The United Nations Security Council seat bid – Who gets a seat at the table?

The United Nations Security Council seat bid – Who gets a seat at the table?

“Due to its increasingly active agenda, membership in the United Nations Security Council is seen as more of a prize than ever. So what are the determinants of a UN election? Foreign aid, UN contributions and strong bilateral relations with voting members all play a role. But even more important is the skill and competency of those diplomats working the halls of the UN Headquarters to secure official support for their campaign.

by Laura Neacsu

On June 7th, the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly held elections for five non-permanent members of the Security Council for the 2020-2021 term. The election of Estonia and the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines marked the first time the countries will hold seats on the UN’s most powerful organ. Niger, Tunisia and Vietnam also won two-year terms and will take up their seats on January 1st, 2020.

As the only UN body that can make legally binding decisions, the UNSC holds the authority to impose sanctions and authorize the use of force in response to threats to international peace and security. For active middle power states, securing a seat at one of the world’s most powerful tables is ‘a prize to be pursued with vigour’[1]; this can increase a nation’s medium and long-term profile in international affairs and grant it a strong voice in shaping global agendas and responding to the world’s most acute peace and security issues. A seat at the horseshoe-shaped table also provides a platform for discussing international topics of particular concern to the elected states. Moreover, non-permanent members are more likely to receive World Bank loans and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans with relatively soft conditionality.[2] Securing a UNSC seat is a competition with high stakes. Countries often plan for years to campaign for a spot and receiving a mandate is considered a historic event. So what does it take for a state to win a UN election?

When electing non-permanent members, the UN Charter calls on the Assembly to consider ‘the contribution of candidates to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization’.[3] Involvement in warfare clearly lowers the probability of election.[4] On the other hand, participation in peacekeeping operations and development assistance programs, financial support of the UN as well as attendance to UN matters and issues of global interest such as human rights, refugees or environmental action increase the chances of a successful outcome. But earning a seat on the UNSC also requires visible and official participation in multilateral forums, the development of positive bilateral relations with numerous states voting on the election, as well as strong personal relationships within the formal diplomatic corps, particularly in New York. A successful campaign strategy will compel candidates to work through and with friends.  Most aspiring members have close allies whose support is invaluable for winning a seat. As in any election, candidates must shore up the core vote – countries that share a common political ideology, cultural traits or even a history of colonialism.

Moreover, when seeking voting commitments from member states, candidates must be willing to negotiate by volunteering inducements such as promises that while on the Council, they will bring attention to an issue of interest to the member state that they seek a pledge from. Once commitments have been confirmed, candidates must not take ‘yes’ for an answer – votes are cast by secret ballot, making it impossible to determine whether member states have kept their pledges. A UNSC seat bid will require aspiring members to repeatedly cultivate voting promises and seek reassurances from member states at different levels of government.

But most importantly, earning a seat at the UN’s most powerful body requires intense diplomatic lobbying, primarily within the inner corridors of the UN headquarters. Long-time observers of the UN estimate that more than a third of the votes in a Security Council election are cast exclusively by New York-based diplomats who either act without instructions from their capitals or without reference to them.[5] Any successful campaign strategy must focus to a large degree on these votes through extensive lobbying, hospitality and diplomatic favours. Considering the number of votes actually decided locally, a popular, active permanent representative of a candidate country in New York can have a substantial impact on electoral success. The secret ballot is easily influenced by personality and friendship, regardless of government instructions. Strong personal contacts, relationships and effective performance on the ground are therefore essential for a successful outcome.

The campaign is a tough venture. In an unpredictable and opaque competition such as this, securing a seat ultimately requires more than traditional diplomatic effort or participation in development assistance programs. So who gets a seat at the table? Aspiring members whose campaign strategies focus on a multi-faceted approach and, more specifically, on the interplay between the many factors that influence both the process and outcome of each UNSC election.

 1.      Malone, David (2000) ‘Eyes on the Prize: The Quest for Nonpermanent Seats on the UN Security Council’ in Global Governance, Vol. 6, No. 12.      Dreher, Axel and Sturm, Jan-Egbert (2012) ‘Do the IMF and the World Bank influence voting in the UN General Assembly?’ in Public Choice, Vol. 151, No. 1/2
3.      United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, 24 October 1945, 1 UNTS XVI, available at: https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/, accessed June 25th, 2019
4.      Dreher, Axel; Gould, Matthew; Rablen, Matthew and Vreeland, James Raymond (2012) ‘The Determinants of Election to the United Nations Security Council’ in Public Choice, Vol. 158, No. 1/2
5.      Malone, David (2000) ‘Eyes on the Prize: The Quest for Nonpermanent Seats on the UN Security Council’ in Global Governance, Vol. 6, No. 1 

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