence to a particular agreement, usually a ceasefire. A traditional peacekeeping force places itself between the disputant parties. This creates a buffer zone separating the parties’ militaries, and situates the UN operation in the middle as an interpositional force. UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF)
Special Political Missions (SPMs) SPMs are non-military missions with a confined focus. Usually SPMs render limited assistance to national governments on issues such as electoral and rule of law reforms. UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)
Multidimensional Peacekeeping These interventions combine military and civilian tasks, which generally include: electoral organization, support and supervision; humanitarian relief operations including the protection of access corridors; demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR); security sector reform (SSR); and human rights and rule of law promotion. UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO)
Transitional Administrations The most extensive style of intervention, in terms of an encroachment on national sovereignty is the UN protectorate or state surrogate model. In these interventions, the UN assumes all the basic civil administrative functions of a national government, including policing, administration of the judicial system and reconstruction of infrastructure. UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK),
UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET)
Residual Peacebuilding It has become common for the Council to authorize transitions from multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations to smaller longer-term peacebuilding offices. These offices, handed off to the General Assembly and the Peacebuilding Commission, are designed to ensure the completion of residual peacebuilding tasks and to consolidate gains made toward long-term peace and stability. UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL)
Comprehensive Economic Sanctions The imposition of comprehensive sanctions can completely isolate a country internationally. Due to the interconnected nature of international commerce and trade, the imposition of economic sanctions can swiftly bring a country’s economy to its knees. Moreover, diplomatic sanctions, the prohibition of cultural exchanges and sporting matches can effectively preclude a sanctioned country’s citizenry from actively and formally participating in global life, only serving to further enhance the general feeling of isolation experienced in the sanctioned country. Iraq (Resolution 661)
Targeted Sanctions (Travel Bans & Assets Freezes) Targeted sanctions are designed to be more precise, and are targeted in such a way as to affect the finances and/or liberties of a targeted individual, company or non-government organization. This type of pressure applied specifically to targeted leaders, personally affects those making the decisions. The logic of targeted sanctions being that when  political elites are deprived of luxury goods, international travel, their assets and access to finances, they will defer to their own personal interests; and as a consequence abandon deviant policies and pursue compliance with Security Council demands.
Commodity Specific Sanctions Commodity specific sanctions are designed to deny the sale of certain commodities. These types of sanctions are essentially a form of partial economic sanction, often directed at severing or at least curtailing the independent income streams of spoilers and governments, which sustain conflict — include oil, diamonds and timber. Sierra Leone (diamonds),
Liberia (timber, diamonds and oil)
Remonstrance (and Demand) Refers to an appeal, a request of the Council. In the context of the Council, a remonstrance is used as a form of influence, either a gentle reminder or an enforceable demand. A remonstrance is a form of words, no more, which does not carry the weight of action per se, but might accompany a threat (i.e. a specific or unspecific threat of article 41 measures) to convey its significance.
Arms Embargoes Arms embargoes are the most favoured of the sanctions tools used by the Council. Such embargoes are designed to deny or restrict availability of weapons. The rationale being that limiting access to new weaponry and ammunition will limit the conflict itself.
Peacemaking Encompasses the use of tools such as diplomacy and mediation to bring conflict to an end. The Council initiates, or more often supports, peacemaking efforts under Chapter VI of the Charter. Article 33 outlines the possible means through which peace can be encouraged — negotiation, enquiry, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, report to regional agencies or arrangements.
International Criminal Actions (including International Criminal Tribunals and International Criminal Court Referrals) In recent years, the Council has been actively engaged in the pursuit of international justice through the establishment of ad-hoc international criminal tribunals (Yugoslavia and Rwanda), special hybrid courts (Sierra Leone and Lebanon) and referrals (Darfur and Libya) to the International Criminal Court (ICC). International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,
ICC referral for Libya
Preventative Measures (including Preventive Deployment) The objective of prevention is simple — to prevent an initial outbreak of armed conflict or the escalation of an already existing one. The Security Council being reactionary, however, seldom acts before the fact. The only example of preventive deployment is the UN Preventive Deployment Force, which was deployed with a mandate to prevent the spread of the Balkans conflict into Macedonia. UN Preventative Deployment Force (UNPREDEP)
Multi-National Force (MNF) and Single Nation Force Authorisation Under this model, the Council, as the legitimate authority in international politics, would empower a regional actor or a group of nations to undertake the implementation of a specific Council set mandate. MNFs have been used often as stopgap measures, as there is the tendency for member-states to limit involvement in complex situations and to deploy risk-averse operations with narrow temporised mandates. Operation Alba (Italy),
INTERFET (led by Australia),
EUFOR Artemis,
Opération Serval (France)
Coalitions of the Willing The Council, essentially, issues the license for the use of force, as the legitimate licenser. The Council might place conditions upon the purpose and parameters of its use, broad or limited. Korean War
Gulf War


With the crisis in Syria entering its third year, the Council is again accused of being unable to suppress the various threats to international peace and security, which beset the world. This has led many critics to label the Council ineffective. At the heart of this criticism is the notion that the Council has “failed to act swiftly and effectively to contain international crises”. These criticisms are all valid. The Council certainly is hyperactive, reactive, selective and imperfect. But it still remains the go-to forum in a time of crisis, and is likely to remain so well into the future.

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Peter Nadin is an independent researcher based in Sydney, Australia. He has worked previously as a research assistant at the United Nations University, and interned with the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. His research interests include the politics of the UN Security Council and UN Peacekeeping Operations. Peter holds a Bachelor of Social Science/Arts (Hons) and a PhD from the University of Western Sydney.