United Nations security council


This essay will answer the question on ‘how’ the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has changed its operations to tackle with the changing world landscape, especially after the end of the Cold War, by holding the concept from Constructivism (Social Constructivism) as a key theoretical framework. Generally, Constructivism is a social theory which is concerned about the relationship and process between agents and structures (Barnett, 2008; Jackson & Sorensen, 2007). Therefore, the essay will argue that, in response to the shifts in world politics, the UNSC (noted as an actor) accordingly has changed its operations by constructing norms or so called, ‘international norms,’ (noted as a structure), in collaboration with other actors, as preconditions in order to be legitimizing and supportive tools for any changing operations. To develop my argument, the essay will be structured into three sections. Firstly, the background of the question, the snapshot of the shifts in world politics and the main objective of UNSC including its operations will be provided briefly in the first section as a platform for the analytical section. In the second part, the ideas of Constructivism which will be taken into account for the explanation of how the UNSC has changed its tasks, especially with the Finnemore and Sikkink’s concept of the life-cycle of norms (1998, pp. 894-905), will be elaborated here. The third section will follow up by using the case study of humanitarian intervention as one of the UNSC’s contemporary operations to demonstrate the insights provided by the Constructivist’s framework.

The Shifts in World Politics and the UNSC’s Operations

When or which period can be defined as a turning point of the shifts in world politics is the first question I have to address in order to make the argument clearer in terms of period of time. To do so in this essay, I will take opinions of many political scientists (Taylor & Curtis, 2008; Weiss & Daws, 2007) who have commonly spotted the turning point of the changes in world politics to the end of the Cold War. Then, what are the changes of the UNSC’s operations correlating with the changes in world politics will be explained in a snapshot here.

After the end of the World War II, the United Nations (UN) and The UNSC were established in 1945. The UNSC was reinvented not only to solve the problems of the League of Nations Council but also intentionally to maintain international peace and security as the main responsibility (Taylor & Curtis, 2008, p. 315). That is the goal the UNSC has not changed until nowadays even though its operations have changed significantly after the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War period, which Realists had seen as the bipolar system, the world addressed themselves to issues and problems regarding with state-centric notion. The role of sovereignty and the principle of self-determination had been actively mobilized throughout the world. Therefore, most of issues and operations of the UNSC at that time totally related to those ideas. The operation about decolonization and inter-state conflicts are explicit examples. Cameron R. Hume (2004, p. 607) also reiterated that the era of decolonization was coincident with the Cold War. Additionally, the Cold War thwarted the functioning of the UNSC, especially with the vetoes of the two majors (Taylor & Curtis, 2008, p. 319). The veto game between the US and the USSR produced an inefficiency of the UNSC’s function particularly on the use of force in relevant to Chapter VII (Ibid.). There were a few cases that the Council passed the resolution to call up the use of force and the first one has to wait until 1966 in the case of Rhodesia (Boyd, 1971, p. 223). These are the situation in brief before the end of the Cold War.

After the end of the Cold War, world politics has shifted precisely out of the state-centric debates and issues as stated. It is the beginning of the decrease of the role of state sovereignty in many ways. As same as Weiss & Daws (2007), they concluded that even there is no refusal about the sacred of borders in international relations but their importance is less than in 1945. Reversely, the world stage has welcomed some trends ignoring to the notion of state sovereignty, which also affected to the role of the UNSC and its operations. According to Hume (2004, pp. 609-610), there are three important trends in the world politics that have been changing the work of the UNSC since the early 1990s. Firstly, regarding the type of conflict, there was a shift from the inter-state conflicts to intra-state conflicts, and leading to the problem of failing states. The second trend is the more regional initiatives and cooperation and their role to resolve conflicts within particular regions. And the last one is the arrival of transnational issues such as environmental issues, climate change, and terrorism. In the aspect of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, there are six categories of the new emerging threats in world affairs: the economics and social threats such as poverty and climate change; inter-state conflict; intra-state conflict such as civil war; nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons; terrorism; and transnational organized crime (The Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, 2004). From all above mentioned changes, it can be conceptualized into one grand trend emerging after the collapse of the Cold War. It is the individual consciousness or so-called, ‘the humanitarian impulse,’ (Weiss, The Humanitarian Impulse, 2004). In accordance to Weiss (2004, pp. 48-49) and David M. Malone (Security Council, 2007), the dominance of the humanitarian impulse has changed the decision-making process of the UNSC since the end of the Cold War. Also, the range of its operations has to take increasingly the relevance of humanitarian values and individual consciousness into account. To be specific, “it appears that human rights are no longer likely to disappear from the Council’s radar screen anytime soon” (Weschler, 2004, p. 67). To sum up, it is the shift of world politics from state-centric notion to individual consciousness or humanitarian notion.

