UN Security Council

How important is the UN Security Council in deciding whether or not an intervention will take place?



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The UNSC (United Nations Security Council) is a key organ of the United Nations, whose main responsibility is to ensure international security and peace. The UN Charter empowers the UN Security Council to create international sanctions, form peacekeeping operations, and approve military actions by means of invoking relevant Security Council resolutions (UN Security Council 2017). The Council is made up of five permanent members plus 10 other member states. The five permanent members are: The United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. These permanent members have a veto power that enables them to prevent the adoption of various proposals by other members (Lendman 2015). The Council makes various interventions, such as military, diplomatic, or humanitarian, with the goal of meetings its objectives. However, such intervention is impacted by various factors, including the perceived interests of the individual permanent members. The premise of this essay, therefore, is to critically examine the importance of the UN Security Council in deciding whether or not an intervention shall take place. The use shall be made of various case studies in which the UN Security Council has either decided to make an intervention, or not, and the reasons behind its decision in each of these cases.

Duties and powers

The UN Security Council, acting on powers bestowed on it by Article 24(1) of the United Nations Charter, is charged with the key responsibility of maintaining security and peace on the international front (Farrall & Prantl 2016). During the UN Security Council formal meetings, Council Members get to decide if a given situation is a threat to international security and peace. Based on the position reached by Council Members, the necessary response to be taken is also arrived at. During the Cold War, permanent members of the UN Security Council relied on the use of veto power to vote on certain proposed resolutions. However, with the need of the Cold War, relations between Council Members improved significantly, as evidenced by the considerable decreases in vetoes on important resolutions. For example, during its first 45 years, the United Nations had a total of 193 vetoes but between 1990 and 2003, only 12 vetoes were recorded. The decisions made by the UN Security Council, along with enforcement actions and mandated operations, ‘directly influences the present and future state of international peace and security’ (Nadin 2014, n.p.).

The Charter thus gives the UN Security Council the powers to deploy peace-keeping operations, impose sanctions, and authorise military operations with a view to enabling the Council to restore international order by resolving conflicts. Although the Security Council has come under heavy criticism ever since it was established, a considerable number of domestic and international disputes have come under the Council’s agenda (von Einsiedel, Malone & Ugarte 2015). Once a conflict comes under the Council’s agenda, the onus is on Council members to call formal meetings with the intention of discussing the matter at hand and arrive at a decision on whether they will pass resolutions. These resolutions encompass such Council orders as calling for troop withdrawal or ceasefire, condemning the parties who pose a threat to international security and peace, deploying UN observers whose duty it is to monitor ceasefires, and encouraging diplomatic negotiations among parties in conflict (UN Security Council 2017). In the event that the parties in dispute fail to abide by these orders, the Council may be compelled to intervene.

Decision to intervene

Scholars contend that the UN Security Council’s decision-making process hinges on the interests of its permanent members who have veto power and continuous membership. Such interests impact the passage of resolutions, in addition to hindering certain issues, from entering the Council’s agenda through exercising the veto power of permanent members. This power-politics debate has received widespread coverage in literature, although only limited research has so far been carried out to assess its validity (Walling 2008).  Most scholars who study the UN hold a common view that in arriving at its decisions on whether to intervene or not, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council dominate such a decision-making process. Accordingly, the interests of these major powers are reflected in the agenda and the ensuing resolutions. While permanent members do not enjoy the privilege to set agendas, they could still threaten to use their veto power in influencing the resolutions. In order for the Council to pass any resolutions, it must receive the backing of the five permanent members and four other members. However, Council members endeavour to avoid issues that could jeopardise the crucial interests of the five permanent members. This is because its inclusion could decelerate the decision-making process, not to mention that it could put a strain on the Council’s limited resources.

On account of its mandate through the UN Charter to maintain international security and peace, the Security Council is from time to time requested to intervene in case of interstate conflicts in a bid to settle the ensuing disputes. It is however important to note that the Council will on certain occasions fail to find a justification for its involvement in such intrastate conflicts (von Einsiedel et al. 2015). The reasoning behind this is that should the Council get involved in domestic disputes, this is likely to violate the principles of non-intervention and sovereignty in internal affairs. To avoid violating such international principles, the Council is called upon to identify conflict that constitutes a threat to international security and peace, thereby justifying its involvement.

Forms of interventions:

Interventions by the UN Security Council could assume many forms:

Military intervention

This refers to a deliberate act of a group of nations or a nation to try and resolve an ongoing controversy through the introduction of military forces.  An example of a military intervention is the one led by the NATO coalition in March 2011 in Libya, allegedly to execute Resolution 1973 by the Security Council (UN Security Council 2017)

Humanitarian intervention

This entails contravening the sovereignty of a state with the objective of safeguarding the lives of civilians from an oppressive regime, civil war, or famine. Humanitarian interventions are already under-way in Iraq and Somali (Nadin 2014), while there have been previous discussions to have it introduced in Liberia, Haiti, and Bosnia.

Diplomatic intervention

This form of intervention hinges on the premise that war is largely a social construct (Walling 2008). Accordingly, diplomatic intervention entails communicative practices with the aim of altering the experience of war for the better.

