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The UN Security Council is the most powerful organ of the United Nations. It is charged with maintaining peace and security between nations. While other organs of the UN only make recommendations to member governments, the Security Council has the power to make decisions which member governments must carry out under the United Nations Charter. The Security Council held its first session on January 17, 1946 and the decisions of the Council are known as UN Security Council Resolutions.
The Council has five permanent members. The five permanent members were originally the five victorious powers of WWII: France, Republic of China, United Kingdom, United States, and USSR. The Republic of China was expelled in 1971 and replaced with the People's Republic of China. After the USSR's collapse, it was replaced by the Russian Federation.
Ten other members are elected by the General Assembly for 2-year terms starting on January 1, with five replaced each year. The members are chosen by regional groups and confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly. The African, Latin American, and Western European blocs choose two members each, and the Arab, Asian, and Eastern European blocs choose one member each. The final seat alternates between Asian and African selections.
A representative of each Security Council member must always be present at UN headquarters so that the Council can meet at any time. This requirement of the United Nations Charter was adopted to address a weakness of the League of Nations since that organization was often unable to respond quickly to crises.
Decisions in the 15-member Security Council on all substantive matters - for example, a decision calling for direct measures related to the settlement of a dispute - require the affirmative votes of nine members. A negative vote - a veto - by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal, even if it has received the required number of affirmative votes. Abstention is not regarded as a veto.
A state that is a member of the UN, but not of the Security Council, may participate in Security Council discussions in which the Council agrees that the country's interests are particularly affected. In recent years, the Council has interpreted this loosely, enabling many countries to take part in its discussions. Non-members routinely are invited to take part when they are parties to disputes being considered by the Council.
The Role of the Security Council Under Chapter Six of the Charter, "Pacific Settlement of Disputes," the Security Council "may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute." The Council may "recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment" if it determines that the situation might endanger international peace and security. These recommendations are not binding on UN members.
Under Chapter Seven, the Council has broader power to decide what measures are to be taken in situations involving "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression." In such situations, the Council is not limited to recommendations but may take action, including the use of armed force "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This was the basis for UN armed action in Korea in 1950 and the use of coalition forces in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Decisions taken under Chapter Seven, such as economic sanctions, are binding on UN members.
The UN's role in international collective security is defined by the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the power to:
The United Nations has helped prevent many outbreaks of international violence from growing into wider conflicts. It has opened the way to negotiated settlements through its service as a center of debate and negotiation, as well as through UN-sponsored fact-finding missions, mediators, and truce observers. UN peacekeeping forces, comprised of troops and equipment supplied by member nations, have usually been able to limit or prevent conflict. Some conflicts, however, have proven to be beyond the capacity of the UN to influence. Key to the success of UN peacekeeping efforts is the willingness of the parties to a conflict to come to terms peacefully through a viable political process.
The legally binding nature of Security Council Resolutions has been the subject of some controversy. It is generally agreed that resolutions are legally binding if they are made under Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression) of the Charter. The Council is also empowered to make resolutions under Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes); most authorities do not consider these to be legally binding. The International Court of Justice suggested in the Namibia case that resolutions other than those made under Chapter VI can also be binding, a view that some Member States have questioned. It is beyond doubt however that those resolutions made outside these two Chapters dealing with the internal governance of the organization (such as the admission of new Member States) are legally binding, where the Charter gives the Security Council power to make them.
The composition of the Security Council has been the subject of some controversy. The existence of the five permanent members has been criticized as being a relic of World War II and of not reflecting the interests of the developing world. However, actually changing the composition of the Security Council would require an amendment to the United Nations Charter and the approval of all the five current members of the Council and this appears unlikely. Creating a new organization, with different charter, would be another option.