The Charter of the United Nations – an international treaty – obligates member states to settle their disputes by peaceful means, in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered. They are to refrain from the threat or use of force against any state, and may bring the dispute before the Security Council.
The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Council may convene at any time, whenever peace is threatened. In contrast to the decisions made by the General Assembly, all Member States are obligated under the UN Charter to carry out the Security Council’s decisions.
There are 15 Council members. Five of these — China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States — are permanent members. The other 10 are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Member States continue to discuss changes in Council membership and working methods to reflect today’s political and economic realities. Decisions of the Council require nine yes votes. Except in votes on procedural questions, a decision cannot be made if there is a no vote, or veto, by a permanent member.
When the Council considers a threat to international peace, it first explores ways to settle the dispute peacefully. It may suggest principles to the parties for a peaceful settlement, appoint special representatives, ask the Secretary-General to use his good offices, or undertake investigation and mediation. It has developed and refined the use of non-military measures including arms embargoes, travel banks, and restrictions to guard against the exploitation of natural resources to fuel conflicts, as well as taking a lead role in the coordination of international counter-terrorism efforts. In the event that a dispute has erupted into armed conflict, the Council tries to secure a ceasefire. It may send a peacekeeping mission to help the parties maintain the truce and to keep opposing forces apart.
The Council may, in some cases, authorize the utilization of military force by a coalition of member states or by a regional organization or arrangement. This can only be carried out as a last resort when all possible peaceful means of settling a dispute have been exhausted, or after a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace or an act of aggression have been determined to exist.
In order to hold combatants accountable for their actions, the Council has also created international tribunals to prosecute those accused of grave human rights violations and serious breaches of international humanitarian law, including genocide.
In addition to its responsibility to maintain international peace and security, the Council also makes recommendations to the General Assembly to appoint a new Secretary-General and to admit new Members to the UN.
Security Council Decisions
Security Council decisions are formal expressions of the will of the Council. In contrast to the decisions taken by the General Assembly, those taken by the Security Council are legally binding. As Article 25 of the UN Charter states, “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”
Much like the General Assembly, most of the decisions adopted by the Security Council are made by consensus. However, when there is no consensus and decisions are put to a vote, the minimum number of votes needed to take action on an issue is determined by whether the item is procedural or substantive. According to Article 27 of the UN Charter, each member of the Security Council has one vote. Decisions on procedural matters require a minimum of nine ‘yes’ votes. Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters require a minimum of nine ‘yes’ votes including the concurring votes of the permanent members. Any member that is a party to a dispute must abstain from voting.
Except for votes on procedural questions which are determined by a simple majority, action cannot be taken on an issue that is brought before the Security Council if any one of the permanent members vote ‘no’ on a draft resolution. The ability of a permanent member to stop a draft resolution from being adopted by voting ‘no’ is called the “veto power.” The difference between what is considered a procedural decision and what is substantive is an interesting one. In A/RES/267 (III), adopted in April 1949, the General Assembly made recommendations to the Security Council under the authority granted to it in Article 10 of the UN Charter regarding which decisions should be considered procedural.
All five permanent members have exercised the right of veto at one time or another. If a permanent member does not fully agree with a proposed resolution but does not wish to cast a veto, it has been a long standing practice that it may choose to abstain (i.e., decline to vote for or against at proposal), thus allowing the resolution to be adopted if it obtains the required number of nine favourable votes.
Under Chapter VII, the Council can take measures to enforce its decisions and ensure that mandates are fulfilled. It can impose economic sanctions or order an arms embargo. On rare occasions, the Council has authorized Member States to use “all necessary means,” including collective military action, to see that its decisions are carried out.
Working Methods of the Security Council
A. Rules of Procedure
On 17 January 1946, the Security Council met for the first time in London and adopted provisional rules of procedure. The provisional rules that were presented to the Council at its first meeting were the result of lengthy debates in a Security Council sub-committee called the Executive Committee of the UN Preparatory Commission. The Commission continued to discuss the draft for several months but in late June 1946 decided that it could not agree on a definitive set of rules of procedure. The Provisional Rules have since been amended eleven times. Although the Provisional Rules have not been amended since 1982, the Security Council has clarified its working methods and procedures by notes of the President (see S/2010/507, S/2008/847, S/2007/749, S/2006/507 and S/2006/78) and other means.
B. Format of Meetings
According to Rule 48, “Unless it decides otherwise, the SC shall meet in public. Any recommendation to the GA regarding the appointment of the SG shall be discussed and decided at a private meeting.” In practice, the Council convenes: 1) Public meetings, 2) Private meetings, 3) Informal consultations, or 4) Informal interactive dialogues.
