Governing Diversity – Democratic Solutions in Multicultural Societies page – 12

Governing Diversity – Democratic Solutions in Multicultural Societies

Edited by Razmik Panossian, Bruce Berman and Anne Linscott

The United Nations Security Council and Ethnic Conflict

– Jane Boulden

Executive Summary

The United Nations Security Council is an important but unrecognized actor in ethnic conflict situations. This lack of recognition is due to a false sense of distance between Security Council decision-making and the conflict in question. This distance stems from the perception that when the Security Council responds to conflict it does not do so in pursuit of its own views of the positions of the parties and how the conflict should end. Rather, its objective is simply to support the push towards peace, regardless of its specific nature.

While it may be the case that the Security Council does not have a political agenda in a specific sense, the nature of its mandate — the maintenance of international peace and security — and the tools used to implement that mandate, have unrecognized, often unintended, consequences. Once the Security Council decides to respond to conflict, especially ethnic conflict, its actions are likely to impact the positions and perceptions of the parties involved, sometimes even perpetuating or sowing the seeds for later return to conflict.

If the Security Council is to have a positive impact in supporting movement towards durable peace in ethnic conflict situations they must recognize this impact, and build it into their decision-making process.

Why is the Security Council an Important Actor in Ethnic Conflicts?

The Security Council has become a key actor in ethnic conflicts by virtue of its role as the primary organ at the United Nations responsible for issues of international peace and security.

That simple statement must be qualified in a number of ways.

  • There is no automaticity to Security Council involvement in conflict. The choice of which conflicts the Security Council responds to depends on a variety of factors, many of which have as much to do with Council politics as they do with the situation on the ground in the conflict in question.

  • The Security Council approach is to deal with conflict as conflict, regardless of its origin or nature. It does not have one set of tools for ethnic conflict, another for civil wars, and another for conflict between states.

  • When the Security Council responds to a conflict it does so on the basis of a ceasefire or peace agreement which the parties to the conflict have already agreed upon. It does not respond to the conflict with its own views as to the most desirable outcome or how that outcome will be achieved.

While we can describe the Security Council as an important actor in ethnic conflict situations, the combined effect of these three inter-related factors is that the Council does not necessarily see itself in that role.

The Parameters of the Security Council Role

In many ways the Security Council is a unique actor on the world stage. The UN Charter entrusts it with the central task of the UN — the maintenance of international peace and security — and endows it with wide latitude to determine when and how the United Nations will respond.

This latitude made possible the expansion of the concept of “international peace and security” witnessed after the end of the Cold War when humanitarian crises and faltering democratic transitions, for example, were cited as threats to international peace and security. It also means that there is no automaticity built into the process. Under the terms of the Charter, threats to international peace and security are what the Council says they are.

Article 39 of the United Nations Charter, gives the Security Council the right to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression” and also to recommend what measures are to be taken as a consequence. There is tremendous power placed in the hands of the Security Council in this arrangement. In the absence of any established criteria for defining international peace and security, it is left entirely to the Security Council to determine when a threat, breach of the peace or act of aggression has occurred.

Coupled with the veto power of the five permanent members, this means that the definition of threats to international peace and security is not only very malleable but highly selective. This level of selectivity sometimes prompts accusations of double standards.

Once a decision is made to respond to a conflict situation, the Security Council has a wide range of tools at its disposal. Again, the Charter was built with maximum flexibility in mind. The Security Council can suggest or mandate anything from mediation and negotiation to sanctions and the use of force when authorizing a response to conflict.

Practice of the Security Council

The Council has wide latitude for its responses both in terms of when it responds and how it responds: What has it actually done in practice?

With respect to ethnic conflict, the nature of the Council’s practice is important in three main ways:

  • The basis of its response.

  • The goals of Council action when it does respond.

  • The tools it uses when responding.

The Basis of the Response

The onset of the Cold War almost immediately after the UN came into existence meant that the Council was effectively stalemated by the inability of the Soviet Union and the United States to agree on any issue and that the mechanisms enshrined in the Charter for dealing with international peace and security were rarely used. When the Suez crisis broke in 1956, the idea of a peacekeeping operation was created as an ad hoc framework for a UN response.

Peacekeeping is based on three main principles: the use of force only in self defence, the consent of the parties to the conflict, and an imperial mandate.

Although it has no specific basis in the Charter, these peacekeeping principles have endured as the framework within which most UN action is based even after the end of the Cold War opened the way for a return to the original Charter mechanisms.

In the early post-Cold War years, latitude in the Security Council’s power to decide what constituted a threat to international peace and security, and the ensuing decisions regarding which conflicts to act upon, left many commentators wondering aloud why the UN was so committed to Bosnia and Kosovo while leaving many conflicts in other regions, especially Africa, under-resourced or completely unattended to.

The need for consent, and by extension impartiality, means that the Council waits for a peace agreement or some form of ceasefire agreement that it can use as the basis for its response before it takes action. By linking its response to such agreements, the Council takes no formal position on the nature of the conflict or the issues at hand.

All that it is doing is supporting and overseeing or somehow facilitating the agreement in question, which has been arrived at by the parties involved.

There are a number of implications here for questions relating to how we deal with ethnicity. In linking its response to an agreement, the Council effectively legitimizes the arrangement, regardless of its specifics. As a result, the Council may be establishing or giving weight to an arrangement that privileges one group over another or that may set in motion a sequence of events or new struggle that leads to that outcome. In situations of ethnic conflict or tension this may exacerbate rather than ease tensions and may solidify situations that ultimately contribute to further conflict.

In the same way, the Council also gives legitimacy and authority to warring groups or leaders of warring groups, whose agreement must be gained in order for the process to work, but who have sometimes bought their seat at the table by engaging in terrible levels of violence. It is often said of the Council that it will take any peace agreement, even a bad one, but the implications of that tendency have not been fully explored.

