The Security Council is the UN’s premier decision-making body, empowered to impose legally-binding obligations on Member States. Conferred by the UN Charter with “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” the Council has a number of tools at its disposal for conflict prevention and management.
Chapter VI of the Charter authorizes the Council to make recommendations to resolve threats to international peace and security by various peaceful means. If this does not work, the Security Council may authorize enforcement measures under Chapter VII, including sanctions and military force.
The Security Council is composed of 15 Member States: five permanent members (also known as the P5), made up of the “Big Four” Allied Powers from World War II or their continuator states (the U.S., U.K., Russia, and China) plus France; and 10 rotating non-permanent members, elected to two-year terms by the UN General Assembly on the basis of equitable geographic distribution among regional groups. Votes on non-procedural matters require the concurrence of the P5, effectively giving them a veto over such decisions.
Since its establishment, the Council has served as a key forum for addressing security challenges. The Council has: authorized more than 70 peacekeeping missions in some of the world’s most dangerous places; put in place international sanctions targeting the finances and access to weapons of rogue regimes like North Korea and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda; and sought to deepen international cooperation on everything from terrorist financing to nuclear nonproliferation.
Nevertheless, the P5’s veto power has, at times, prevented the Council from fully asserting its role as a guarantor of global order. This was especially true when U.S.-Soviet tensions were at their height during the Cold War. While the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought on a period of thawing relations and increased cooperation, recent disputes over crises in Syria, Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, and Yemen have exposed ongoing divisions among the P5 and limited the Council’s effectiveness in some contexts.