The role of the United Nations Security Council

The UN Security Council (the Council) was established in 1946 under the UN Charter and is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is one of six principal organs of the UN and is generally viewed as the apex of the UN system (although its powers and functions are separate to the UN Secretary-General).

Men in suits sitting around a curved table
Norman J.O. Makin (Australia) chairing the first Session of the Security Council on 17 January 1946. (Credit: UN.org)

The Council’s powers include the establishment of peacekeeping and special political missions, authorisation of military enforcement action, the imposition of international sanctions on member states, and the ability to refer matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is the only body in the UN system that can make decisions that are legally binding on all members.

The Council also has an important role in the governance of the UN system. It has responsibility for approving the admission of new member states to the UN, the appointment of the UN Secretary-General and senior UN officials, and is jointly responsible with the UN General Assembly for the election of judges to the International Court of Justice.

Functions

The Security Council has unique responsibility and decision making powers and has a range of tools at its disposal.

When faced with a potential conflict, the first response of the Council is to recommend to the parties that they reach agreement through peaceful means. The Council may appoint, or ask the UN Secretary General to appoint, special representatives to assist and guide efforts towards conflict resolution.

In cases where conflict is occurring, the Council may issue ceasefire directives, send in UN peacekeeping forces or use enforcement actions, such as sanctions.

With or without agreement of national governments, the Council can take steps to protect civilians caught in the conflict, for example by allowing access across national borders for humanitarian organisations. The Council can direct Government’s to limit stockpiling of certain weapons or disarm, for example by nuclear non-proliferation and destruction of chemical weapons.

The Council’s day-to-day functions include the review of UN peacekeeping operations, consultations on specific country situations and monitoring the implementation of UN sanctions regimes through the work of its sanctions committees.

Membership

The Council is made up of 15 Member States. There are five permanent Members (the P5) - the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, and the United States - and 10 non-permanent Members (the E10) elected by the UN General Assembly to serve for two-year terms.

Elections of non-permanent Members are staggered, with five elected each year. A retiring Member is not eligible for immediate re-election. In 1963, the UN General Assembly decided the geographic distribution of the 10 non-permanent Members would consist of three from the African group, two from the Asian group, two from the Latin American and Caribbean group, two from the Western European and Others group and one from the Eastern European group. Australia is a member of the Western European and Others group.

Decision-making

The Council is the only UN body that allows use of the veto. The veto is exercised when a country votes against a draft decision and so prevents its adoption. It can only be used by the five permanent Members.

Article 27 of the UN Charter distinguishes between procedural and non-procedural (substantive) matters in Council decision-making.

For decisions on procedural matters, such as working practices or organisation of the agenda, at least nine Members must vote in favour of the decision for it to pass.

For decisions on substantiative matters, such as establishing a peacekeeping force or sanctions regime, the decision again needs at least nine Members to vote in favour. But those countries voting in favour must include all the permanent members - “including the concurring votes of the permanent members”.

A resolution will also to fail if seven Members vote against the resolution or abstain from voting.

Last Updated: 17 March 2015