Goals of Security Council Action

– Humanitarianism

As mentioned above, the ability of the Security Council to determine what constitutes a threat to international peace and security gives it wide latitude for action. Beginning just after the end of the Cold War, the Security Council began to exercise that latitude in new and innovative ways. The first and most obvious indication of this shift was reflected in a new sense that humanitarian crises constituted threats to international peace and security. In 1992, in response to the conflicts in Bosnia and then Somalia, the Security Council made a direct link between the humanitarian situation and international peace and security.

In both conflicts, concern about humanitarian assistance remained a persistent theme in the Security Council’s approach. Indeed, in Bosnia, humanitarian aid rather than the specifics of the conflict itself was the central theme of the Security Council’s response through more than 70 resolutions.

The provision of humanitarian aid usually privileges one group over another, possibly encouraging groups to stay in place rather than leave disputed territory, as was the case in Bosnia, or by bringing about a change in the relative position of the warring parties. As a result, although a focus on humanitarian assistance seems to provide the Council with a sense of distance from the politics of the situation, as with the act of legitimization that sometimes comes with a UN response, in conflicts that are ethnic in nature the decision to respond on humanitarian grounds can consolidate, exacerbate or even create tensions along ethnic lines.

– Democracy

As the Council has chosen to become active in more varied ways in a wider range of conflict situations, it has also drawn itself into the realm of democracy and human rights. The first overt shift in this direction occurred when the Security Council authorized an operation to reinstate the democratically elected government in Haiti in 1994. While democracy concerns were not new to the organization, the authorization to reinstate a democratically elected government, with force if necessary, was definitely a new step. In its authorizing resolution the Council made reference to both humanitarian and human rights issues, citing, in particular, the systematic violation of civil liberties. This concern for democracy and its linkage to issues of peace and security seemed to be a onetime event and was portrayed that way at the time. The exceptional nature of this response, however, has since been downgraded by Security Council authorized operations in Sierra Leone and East Timor with mandates relating to restoring or ensuring democratic transitions. Beyond these specific examples, some form of democratization has become a standard element of post-conflict operations under UN auspices.

The idea of supporting democracy as a general principle seems both laudable and desirable. As with humanitarianism, however, the application of these principles can have unintended effects, especially in situations of ethnic conflict. For example, situations where ethnically-based minority groups perceive themselves to be disenfranchised by a newly instituted majority-rule democratic system may sow the seeds of ongoing or future conflict.

Tools for Response

– Use of Force

The way in which Security Council mandates are implemented has also changed with the end of the Cold War. While peacekeeping during the Cold War was firmly based on the idea that UN troops would be lightly armed and use force only in self defence, since then, the Security Council has demonstrated a willingness to authorize the use of force beyond self defence in order to achieve its established goals. This practice has generated mixed results. From Somalia and Bosnia to Sierra Leone and East Timor, one key lesson is that the use of force beyond self defence, in the context of an operation which is otherwise occurring under the banner of impartiality, is problematic at best. At worst it has the potential to make the UN a full party to the conflict. Again, using Bosnia as an example, the use of force to ensure compliance with safe areas and weapons exclusion zones inevitably pitted the UN against the Bosnian Serbs. While the use of force was geared towards ensuring compliance with the overall UN mandate and while the mandate was geared towards minimizing the effects of the conflict on civilians, and not directed against the Bosnian Serbs, as such, these nuances were lost to the parties on the ground, — or manipulated by them to accentuate their sense of grievance and to rally others to their cause.

– Sanctions

As with the use of force, sanctions can be used to pressure parties to a conflict to comply with their original commitments. Previously a tool used only against governments, the Council has moved to use sanctions against specific individuals and non-state actors as they did, for instance, in 1993 in order to pressure the Angolan rebel group, UNITA, into taking political dialogue seriously by establishing an arms and petroleum embargo against them. But when used in ethnic conflict situations, sanctions can impact the positions of the various parties struggling for power on the ground. The imposition of sanctions against Yugoslavia as that country descended into secession and conflict had the much-advertised effect of freezing Bosnian forces into an ongoing position of military inferiority by denying them access, or at least relatively easy access, to weapons supplies. The criticism at the time was that if the international community was not going to resolve the situation by other means it should not work to deny groups the ability to fight back.


The Security Council is an important actor in ethnic conflict situations, and by extension, on issues of democracy and human rights in post-conflict situations, but it is an actor of a particular kind. The way in which the Security Council responds to conflict has the potential to have an impact on the positions of the parties to the conflict both during and after the conflict. This is not always fully recognized by Security Council members themselves or by other states advocating that they take action.

Policy Implications

  • Security Council members, both permanent and non-permanent members, need to increase their awareness of the ways in which their decisions can have an impact on the situation on the ground, in situations where ethnicity is a key factor.

In particular, the following ideas need to be kept in mind:

  • Any action taken or approved by the Security Council will be read by the parties to the conflict through the lens of the conflict and interpreted according to how it privileges or alters the positions of the various groups regardless of its intent. Perception matters very much in conflict situations, especially those with ethnic overtones.

  • The delivery of humanitarian aid, and its protection, a focus on democrati zation and democratic institutions as well as human rights, must all be seen in this light. None of these objectives can be achieved without having an impact on the positions of one or more of the parties to the conflict.

  • Impartiality is rarely achievable when force is likely to be used, even when only in self defence. Similarly, sanctions can privilege one or more parties to the conflict.

  • All of these factors speak to a need for states at the United Nations to develop, separately and together, a much more nuanced understanding of the conflicts they are seeking to address and the potential implications of the mandates and tools they establish to achieve their objectives.