Update: 19.08.2011

UN Security Council: Composition and areas of activity

Preservation of peace

The Security Council is the main organ responsible for the conservation of world peace and international security at the UN. In case of a breach of or threat to peace or international security, it has the possibility and to a certain degree the responsibility to act preventively and repressively. Mainly, it must attempt to work unanimously as facilitator, e.g. between civil war parties or in negotiations with dictatorial regimes. It is only when these less drastic measures don't show any effects that, according to the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council can decide on more severe measures, even against the will of affected states or parties. It has the right to intervene by peaceful or military means in the political and territorial integrity of a sovereign state. 

Areas of activity

During Cold War period the purpose of the UN was to oppose and prevent conflicts between member states. The role of the Security Council was limited almost exclusively to dealing with conflicts between sovereign states. Only gradually did the belief surface that world peace also substantially depended on human rights issues being respected.

Systematic breaches of human rights are among the most important reasons for ethnic, religious, social or political tensions. The understanding that human rights protection and the securing of peace are interconnected led to increased humanitarian interventions, especially since the end of the Cold War (at the end of the 1980s). 

After the collapse of the communist Soviet Union, the Security Council began to occupy itself icreasingly with civil wars and to interfere in a military way in the case of systematic and severe human rights breaches by totalitarian regimes. Such interventions occasionally occurred without the premise of interstate conflict. 

The Security Council also intervened if national governments became unable to govern and to protect human rights (failed state situations).

In recent times the Security Council is increasingly battling international terrorism (especially since 11 September 2001). 


The Security Council is currently composed of 15 members. The veto powers - China, France, USA, Russia and Great Britain - are each represented by one member and can block any decision with their position. The other ten seats are reserved for non-permanent members which are appointed for two years by the General Assembly. 

The question of the size of the Security Council has become more important again of late, especially because the number of UN member states has grown since the Security Council's last reform in 1965. And as it has the authority to interfere with the sovereignty of a country, as an intstitution it needs an increased democratic legitimation.

In addition, most of the new conflicts the UN Security Council deals with originate in developing or emerging nations. Another new tendency is that countries from the southern hemisphere supply the largest detachments of troops for peacekeeping missions and in this way contribute repeatedly to the diplomatic solution of conflicts. These aspects have lead to increased importance for a reform of the Security Council.


In the past, the Security Council has detected systematic human rights abuses or threats to world peace without being able to intervene effectively. The reasons were often of a political nature (for example in Tibet or Chechnya due to vetoes from China and Russia respectively). 

Moreover, the UN doesn't have troops of its own, which makes it strongly dependent upon the will of the member states. Finally, it is immensely difficult to implement economic sanctions so that civil society is not harmed (for example Iraq in the 1990s). This has led to intense reform attempts to improve the effectiveness of peaceful and military sanctions. The UN speaks of «smart sanctions».

© humanrights.ch / MERS - Hallerstr. 23 - CH-3012 Bern - Tel. +41 31 302 01 61