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The Security Council

The Security Council is where power lies at the UN. Other UN organs may have a hand in preventing war, but playing the peacemaker is the Security Council's raison d'être. What gives it its punch? Old-fashioned veto power. The Security Council is the only UN organ to wield it and, consequently, is the only UN organ to command regular attention from the press.

Most of the Security Council's work happens behind closed doors -- where negotiations happen or when one of the permanent members threaten to use the veto power -- also known as the "closet veto". Only the permanent members -- can veto resolutions: China, France, Russia, the U.K and the U.S. These five countries reflect the power balance that existed at the close of World War II -- all five were among the victorious Allies. Critics have increasingly called for the Security Council's permanent membership to be revised to reflect the political and economic realities of the 21st century -- for instance, add Germany and Japan; drop France and the UK. India, Italy and Brazil are also among those who have campaigned for permanent membership.

Alongside the five permanent members are 10 non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Five are elected from Africa and Asia; one from Eastern Europe; two from Latin America and Caribbean; and two from Western Europe and other areas. Member states lobby for a seat on the Security Council sometimes years in advance. So, without a veto, what's the big deal? Besides the prestige associated with the seat, it's a chance for countries to express their national opinion.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council's main responsibility is to maintain international peace and security. When a conflict is brought before the Council, its first course of action is to seek a diplomatic solution. The Council may ask the Secretary-General to mediate between parties or it might lay the groundwork for a settlement. When fighting does breaks out, the Council can order ceasefires and send UN peacekeepers in to prevent further hostilities. (See the Secretariat for more on UN peacekeeping). Enforcement measures for past resolutions and economic sanctions (think Iraq) also fall under its purview.

Security Council decisions are binding and must be carried out by member states. Decisions on substantive matters such as the use of force (for example, the 1990 resolution passed after Iraq invaded Kuwait) require the affirmative votes of nine members, including all of the permanent members. Even if all members of the Security Council approve a resolution, a single veto by a permanent member can prevent a resolution's passage. Abstention is not considered a negative vote (as the Soviet Union learned when it abstained from attending the 1950 Council session that resulted in the UN's involvement in the Korean War). The Security Council, which can be paralyzed by the use of the veto, has been criticized for its inability to act until armed conflict unfolds, such as the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.

Fast Facts

- Since 1945, a total of 250 vetoes have been cast. Russia, has used the veto the most, with 120 vetoes. The U.S. comes second with 74 vetos.

- The UN Truce Supervision Organisation, established in 1948 in response to the 1940 Arab-Israeli war, is considered the first UN peacekeeping operation. But the first peacekeeping operation referred to as such was the first UN Emergency Force (UNEF I), created in response to the Suez crisis in 1956.

- Since 1948, there have been 48 peacekeeping operations -- 13 before 1988 and 35 from 1988 to the present.

- Pakistan and Bangladesh contribute the most manpower to UN peacekeeping operations. As of October 2002, 675 of the UN's 43,007 peacekeeping personnel were from the U.S.

Closer Look

The Power of Veto
The U.S. has used the power of the veto 74 times, most recently on June 30,2002 when Ambassador John Negroponte vetoed the resolution to renew peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. The possibility that U.S. soldiers -- serving in Bosnia as peacekeepers -- may be prosecuted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court -- which the U.S. does not recognize -- prompted the U.S. to use the power of veto. Although the U.S. was criticized worldwide for its immunity demands, two weeks later the Security Council had voted to exempt American peacekeepers from prosecution for a period of 12 months. The Council then immediately renewed peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.

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