Publication: Selective Security: War and the United Nations Security Council since 1945
30 June 2008
The United Nations Security Council is often seen as being, actually or potentially, the key institution in an international system of collective security. Yet the record of the Security Council since its creation in 1945 is one of selectivity. Throughout its history, the Council has frequently been seen to be selective in the crises in which it has become involved and in the actions it has taken. In the Cold War, its members could agree on policies regarding certain peripheral conflicts, but not on most of the serious wars and crises in which the superpowers were involved. Since the end of the Cold War, a more complex pattern of selectivity has emerged, in which the Council has become deeply involved in certain conflicts, such as in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, but has had a very marginal role in crises, certainly no less serious, in the Israeli-occupied territories, Rwanda and Sudan. It has hardly been involved at all in certain wars and crises of the post-Cold War era, including those in Chechnya and the India–Pakistan ‘Kargil War’.
This record suggests that the UN embodies a set of procedures and practices which might be called ‘selective security’. That is to say, although the UN provides a framework for states to collectively address, and take action on, certain wars and crises, it does not – indeed cannot – do so for all. The factors that compel the Security Council to be selective include not only the veto power wielded by the Permanent Five (P5) members, but also the limited willingness of all states – whether or not members of the Council – to provide resources and trained personnel to resolve conflicts that they may perceive as distant, complex and resistant to outside involvement. Indeed, in a number of conflicts, the states involved have been reluctant to refer the issue to the Security Council; and many crises are perceived, by some actors at least, as best handled by regional bodies rather than by the UN. The fact that the Council’s role is selective does not mean that it has not had an important range of effects on the international system as a whole. Among such effects have been those achieved by its action against clear acts of aggression in Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990, and its provision of peacekeeping forces in a notably wide variety of circumstances.