We have several situations where the Council has intervened in certain conflicts and not others following the threat by one or more permanent members to use their veto powers to veto any resolution. For example, the Council was considering sanctioning the use of force in Kosovo but had to back down after Russia, one of the permanent members of the Security Council, issued repeated threats to the effect that it would veto such a resolution. In this case, Russia was out to protect Yugoslavia’s interests. Consequently, the Council had to invoke Resolution 1199 which entails requesting a ceasefire after it had emerged that there had been a considerable violation of human rights (Lendman 2015). The resolution further stressed that the Security Council would have no option but to take further action in order to uphold stability and peace in the region in case the contents of Resolution 1199 were not adhered to.

In 1991, Somalia plunged into civil war, following the overthrow of Said Barre. The ensuing power struggle, coupled with the mass starvation of Somalis owing to a severe drought, prompted the UN Security Council to declare the situation as a threat to international security and peace. Nonetheless, the five permanent members of the Council were unwilling to sanction UN Intervention for fear of contravening Somalia’s sovereignty, as spelled out by Article 2(7) of the UN Charter. Following a constant requests from various aid agencies, the Council reluctantly implemented Resolution 733 (Golebiewski 2013), thereby enforcing a restriction on military equipment and weapons for Somalis.

While the Council deists from intervening in the intra-state conflict in keeping with its non-intervention principle, it can still invoke the 1948 Genocide Convention to ensure peace and stability and halt innocent killings of civilians, women, and children. This notwithstanding, the Council did nothing to halt the 1994 Rwanda genocide (Golebiewski 2013), and neither did it respond to the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 (Peace Operations Training Institute 2014). This is a clear indication that when it matters to crimes against humanity, this is a highly complex issue even for the Council.

However, the 2003 Iraq war revealed the capacity of certain permanent members like the UK and the United States to sidestep the Security Council if they deemed it fit. The Iraq war is also a further indication that the Council lacks the capacity to condemn such actions. Many countries were opposed to the war in Iraq, and the Security Council was also opposed to it. Under Resolution 1441, Iraq was found to have contravened the terms of a ceasefire and its responsibilities as spelled out under Resolution 678 (Golebiewski 2013). While Iraq’s constant violations of these resolutions placed her in danger of serious consequences, this did not amount to an authorisation for war. France issued a threat to the effect that it would veto any resolution tables in the council meetings seeking an authorisation for war in Iraq, effectively preventing the UK and the US to draft another resolution seeking approval to attack Iraq militarily. Nevertheless, the two countries, along with Australia, still wage war against Iraq without the consent of the Security Council.

In 2011, the Council, while citing the “responsibility to protect” principle embraced Resolution 1973 which enabled them to initiate a no-fly zone over the country. In addition, resolution 1973 gave authority to member states to take any means necessary to provide protection to civilians in Libya from the Qaddafi-led regime (Adams 2015).  The United States led other Western countries in initiating air strikes across Libya that eventually led to the defeat of Qaddafi. However, some Security Members such as Russia criticised these activities, on grounds that the “responsibility to protect” was a ploy to change the ruling regime (Bellamy 2015).

The position of the permanent members on whether to intervene in Ukraine, Libya, and more recently, Syria, is seen by many scholars as an indication of a growing divide between the United States, the UK, and France on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other hand. There have been growing tensions within the Council, and this is a clear reflection of the growing assertiveness and power of China, while Russia seems to have renewed its masculinity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, China’s impressive economic growth has resulted in a shift in its approach to varied Council agenda. The growing cooperation between China and Russia in the UN Security Council is best exemplified by the fact that between 2007 and 2014, the two members cast six joint vetoes, in comparison to only a single joint veto since 1971.


The primary objective of the UN Security Council is to ensure international security and peace. Accordingly, when there is a threat to the lives of civilians, women, and children due to a civil war, famine, or an oppressive regime, the Council may be called upon to invoke various resolutions that warrant its intervention. However, such decisions are largely determined by the underlying interests of the five permanent members of the council. In recent years, the five permanent members have been seen to align themselves strategically in vetoing intervention decisions. Russia has largely aligned itself with China while the United States, the UK, and France have formed another camp. A good example was the war in Iraq in which the UK and the United States spearheaded military intervention against the will of other Council members. A similar case was evident in Libya. These and other events are evidence of the fact that even though there are varied resolutions that the Council can invoke to justify its intervention, the individual strategic interests of its permanent members almost always prevail.


Adams, S (2015).  Failure to Protect: Syria and the UN Security Council. [Online].

Bellamy AJ (2015), The Responsibility to Protect: A Defence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farrall, J & Prantl, J (2016),’ Leveraging diplomatic power and influence on the UN Security Council: the case of Australia’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 70, no. 6, pp. 601-612.

Golebiewski, D (2013). The Humanitarian Interventions of the UN: A look at the Security Council’s Haphazard response to Somalia and Rwanda. [Online].

Lendman, S (2015). Understanding the UN Security Council Veto Power. American Threatens Russia. [Online].

Nadin, P (2014). United Nations Secusity COuncil 101. [Online].

Peace Operations Training Institute (2014). Implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions on the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in Africa. [Online].

von Einsiedel, S, Malone, D.M. & Ugarte, B.S. (2015). The UN Security Council in an Age of Great Power Rivalry. [Online].

UN Security Council (2017). The Security Council. [Online].

Walling, CB (2008), The United Nations Security Council and Humanitarian Intervention: Causal Stories about Human Rights and War, Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest.

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