The evolution of the use of force norms within the Security Council


During the past few decades, a notable development has occurred to the doctrine of the use of force within the UN Security Council (SC). Pursuant to the UN Charter and the collective security provisions, the UN security body – the Security Council (SC) – is entitled to authorize the use of force to member states for maintaining international peace and security. The UN Charter explicitly provides the SC with a mandate to maintain peace between states, not within them. However, the SC unanimously adopted a new doctrine commonly known as the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) by virtue of the SC Resolution 1674. In essence, the R2P doctrine empowers the SC to authorize the use of force in any state regardless of whether the government of such state has provided its consent or not. The institutionalization of such doctrine was however faced with resistance by many member states, especially those with a history of foreign intervention and contested territory. This short article highlights two main factors that contributed to the evolution of the use of force norms within the SC, namely, the desire of the SC to gain prominent social status and the role of the international community in pushing the SC to become more “empathetic and altruistic”.

The mandate of the SC in authorizing the use of force is specifically dedicated to maintain peace and security between states, and not within them. This rule was reiterated by China’s delegates to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS):

“Nowhere in the UN Charter can one find a clause that permits using force, except for national defense under Article 51 and for restoring international peace, as specified in Chapter VII. Using force for moral or conceptual reasons is questionable and dangerous.” (emphasize added)

However, the scope of protection was extended through state’s unanimously voting in favor of Resolution 1674 – the resolution that adopted the R2P doctrine. As a result, the SC mandate was stretched to include “human protection” in the sense that states sovereignty also include military interventions in a country where its “national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

The endorsement of the R2P doctrine by the UN member states through unanimously accepting the adoption of Resolution 1674 shows that the R2P doctrine originated outside the circle of the SC. Importantly, the role of the empathetic international community in seeking to prevent “another Rwanda,” was much more obvious and influential than for individual states seeking to justify self-interested intervention. Hence, claims that R2P is “the return of the civilizing mission,” or was created as a “Trojan horse” for imperialism misunderstand the history of R2P.

There seem to be a relative normative convergence between the five permanent members of the SC (P5) regarding why to use force, despite the existence of a slight degree of divergence regarding how and when to use force. However, state practice, especially those of the P5, clearly shows violations to the international norms that they have adopted and that all seek the status of “responsible power.” This status seeking may not always override material self-interest, but it certainly plays a role in shaping international norms that operate in the collective interest and help facilitate collective-action.

The social influence and empathy of states is yet another element that had a direct impact on the evolution of the use of force norms. Although the pace and depth of such influence might not be as much as expected, it is evident that empathy remains an important factor in boosting the development of international security norms. As such, both empathy and social influence albeit insufficient, are necessary variables in explaining the evolution of use of force norms.

The Rwandan genocide case is an obvious example in the evolution of the UN use of force norms. Importantly, the role of key international players in spreading the devastating social impact of genocide in Rwanda influenced the work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) – the Commission that had a leading role in the adoption of Resolution 1674. Also, the role of international human rights’ advocates in circulating stories of atrocities, massive human rights violations, and people sufferings to reach to a wider audience seems to have equitable effect in the evolution of the use of force norms. In other words, empathy and social influence dimensions are gaining more and more importance in the development of use of force norms function.

Moreover, the growing international expectation of the SC’s “responsibility to protect,” with or without the consent of governments is yet another significant development. The SC is, by virtue of its mandate, obliged to take action and intervene in domestic conflicts, even if such intervention violates state’s sovereignty. One of the issues that remain questionable is why did the SC intervene in the Libyan conflict and not in Syria. Apart from strategic or economic motives, a number of justifications were bolstered for the international military intervention in Libya, of which is the empathy for people suffering in Syria and the institutionalization of human rights norms posited in international law. It is worth mentioning that the social impact of human rights norms has a direct correlation on international security culture, and thus ordering international society. This backs our argument that emotion and social influence have a significant effect on international relations, and specifically the evolution of the SC’s authority to use force.


Despite the fact that the expansion of the UN SC’s doctrine of R2P carries risks in as much as benefits, particularly in the expansion of the “circle of empathy,” the implementation of the R2P should not be taken for granted. It is not uncommon that the SC’s intervention could fail to materialize in every conflict, but the expectation for it to try, even at risk to its own members, remains significant. This narrative shows that the process of institutionalizing empathy and altruism have played a critical role in the decline of many oppressive and violent practices. Thus, although it may not seem likely at present, the adoption of R2P may be a watershed moment in history. Moreover, globalization in itself is likely to bring a more interconnected world that makes the sharing and spreading of emotions and human rights norms easier leading to a more peaceful world.




2 thoughts on “The evolution of the use of force norms within the Security Council

  1. Mostafa Khaled Bahgat May 1, 2016 / 12:37 pm

    it’s a great piece to explain the political dilemma behind the R2P. Cohesive and constructive, all I can say is that you need to add the findings of the UN World Summit, where the world adopted R2P as law, be it customary or positivist.


  2. mazlouma May 23, 2016 / 12:22 pm

    This was really good piece. My only comment would be that empathy and social influence are not necessary bad things in creating the sense of responsibility. Opinio juris, a crucial element for crystallizing Customary International Law, is the sense that makes states comply with a custom because they feel the sense of obligation created by this social influence and empathy. I think, R2P might be the best initiative we have now to actually stop atrocities that are happening now. Yes, the UNSC did not intervene in Syria but did in Libya for obvious political and economic interests but I see that R2P as the only way to avoid another Rwanda from happening, specially in incidents were the SC wants to intervene. Social influence could be starting point to both deter from breaching the law and a good mechanism to oblige states who do breach the law to stop doing so.


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