There are four types of public meetings:
- Open Debate: this format often focuses on thematic issues and typically involves the diversity of speakers including members of the Secretariat (e.g., the Secretary-General), representatives of non-governmental organizations, Council members and non-Council members, and other persons who might provide assistance to the Council as it examines a particular agenda item.
- Debate: this format is typically used to focus on disputes or situations in a particular country. Non-Council members that are directly concerned or affected or have special interest in the matter under consideration may be invited to participate in the discussion upon their request.
- Briefings: this format is used to update Council members on the status of a dispute or situation. While briefings may be conducted during open debates or debates, when briefings are scheduled as a separate meeting, only Council members are allowed to deliver statements. Briefings are often followed by informal consultations of the whole which are closed to the public.
- Adoption: this format is convened when the Council is ready to take action on a draft resolution. Council members are able to make statements before and after they vote on the resolution. No briefings are made during adoption meetings.
Every public meeting is followed by a Press Release. In addition to the public formats there are two types of private meetings:
- Private meeting: Non-Council members may be invited to participate in the discussion upon their request and briefings may be conducted just as they would during a public meeting, the only difference is that there is no public record of the meeting. A verbatim copy of private meetings is kept by the Secretary General. Pursuant to rule 55 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, a communiqué is issued at the close of each private meeting.
- Troop contributing countries (TCC): Security Council resolution 1353 (2001) outlines when TCC meetings should take place and who should be invited. This type of meeting takes place in the ECOSOC or Trusteeship Council chamber instead of the Security Council itself. TCC meetings are presided over by the President of the Council.
Additional formats include:
- Informal consultations of the whole: These are held in private with all 15 Council members present. Such consultations are held in the Security Council Consultations Room, have an agreed agenda and interpretation, and may involve one or more briefers. The consultations are closed to non-Council Member States. There are no official records of informal consultations.
- Informal interactive dialogues: These informal private meetings of the Security Council members are convened in order to hold an off-the-record discussion with one or more non-Council Member States. The informal dialogues are presided over by the Council President and take place in a meeting room other than the Council Chamber or Consultations Room.They are sometimes used to allow a party or parties to a dispute to meet with Council members outside the Council’s formal chambers. This is intended to give representatives of all parties to the conflict an opportunity to have their perspectives heard on the issues dividing them. Only parties that have been invited can attend. There are no official records of informal dialogues.
- “Arria-formula” meetings: These meetings are a relatively recent practice of the members of the Security Council. Like the informal consultations of the whole of the Security Council, they are not envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations or the Security Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Under Article 30 of the Charter, however, the Council is the master of its own procedure and has the latitude to determine its own practices.
The “Arria-formula meetings” are very informal, confidential gatherings which enable Security Council members to have a frank and private exchange of views. Such informal gatherings do not constitute an activity of the Council and are convened at the initiative of a member or members of the Council rather than by the President. This format allows Council members to take the initiative to convene meetings Participation in such meetings is for individual members to decide upon and there have been instances when some member chose not to attend. They provide interested Council members an opportunity to engage in a direct dialogue with high representatives of Governments and international organizations — often at the latter’s request — as well as non-State parties with whom they believe it would be beneficial to hear and/or to whom they may wish to convey a message., on matters with which they are concerned and which fall within the purview of responsibility of the Security Council.
“Arria-formula” meetings are held in a Conference Room or at a Permanent Mission and not in the Security Council Consultation Room. The convenor issues a written invitation to the other fourteen members, indicating the place, date and time of the “Arria-formula meeting”, as well as the name of the party to be heard, by a fax from his/her Mission rather than by notification from the Secretariat.
The Security Council has broad power and authority to invite any non-Council member or individual to participate in its meetings. In accordance with rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedure, all States, whether or not members of the United Nations, can be invited to participate in Council meetings when: (a) a Member State of the United Nations brings a matter to the attention of the Council in accordance with Article 35 (1) of the Charter; (b) a Member State or a non-Member State is a party to a dispute under consideration by the Council (Article 32); and (c) the interests of a Member State are “specially affected” (Article 31).
In accordance with rule 39 of the provisional rules of procedure, members of the Secretariat or other persons may be invited to supply the Council with information or give other assistance in examining matters within its competence. Invitations under rule 39 can be grouped into the following five categories: (a) the Secretariat and subsidiary bodies of the Council; (b) other organs of the United Nations, subsidiary bodies or agencies; (c) regional and other intergovernmental organizations; and (d) other persons.
