The UN Security Council votes to establish the Iran Nuclear Deal

It’s Security Council Election Time at the United Nations

By the end of the week, there will be five new members elected to the United Nations Security Council. On Thursday, the General Assembly vote on new members of the UN Security Council to replace countries whose terms are expiring at the end of the year. These elections are a significant event at the United Nations because they shape the composition of the single most important body in the UN system—the only one that can authorize military intervention, impose international sanctions, and approve peacekeeping missions, among other duties.

Here’s How Security Council Elections Work

There are 15 members of the United Nations Security Council. Five of them are permanent: the USA, China, the UK, France, and Russia. These “P-5” countries never leave the council (and, of course, get the veto). But ten other countries rotate in and out of the Council, serving two-year terms. The so-called “E-10” are elected to their seats by a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly of all 192 member states.

Five of the current 10 elected members of the Security Council will leave the Council when their terms expire on December 31, 2024: Mozambique, Japan, Ecuador, Malta, and Switzerland. They will be replaced by five new countries that will serve on the council from January 1, 2025, to December 31, 2026.

Not every UN member state is eligible to vie for each of these seats. Rather, membership to UN bodies like the Security Council is based on a principle known as “equitable geographical representation,” in which a specific number of seats are reserved for countries from each of the UN’s five regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and “Others” (which also includes New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Canada, and the US).

At the Security Council election this week, each of the outgoing members will be replaced by another country from the same region. In all, there are four separate elections for these five seats: to replace the African seat, the Asia-Pacific seat, the Latin American seat, and the two vacating Western European seats.

Even Though They Don’t Have a Veto, the Elected Members of the Council Can Wield Power

The E-10 may not have a veto, but they can wield power in other important ways. The most straightforward is with their vote. Simply put, their votes matter. Any resolution requires at least nine affirmative votes to pass. It is sometimes the case that votes fail at the Security Council not because of a veto but because the measure does not get the requisite number of affirmative votes. Beyond the vote, any member of the Security Council, including the E-10, can propose resolutions. E-10 members will often be the so-called “penholder” on resolutions and can force a vote before the entire membership. Most recently, the United Arab Emirates did this to great effect as it drafted and put to a vote resolutions pertaining to the Israel-Hamas war.

Additionally, each of the E-10 members also gets an opportunity to set the agenda of the Security Council as the “Presidency” rotates monthly between all 15 members. This gives countries the opportunity to put items up for debate and force discussion around issues that are important to whichever country holds the presidency for the month.

The E-10 also wields considerable influence at the Security Council due to the fact that much of the work of the Security Council—indeed, the majority of the work—does not include voting on formal resolutions. Rather, most of the work and decisions taken by the Security Council happen by consensus. Each of the 15 members can influence debates and decisions as diplomats seek to reach a consensus position of the Security Council.

To be sure, the big issues at the moment, like the Israel-Hamas war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, dominate the headlines. And here, the Security Council’s ability to impact these crises is limited because of the veto. But much of the day-to-day work of the council, like renewing the mandates of peacekeeping missions or sanctions regimes, continues—and more often than not, these decisions are taken with the approval of all 15 members.

We Already Know Who Will Win the Elections

By the end of the week, Somalia, Denmark, Greece, Panama, and Pakistan will be elected.

How do I know that?

These particular Security Council elections have fallen victim to a common practice at the United Nations in which regions collude amongst themselves to nominate an equal number of candidates as there are open seats. So, Somalia is the only candidate for the one African seat; Greece and Denmark are the only two candidates for the two open Western European seats, and so on. This results in uncompetitive elections—the General Assembly vote is a mere formality.

Non-competitive elections are the norm for some regions—Africa, in particular, almost always chooses candidates amongst itself and rarely nominates more countries than there are open seats. On the other hand, Western Europe has a somewhat decent track record in fielding a greater number of candidates than there are open seats. In 2020, for example, Canada lost to Norway and Ireland in a hotly contested election.

This year, however, there are no competitive elections—and that’s a problem. If candidates do not need to prove their worth, the quality of the body to which candidates are seeking election is diminished. There is a good deal of prestige and power that comes with a seat on the Security Council. In competitive elections, candidates often go to great lengths to demonstrate their worthiness and overall commitment to the UN system. They run sometimes vigorous campaigns and put forth a positive argument for their candidature. In non-competitive elections, there’s no need for any of that—the vote is pro forma.

Non-competitive elections like this are a bug of the UN system that impacts not just the Security Council, but other UN bodies like the Human Rights Council. The best remedy here would be for countries to enforce a norm that elections ought to include actual choices. There has been some progress to that end in recent years, but as this Security Council election demonstrates, it is still not enough. Doing so would incentivize good behavior among member states and make elected bodies like the Security Council more credible.

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