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Consequently, the UNSC must change many of its operations accordingly to tackle this main shift which particularly by taking into account the notion of humanitarianism. However, my argument is to answer the question of ‘how’ its operations has changed by applying the Constructivists’ ideas which logically can be applied and generalized to those of many changing operations. Therefore, I firstly will ignore the question of what those changing operations look like, when and where the changing occurs. Secondly, I will focus only on the UNSC’s operation on the use of force, not all its operations. Lastly, I will use humanitarian intervention, as one of the operation on the use of force, to be my case study because it is emerged directly in response to ‘humanitarian impulse’ (Weiss, The Humanitarian Impulse, 2004).

Theoretical Framework: Constructivism and the Life-Cycle of Norms

This section will provide a brief general concept of Constructivism and the Life-Cycle of Norms as a theoretical framework of the essay. Constructivism is the school of thought that has been recently put in place more significantly in describing the international relations since the beginning of the 1980s or almost the end of the Cold War (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007, p. 162). Broadly, constructivism is a social theory dealt with the relationship between actors/agents and structures. According to Michael Barnett (2008, p. 162), Constructivism in the context of international relations commonly “concerns with how ideas define the international structure; how this structure shapes the identities, interests, and foreign policies of states; and how state and non-state actors reproduce or transform that structure.” International structure is seen as a group of thought and ideas, including a set of norms, which has been constituted by the process of intersubjective awareness among actors at specific time and place (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007). Together with, Constructivism emphasized on the process of understanding things or actions and assigning meaning to them (Ibid.). Besides, Constructivists also mentioned about the concept of social construction of reality which is the operation to produce social facts such as norms. Social facts will be constructed by human agreement and at the same time will provide the legitimization of those facts like some universal norms such as jus in bello (Barnett, Social Constructivism, 2008). Then, these social facts can also constrain and shape the behavior of actors. Noticeably, the main characteristic of Constructivism is a cyclical process. This is similar to Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) concept of the Life-Cycle of Norm which is a theoretical tool to explain in the later section how the UNSC has changed its operation as argued before. This concept explained how norm as a structure is institutionalised or internationalized before diffusing and constraining actors’ behaviour which reversely can affect to the status of such norm in terms of reproducing, reforming or even constructing new norm. This cycle consists of three stages; norm emergence, norm cascade and norm internalization. In order to make clearer understanding of this concept in conjunction with the argument, I will give details of each stage in parallel with the case study of humanitarian intervention in the last following section.

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Case Study: Humanitarian Intervention

However, before taking the concept of the Life-Cycle of Norm in hand to explain and analyze how the UNSC has changed its operations by using the case study of humanitarian intervention, the very brief background of the UNSC’s operations on the use of force should be described here. In reference to UN Charter, there are only two legally-accepted categories for the use of force as an operation of the UNSC; self-defence and authorization by the UNSC relating to Chapter VII (Roberts, 2004). Nevertheless, after the end of the Cold War, there are two more emerging doctrines of the use of force which importantly differ from the two traditional and legal ones. Both debated doctrines are humanitarian intervention and preemtive measures against emerging threats. These two new doctrines not only were seen as the challenge to principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention in Article 2(4) of the UN Chater (Ibid.) but also unavoidably as pending-to-be new operations of the UNSC. Later on, I will apply the concept of the Life-Cycle of Norm in details to explain the process that the UNSC constructs a norm as a precondition in order to legitimize humanitarian interventionas as as its new operation.