Role of the President of the Security Council
Under rule 18, the presidency of the Security Council rotates monthly in the English alphabetical order of the names of the members of the Council. If the country the President represents is directly involved in a dispute that is being considered by the Security Council, he/she may decide not to preside over the Council during the period that this issue is being discussed. When this occurs, the representative of the member next in English alphabetical order temporarily assumes the Presidency.
The functions of the President include: 1) presiding over meetings of the Council and informal consultations of the whole, 2) briefing non-Council members on the monthly programme of work of the Council at the beginning of the month, 3) holding bilateral meetings with concerned parties such as Member States, heads of principal organs and Agencies, chairmen of the regional groups and others, 4) representing the Security Council and delivering statements on behalf of the Council with the concurrence of Council members including informal meetings of the heads of the principal organs of the United Nations, and 5) delivering statements or remarks to the press following the conclusion of discussions in informal consultations of the whole and whenever Council members have reached an agreement on the text.
The Presidency of the Security Council is assigned to the State not the individual. As a result, any member of the government can preside over meetings during the month when their country has been assigned to the Presidency of the Council. In addition to presiding over meetings, the President also makes statements in his/her national capacity as a representative of the government.
When the UN was first created, the President’s role was largely procedural in nature. Today, the President’s ability to introduce thematic issues into the Council’s monthly programme of work (with the consent of Council members) has given the President a greater substantive role as well. Although it is not in the Charter or rules of procedure, this practice has been common since the early 1990s.
Programme of Work and Provisional Agenda
At the beginning of every month the Secretariat prepares a tentative forecast of the programme of work of the Security Council for the President of the Council. The forecast covers in particular those matters that may be taken up during the month pursuant to earlier decisions of the Council. The fact that a matter is or is not included in the forecast carries no implication that it will or will not be taken up during the month. The actual programme of work will be determined by developments and the views of members of the Council. As noted above, one of the President’s responsibilities is to brief members on the Security Council’s programme of work at the beginning of the month.
The provisional agenda for each formal meeting of the Council is drawn up by the Secretary-General and distributed to the representatives of Council members. The provisional agenda is first approved in informal consultations and before being adopted at the beginning of a formal meeting.
Every meeting in the Security Council chamber – whether public or private — has a speaker’s list. Council Members usually let the President know in advance if they wish to make a statement but can decide to do so during the course of a meeting as well by going up quietly and making their intentions known. Members of the Council do not raise their placards or hands in order to speak during a formal meeting.
When the Secretary-General of other senior Secretariat officials, senior UN staff from other Offices, Departments or UN agencies, are invited to speak they go first. If there are NGO representatives or other individuals, they would go next.
If an agenda item is about the situation in a particular country, the representative of that country would go after the Secretary-General or other Secretariat officials. Council members would go next. At the conclusion of the Speaker’s List of Council members, the last person to speak is the President who speaks in his/her national capacity and then resumes his/her functions as President of the Council to either continue chairing or to conclude the meeting.
When non-Council members or other governmental bodies with Observer status are invited to speak, they usually speak after Council members.
During informal meetings, however, there is no Speaker’s List and in this context, Members may raise their hands to indicate they wish to speak.
During informal consultations and informal interactive dialogues, the members of the Security Council agree that, as a general rule, the President of the Council should adhere to a speakers’ list. However, the members of the Security Council also encourage the President to facilitate interaction by inviting any participant in the consultations to speak at any time, irrespective of the order of the prescribed speakers’ list, when the discussion requires it. The members of the Security Council do not discourage each other from taking the floor more than once, in the interest of making consultations more interactive.
All documents issued by the Security Council, except resolutions, require consensus of Council members. The documents prepared by the Council include:
Elements to the Press: This consists of bullet points that outline what the President of the Security Council should say to the press. The President has discretion on what to say.
- Press Statement: A Press Release is distributed following every public meeting in the Security Council chamber which summarizes the discussion that took place during the meeting.
- Presidential Statement (PRST): The content is more general than a resolution, it can contain request the SG to report on a crisis, and convey the Council’s concerns. The PRST is a decision of the Council. However, normally, when the Council wants to take a more ‘operational’ decision, such as establishing a new body, it will do so by a resolution.
- Resolution: Council members can vote for, against or abstain from voting. Any member of the P-5 can veto a resolution. Without going into the scholarly debate of the legally binding effect of resolutions adopted under Chapter VI versus Chapter VII, one should note that, under Article 25 of the Charter, the Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.
For more information about the Security Council, see this presentation from the 2012 MUN Workshop in New York: Introduction to the Work of the Security Council