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UN Security Council: To the Rescue!

Have You Ever?

Have you ever mediated a fight or disagreement between family or friends? What was the fight about? Did it involve differing ideas, beliefs, values, and interests, or was it a simple misunderstanding? How did you de-escalate the situation and get participants to cooperate? If you’ve ever been in this position, chances are you’ve developed key conflict-resolution skills.

Here’s Why

Conflict mediation skills are not only useful for resolving disagreements between friends, but are especially critical in international relations. The group that addresses large-scale, global conflicts, such as civil wars, terrorism, armed conflicts, and crimes against humanity, is known as the United Nations Security Council. 

UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council is one of six organs of the United Nations. It is a deliberative body composed of five permanent and ten non-permanent member states. The official mission of the Security Council is “the maintenance of international peace and security”. It has a number of powerful tools at its disposal to accomplish this mission. 

How It Works

The Security Council was founded along with the entire United Nations in the aftermath of World War II. The first session took place on January 17, 1946 in the United Kingdom. The member states present were: Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, France, United Kingdom, United States, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, and the USSR. 

The Security Council has five permanent members, commonly referred to as the P5 - United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France - and ten non-permanent members elected for two-year, nonconsecutive terms by the UN General Assembly. The ten non-permanent members are geographically represented as such: three from African states, two from Asian-Pacific states, one from Eastern European states, two from Latin American and Caribbean states, and two from Western European and Other states. The president of the Security Council changes each month, shifting according to the English alphabetical order of the member’s names. P5 countries have the right to exercise veto power, meaning they can unilaterally stop a resolution from being passed by the entire council.

The Powers

Unlike other UN bodies, the Security Council holds the power to pass binding resolutions that are enforceable by law. A resolution requires nine “yes” votes to pass and no veto from any P5 members. 

Two major responsibilities of the Security Council are imposing sanctions and establishing peacekeeping missions. Imposing political and economic sanctions upon an international aggressor can deter harmful behavior and incentivize world leaders to cooperate with the international community. Common sanction measures include asset freezes, travel bans, arms embargoes, and trading restrictions, depending on what makes sense for the conflict at hand. The effectiveness of UN sanctions relies heavily on their implementation and subsequent enforcement. 

UN Peacekeeping Missions are teams deployed to a country or region experiencing a conflict that requires de-escalation and mediation. To set up a Peacekeeping Mission, The Security Council passes a resolution and creates a mandate detailing the goals of the mission and the specific role the Peacekeeping forces will have. The Security Council is then responsible for monitoring the success of the mission and can decide to continue, end, or change the mandate. Since 1948, there have been over 70 Peacekeeping Missions across Africa, Europe, and Asia. 

Why Care?

The Security Council has faced a number of criticisms throughout its history. In 2017, the UN General Assembly held a meeting to address structural reform for the Security Council. Topics discussed ranged from P5 veto power to the underrepresentation of developing countries. African, Latin American, and Caribbean states have spoken out about the underrepresentation of developing nations on the Security Council. Since sanction regimes and Peacekeeping missions are located primarily in these regions, there has been a push for them to be proportionately represented. 

Veto power is particularly controversial. Since 1946, Russia has cast 143 vetoes, followed by the United States with 83 vetoes. During the Cold War (1947-1991), the United States and the Soviet Union often counter-vetoed resolutions to protect their national interests, rather than the collective interests of peace and security. More recently, China and Russia exercised veto power over a resolution condemning the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians during the civil war. The US has also been known to veto resolutions that place Israel, a US ally, in jeopardy. Overall, this has raised questions of biases and undemocratic practices that make the council ineffective at fulfilling its mission. 

The world has changed a lot since the UN was established in 1945. For one, the UN only had 50 member states then, compared to 193 today. Likewise, P5 membership was awarded to countries that emerged victorious from World War II, and hasn’t been majorly updated since. Therefore, we must question whether the Security Council, with its current structure, can adequately carry out its mission to maintain international peace and security if it is not representative of all the nations it is meant to serve.

Think Further

  1. If you could add another permanent member to the UN Security Council, which country would you choose and why?
  2. Should the P5’s veto power be abolished? Why or why not? 
  3. What other parts of civic society might require conflict-resolution skills? 

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Learn More

  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “United Nations Security Council.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/United-Nations-Security-Council. 
  2. United Nations. “United Nations Peacekeeping.” United Nations, United Nations, 2020, peacekeeping.un.org/en.
  3. United Nations. “United Nations Security Council |.” United Nations, United Nations, 2020, www.un.org/securitycouncil/.