Now, bringing back the Life-Cycle of Norm concept, the first stage, “Norm emergence,” is the stage that “the norm entrepreneurs” try to convince flock of actors to welcome their new norms until reaching the critical or tipping point (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). Normally, at the first period, there will be a nature of competition between norms including the old and the other new ones. The entrepreneurs can be state, non-state actor, individual or international organizations and they need launching platforms to start promoting their norms which usually are international organizations (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). At this point, according to Finnemore (Finnemore M. , 1993), she reiterated that international organizations are able to be tools to promote and diseminate emerging norms. Besides, in terms of methods, the entrepreneurs will use many ways such as speeches, conferences, and advertisements to promote the new way of thinking about and understanding issues or new norms. Considering the case of humanitarian intervention which has been brought into the focus of world community since the end of the Cold War, we can see the process of norm emergence from the following details. In terms of the constellation of emerging norms, there were many competing meaning and debates about humanitarian intervention in the UNSC and outsides like Joanna Weschler (2004, p. 66) mentioned that the attitude of the UNSC regarding to humanitarian intervention has been spasmodic which is covered with series of progress and decline. For instance, as identified by Ramesh Thakur (2007, p. 388), humanitarian Intervention is “the use of military force on the territory of a state without its consent with the goal of protecting innocent victims of large-scale atrocities.” On the contrary, humanitarian Intervention has been criticized by the Realists as a legitimization of new interventionist norms of Western states and for serving their benefits from the intervention (Chandler, 2004). Also, some of traditional security analysts may argue about the intervention, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, since the end of the Cold War that such actions were aimed to protect the credibility of NATO and its presence in Europe. However, in the eyes of Constructivists, it is the ignorance of the occurance of humanitarian value as a constructed interest of actors like states (Glanville, 2006, p. 163). Moreover, according to the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), invented by Canadian Government, it proposed another competing idea which is called, ‘the responsibility to protect,’ into the discussion in The UN and the UNSC and now has been accepted by the General Assembly during the 2005 World Summit (Glanville, 2006). Then, in terms of who are norm entreprenours and their strategies, the key entreprenour for promote the issue of humanitarian intervention are international organizations like the UNSC itself and the UN. Alike the ICISS concluded that the most suitable organ to authorize intervention in the case of immense human rights violations is the UNSC (Weschler, 2004, p. 66). However, there are not only the UNSC as an organizations in the construction of norm but also individuals, states, public and media which has been collaboratively promoting humanitarian intervention to be constructed as a new norm. Individually, the role of the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) is a good instance. The first UNSG after the end of the Cold War, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his work, “Agenda for Peace,” written in early 1992, are examples supporting a more role of the UNSC and the UNSG in coping with armed conflict and humanitarian crisis (Weschler, 2004, p. 63). Together with, in the General Assembly on September 20, 1999, the next UNSG Kofi Annan urged international community to support the principle that massive and structured violations of human rights should not be allowed to occur and ignited the issue of humanitarian intervention (Weschler, 2004, p. 65). The state-actors which have been always supporting this norm in the UNSC are explicitly the US and the UK. Regarding to the role of public and media, in the early 1990s, it is the climax of their enthusiam for humanitarian issues. They have used a number of their sources, platforms and instruments to provide fruitful debates about not only the international right for humanitarian intervention but also the need to do it (Malone, Conclusion, 2004, p. 627). Briefly, it is clear with these empirical evidence that the norm of humanitarian intervention has emerged by the interactive process between diverse actors, with the leading of the UNSC itself.

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Continually, the second stage is “Norm cascade”. This stage there will be norm leaders who promoted their norms until gaining the most support and acceptance from other actors. The leaders will try to make other actors to adopt and imitate those norms through a process of socialization (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). Also, the leaders or actors who are capable of socializing still can be state, non-state and international organizations.

In this stage, the norm leader which is still the UNSC will try to mobilize intersubjective beliefs of the concept of humanitarian intervention among other actors by the process of socialization in order to gain human agreement; then, the idea of humanitarian intervention will be agreed to be a social fact, norm or so-called a structure. On the other hand, international organization, like the UNSC, also serves to legitimize the emerging international norms (Barnett & Finnemore, 2007). So, when humanitarian intervention is constructed as a social fact, it also means that it is one of legitimized norms as well. However, at present, the UNSC’s construction of humanitarian intervention to be a norm is still in this process because some are still not agree to this idea. For example, in the case of Somalia and Haiti, its legality seems to be supported by most states but in the case of Kosovo 1999, it was criticized by many states (Roberts, 2004, p. 147). Also, it can be seen from debates such as about the Iraq War 2003. Likewise, Adam Roberts (Roberts, 2004, p. 146) mentioned radically that all attempts since the early 1990s to legitimize humanitarian intervention have failed.

In the third stage which is called, “Norm internalization,” norms will be automatically adopted by actors and have a quality of taken-for-granted. It is no debate on those institutionalized norms anymore and such norms will be powerful and cannot be ignored (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). In the last stage, the UNSC will be a key player in the process of trasmitting and diffusing the norm of humanitarian intervention, if it passes the second stage in the future. Last but not least, after the third stage, the constituted norm of humanitarian intervention will legitimize the use of force with reference to humanitarian intervention and can constrain the behavior of actors like states. It is similar to what Thakur (2004) has said that the international organization can be the hub for the interplay between changing norms and constraining states’ behaviour. Nontheless, actors’ behavior and their interaction will affect cyclically to the constructed norms and restart the process from the first stage.


Since the end of the Cold War, the traditional state-centric theme of world politics has been gradually replaced by humanitarian value and individual consciousness. The UNSC, consequently, has to change its operations to control and manage the challenges coming from that shift in world affairs. In order to make such changes accomplished, the UNSC will have to meet preconditions by inventing, promoting, cascading and internalizing international norms to legitimize those changes in its operation. Like Luke Glanville (2006, p. 162) said about humanitarian intervention that the refusal to acknowledge the role of norms will make scholar cannot explain the increment of the cases relating to humanitarian intervention after the end of the Cold War. More importantly, this process of creating norms, according to Barnett & Finnemore (2007), has to incorporate the role of states, non-state actors, individuals and media in order to provide more effectiveness.

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