Elections to the United Nations Security Council

(Disponible en français : Élections au Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies)

Canada is seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council for the 2021–2022 term. There are two seats available to countries from Canada’s regional grouping, the Western European and Others Group; the election is expected to be held in June 2020.

Given that the council is entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security under the UN Charter, membership brings significant responsibilities and offers an opportunity for global influence. It is the Security Council that is responsible for authorizing peacekeeping operations, imposing international sanctions, and determining how the UN System and member states should respond to conflicts around the world.

Canada has been elected to the Security Council six times, or roughly once a decade from the 1940s to the 1990s, ending with its term on the Council from 1999 to 2000. The next time that Canada announced its candidacy for a seat was in 2010. That bid was ultimately unsuccessful, with Germany and Portugal winning the two seats for which Canada was eligible.

While much of the discussion among observers has focused on Canada’s chances of being elected against competitors Norway and Ireland, this Hillnote will explore the Security Council’s election process. Like many areas of practice at the UN, electing non-permanent members to the Security Council involves a mix of formal procedures and informal conventions.

Official Procedures

The UN Security Council is made up of 15 members: 5 permanent members with veto powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), and 10 non-permanent members. Those non-permanent members are elected by the UN General Assembly for two-year, non-renewable terms, with the seats divided unevenly among the UN Regional Groups. Elections for five seats are held every year with different seats being filled in odd and even-numbered years:

Even-numbered years:

  • African and Asian Groups – two seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) – one seat
  • Western European and Others Group (WEOG) – two seats

Odd-numbered years:

  • African and Asian Groups – three seats
  • GRULAC – one seat
  • Eastern European Group – one seat

While the official rules allocate five seats to “African and Asian States,” the African Group and the Asia-Pacific Group have long been recognized as separate regional groups, with three seats going to the African Group (two in odd years, one in even) and two seats to the Asia-Pacific Group (one each year). The two groups have also agreed to alternate having one of their seats filled by an Arab state, thereby ensuring continuous Middle Eastern representation on the Council. This arrangement is often referred to as the “Arab swing seat.”

The infographic explains the composition of the United Nations Security Council. There are 15 seats on the council, five are reserved for its permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), and 10 seats for non-permanent members, which are distributed to the UN’s five Regional Groups. The Africa group has three seats, the Asia-Pacific group has two seats, the Eastern Europe group has one seat, the Latin American and Caribbean group has two seats and the Western Europe and others groups (which includes Canada) has two seats. One seat allocated to either the Africa group or the Asia-Pacific group is always occupied by a Middle-Eastern country, an arrangement known as the “Arab swing seat.” Elections for the non-permanent seats are held every year, with different seats being filled in even and odd numbered years.

Elections to the Council are held by secret ballot, with each General Assembly delegation submitting three ballots corresponding to the three regional group elections. Each ballot contains entries equal to the number of vacant seats allocated to the given group. Only countries from the regional group in question can be included on the ballot for that group. Under the rules of procedure of the General Assembly, member states do not explain their votes in the Assembly when a vote is done by secret ballot.

In order to be elected to the Security Council, a country must receive votes from at least two thirds of the General Assembly delegations present and voting during the meeting. If, for example, all 193 member states participated in the process, a candidate would require a minimum of 129 votes to win a seat. If all the vacancies are not filled by the initial vote, additional rounds of voting are held for the remaining vacant seats. Those rounds alternate between three restricted rounds, where only candidates that received the greatest number of votes in previous rounds are eligible, and then three unrestricted rounds, where any country from the regional group is again eligible.

This system can lead to a prolonged stalemate between two candidates, where a third compromise candidate can eventually emerge. For example, in 1979, 155 rounds of voting were required to fill a seat for GRULAC, with Cuba and Colombia splitting the votes for the first 154 rounds before Mexico won in the 155th round by an overwhelming majority.

Canada is a member of WEOG, which consists of 28 countries from Western Europe and a few other countries with similar political and economic characteristics, namely Australia, Israel and New Zealand. Therefore, Canada is eligible to put its candidacy forward for one of two seats every other year along with 23 other WEOG members (permanent Council members France and the United Kingdom, and current WEOG members occupying non-permanent seats on the Council are excluded). The United States is an observer to WEOG but is not an official member of any regional group.

Informal Conventions

During Security Council elections, each delegation can technically vote for any eligible country. The only formal instruction, expressed in Article 23 of the UN Charter, is that “due regard” be given to “equitable geographical distribution” and a country’s “contribution” to international peace and security and the work of the UN.

In practice, voting reflects the internal dynamics of the regional groups, and the overwhelming majority of votes go to the endorsed candidates. When a regional group submits a number of candidates equal to the number of vacant seats, the election is considered uncontested, and candidates are generally elected in the first round. Where more candidates than seats are put forward, elections are considered contested, and several rounds of voting may take place before all seats are filled.

Mechanisms to select candidacies differ between groups. The African Group is the only group with a formal rotation system that usually assures uncontested elections, while WEOG has been described by one publication as having a particularly “open market” approach, which leads more frequently to contested elections.

Over the last 10 years, nearly 80% of elections for council seats have been uncontested. During this period, WEOG had the highest number of contested elections among the regional groups, with four of five elections being contested. A stalemate between the Netherlands and Italy in 2016 was resolved after six rounds of voting when they agreed to share the seat, with Italy winning initially and then resigning after one year, allowing the Netherlands to run unopposed the following year.

For contested elections, candidates are generally required to campaign for support from other countries, often years in advance, seeking written and verbal commitments from counterpart delegations. As voting is held by secret ballot without explanation, these commitments are ultimately unenforceable, and are believed to be broken with some regularity, but are nonetheless seen as critical to getting elected.

In an analysis of Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a seat in 2010, a research paper prepared for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute pointed to factors that seem to influence voting decisions. Those include a candidate country’s campaign and the promises it makes, its foreign policy positions, relationships and reputation, and its contributions to the UN in such areas as peacekeeping.

Whatever the outcome, the Security Council election in 2020 will be the culmination of a complex and long-term process that began years before the actual vote. Understanding this process requires an appreciation of both the formal procedures and the informal conventions that define Security Council elections.

Additional Resources

Denis Stairs, “Being Rejected in the United Nations: The Causes and Implications of Canada’s Failure to Win a Seat in the UN Security Council,” Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, March 2011.

Security Council Report, Security Council Elections 2019, 14 May 2019.

Jane Boulden and Andrea Charron, The Role of Nonpermanent Members of the UN Security: A Lessons Learned Workshop: Summary of Findings, October 2018.

Author: Scott McTaggart, Library of Parliament

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