Security Council votes unanimously to increase humanitarian aid in Syria. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The UN is electing new members of the Security Council today. This is a big deal

UN Member States will elect five new members of the Security Council today. These elections are to replace five countries who are rotating out of the Security Council next year when their two year term as non-permanent members expire. (For those unaware, the Security Council is the supreme decision making body at the UN. It is composed of five permanent,veto wielding members–the USA, UK, France, China and Russia–and ten countries from around the world who serve for two year terms.)

These elections are a big deal at the UN, and for international diplomacy more broadly.

The ten permanent seats are allocated to UN member states along the principle of equitable geographic distribution, meaning regions are represented based on the number of countries in their regions. Africa has three seats; Europe has two, etc. In today’s election there is one seat opening up for Africa; one for Asia, two for Europe, and one for Latin America.  To be elected, a country needs the support of two thirds of the 193 members of the General Assembly.

Sometimes regions collude amongst themselves to present an equal number of countries are there are seats available, so the vote at the General Assembly becomes a rubber stamp. The Africa group often conducts itself this way, and this time is no different: Ethiopia is the only African candidate for the African seat. Likewise, Bolivia is the only candidate for the Latin America seat. But there are still two hotly contested elections: between Thailand and Kazakhstan for one Asian seat; and between Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy for the two European seats.

The stakes are high.

Being a permanent member of the Security Council gives smaller countries (and sometimes, not so small countries) a degree of clout in the international system. Even though they do not hold a veto, their votes can sometimes be extremely consequential. That’s because much of the Security Council work is done by consensus–that is, all 15 members must agree for certain actions to be taken. Also, the presidency of the Security Council is a position that rotates monthly between all members, and countries often use the presidency to push national priorities at the UN. Finally, even in situations where a veto may be cast, the non-permanent members votes count; any decision taken by the Council needs 9 affirmative votes and no veto. If a permanent member of the council wants to avoid casting a potentially embarrassing veto, it needs to convince eight other countries to vote against or abstain from the measure.

In short, these elections matter. And they are happening today. You can watch the proceedings via UN Webcast.

UPDATE: Sweden, Bolivia, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan have won seats. After two rounds of voting, Italy and the Netherlands are still vying for one seat.

UPDATE 2: After five rounds of voting, neither Italy nor the Netherlands secured the requisite two thirds majority to win the last remaining seat open to the Europeans. So, they went dutch. In an agreement, the countries decided to split the two year term, one year each. Diplomacy!