Background reader 


For the first time in its history, Switzerland is a candidate for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the period 2023-24. Under the slogan “A Plus For Peace”, the Swiss candidacy is in its final stage with the formal election by the UN General Assembly scheduled for June 2022. 

But, what’s the UN Security Council actually doing and how is it organised? This background reader will give you a quick overview to answer these questions.


1. What’s the UN Security Council? 

The UN Security Council is one of six principal organs within the UN system, aside from the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. It’s main duty is the “maintenance of international peace and security” (UN Charter, Art. 24 para. 1). It is located at the UN headquarters in New York.

It’s set goals are: 

  • to maintain international peace and security;
  • to develop friendly relations among nations;
  • to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights;
  • and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations.


1.1 Powers of the UNSC

The UNSC has different powers depending on the situation of threat to international peace and security, which is unfolding.


In the case of disputes or differences between parties potentially threatening international peace and security, the Council may:

  • Make non-binding recommendations possibly leading to independent investigations or non-military mediation in accordance with the states concerned. (UN Charter, Ch. VI)

In the case of a more concrete threat to peace, the Council may:

  • Decide upon “coercive measures” such as economic sanctions, sanctions or military measures to maintain or restore international peace and security. (UN Charter, Ch. VII)

The Council may also:

  • Make so-called regional arrangements to coordinate activities for the maintenance and enforcement of peace and security in a given area (f.ex. with African Union or the OSCE) (UN Charter, Ch. VIII)
  • Exerce certain special powers in the field of international criminal justice (establishment of special tribunals for the prosecution of war crimes or reference of certain conflict situations to the International Criminal Court)
  • Exerce certain procedural powers within the UN system (f. ex. participation in election of UN Secretary-General and judges of the International Court of Justice or handling of applications of new members to the UN).


1.2 Areas of work

Since its establishment on 24 October 1945 through the ratification of the UN Charter in San Francisco, the UN Security Council’s work has been shaped by different historical periods and covered a wide range of thematic areas related to the maintenance of global peace and security. 

While, it’s ability to take action was largely impacted by the Cold War as of the 1950s, the end of the latter facilitated consensus-building. This is reflected in the number of resolutions and peace operations adopted since 1990 by the Security Council. The Council holds a standing agenda with issues that are regularly discussed. Other events or developments may however be raised for discussion by any member of the Council’s members.


Thematic areas

Thematically, the work of the UNSC expanded out of traditional aspects of security policy taking into account more complex interrelationships with other areas. While the Council has traditionally dealt with national situations, it has increasingly included thematic issues, which pose a systematic threat to global peace and security and have an impact beyond national borders.

In addition to country-related and regional agenda items, the UNSC also considers general and thematic issues under its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. While some of these issues have been on the agenda for 30 years (e.g. An agenda for peace: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping), others have only later been introduced as agenda items (e.g. HIV/AIDS, a thematic issue first addressed by the UNSC in 2000, or climate change, first introduced as a thematic agenda item in 2007) and reflect a tendency to increasingly also consider “non-traditional” or “emerging” global security issues.

Thematic issues that the UNSC has considered include, among others:

  • An agenda for peace
  • Business and civil society
  • Children and armed conflict
  • Climate change
  • Food security
  • Humanitarian activities and assistance to refugees
  • International Criminal Tribunals
  • Non-Proliferation
  • Prevention of armed conflict
  • Sanctions
  • Terrorism
  • Women and peace and security

If you would like to know more about thematic and general issues, have a look at the Security Council Report’s page on ‘Thematic and General Issues’. For a list of case studies on agenda items relating to general and thematic issues which the Security Council has considered at formal meetings since 1946 up until 2019, please refer to this page by the UN. 


1.3 Composition of the UNSC

The Security Council is composed of 5 permanent members (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) with a right of veto and 10 non-permanent members distributed geographically according to an equitable distribution: 5 Member States from Africa and Asia, 1 Member State from Eastern Europe, 2 Member States from Latin America, and 2 Member States from the Group of Western European and Other States (GEOA). Switzerland is part of the latter.

Non-permanent members are elected by the United Nations General Assembly for a 2-year term by a qualified majority of ⅔ . 


Instruments and working procedures of the UNSC

Pronouncements: The Security Council can communicate the results of its internal discussion to the public in three ways:

  • Press statements: general information to the media about progress of discussions or the Council’s position on certain topics
  • Presidential statements: issued by consensus and used to reaffirm previous statements made or pave the way for upcoming decisions
  • Resolutions: strongest form of pronouncement, which can have a legally binding effect (e.g. establishment of sanctions or deployment of armed missions). In practice compulsory decisions are always issued in the form of resolutions.

Decision-making: Regarding the decision-making procedure, each member if the UNSC has one vote and the adoption of a resolution requires 9 votes. The five permanent members possess a right to veto resolutions (incl. Recommendations on the appointment of the UN Secretary-General and the admission of new members), which is also affecting the discussions and negotiations around resolutions.

Presidency: The presidency of the Council is shifting on a rotating basis, for a term of one month. Non-permanent members therefore have the opportunity to hold the presidency 1-2 times during their tenure (depending on their place in the alphabetic list of rotating members). The presidency is, among others, responsible for the preparation of the Security Council’s agenda and for the monthly working program. 

Subsidiary organs: These organs take the form of committees or working groups around both substantive or procedural matters discussed at the Council. There are two forms of committees - permanent ones (chaired by the rotating Presidency) and non-permanent ones (chaired by one or more members of the Council appointed for one year terms).


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