The UN Security Council: Boom or Bust? |

The UN Security Council: Boom or Bust?

The United Nations Security Council was created after the Second World War to prevent and manage international conflict. It convincingly tackled security challenges in the early 1990s, including in the Gulf region. Today, however, the UN Security Council’s perceived legitimacy has waned and it is seen as less effective in dealing with contemporary conflicts such as the deadlocks in Syria and Crimea.

Whether the Council still has a valuable influence on modern security issues was the subject of a talk by Dr David M. Malone, rector of the UN University and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, on September 18 2014. The talk was hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and co-sponsored by the National University of Singapore (NUS) law faculty and the Centre for International Law. LKYSPP dean Kishore Mahbubani chaired the talk, while NUS Law dean Simon Chesterman – an authority on international law – sat on a discussion panel that followed.

Out of date? The Council and the nature of contemporary conflicts

As Dr Malone explained, the Security Council’s structure hails from the World War II era: its five permanent members are Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, supplemented by 10 non-permanent members appointed by region.

But these days, many conflicts take place within nations rather than between them, and these internal conflicts are especially challenging for the Security Council to tackle, Dr Malone said. They typically involve rebel groups, which are illegitimate according to domestic law, and also not bound by international law. Getting involved in internal conflicts then also opens up a can of worms over sovereignty, as Council members raised concerns that the UN Charter principle of non-intervention in states’ domestic tussles was being eroded. ”Arguments over sovereignty became routine, even formulaic,” he said.

Dr Malone argued that the Council floundered, too, in its reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the US. At the time, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were already under sanction by the Council for their attacks on embassies. But September 11 intensified its preoccupation with terrorism, which led to “excessive, unfortunate procedural decisions”, he said. “The Council seemed to be out of its depth both on procedure and matters of due process, but also seemed to be yielding to one of its leading member states [the US] which was lashing out.”

Failures and successes

In response to Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh’s question on what the Council’s biggest failures and successes have been, Dr Malone said sanctions had been poorly used. For instance, in Iraq after 1991 and in Haiti, sanctions crippled citizens but enriched dictators and the wealthy by indirectly strengthening the black market.

On the flip side, some of the Council’s successes have come “through experimentation and sometimes a non-decision”. For instance, the Mozambican civil war in 1990 was brought to an end not by the Council’s intervention but by the small Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, which provided a neutral venue in Rome for delegations from both sides to discuss. Another ”nod and a wink“ was China abstaining from the Council’s decision to authorise the first Gulf War, he said.

Council reform

The panel also discussed the priority that should be placed on Council reform. As Prof Chesterman pointed out, the Council’s charter still refers to the “Republic of China” and “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, underscoring how difficult change can be. Until today, no consensus has yet been reached on how the council should be reformed – whether new permanent members should be appointed on the basis of size, such as India, Brazil and Nigeria, or of financial contribution, such as Japan and Germany. Neither has a decision been made on how other non-permanent and semi-permanent members should be appointed.

On 18 September 2014, Dr David M. Malone, Rector of the United Nations University and Under-Secretary-General of the UN, gave a talk entitled ‘The UN Security Council: Boom or Bust?’. A Canadian national, Dr Malone holds a BAA from BAA from l’École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal; an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and a DPhil in International Relations from Oxford  University. Prior to joining the United Nations University he served (2008-2013) as President of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, a funding agency that supports policy-relevant research in the developing world. Previously, he served as Canada’s representative to the United Nations in various capacities, as Canada’s High Commissioner to India, and non-resident Ambassador to Bhutan and Nepal (2006-2008). He has written extensively on peace and security issues, and his books include Nepal in Transition: From People’s War to Fragile Peace (as co-editor; 2012, Cambridge University Press) and Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy (2011, Oxford University Press).


The raison d'etat of the UN Security Council lies at the heart of the collective security system envisaged at the end of the Second World War in preventing and managing international tension and conflict.  Marginalised during the Cold War, the Council came into its own in the early 1990s, following the resolution of hostilities in the Gulf region — its “era of euphoria” — before rapidly declining with the failure to deploy its peacekeeping missions in Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia.  Since then, disagreements among the major powers have not abated, and while the Council plays an active and sometimes effective role on African security challenges, it has been deadlocked on security challenges such as Syria and Crimea.  With its legacy, does the Council still have a valuable influence on normative behaviour in security issues today?


Dr David M. Malone, Rector of the United Nations University; Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

Thursday, 18 September 2014
5:15 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.

Block B, Level 3,
NUS Bukit Timah Campus,
469G Bukit Timah Road,
Singapore 259776

Seats are limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kindly register your interest in attending online.

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