On February 24, 2018, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted a resolution demanding a nationwide ceasefire and the lifting of all sieges in the Syrian civil war. That resolution was the fifth adopted by the UNSC so far in 2018, and the 2,401st adopted since the panel was formed in 1946.
Half a century after its creation, the Security Council remains one of the most important forums for international politics in the world. Visualizing data compiled by Koto’s Knowledge Team, we can get a quick sense of how the topics and regions targeted by those 2,400 UNSC resolutions have evolved over time, and what that tells us about changes in the international system. The chart below shows annual counts of topics covered by UNSC resolutions from 1946 through 2017. (Our dataset runs up to the present day, but we omitted 2018 from this analysis because the partial-year count isn’t comparable to previous years’ totals.)
This arrangement guarantees that the Council will often find it hard to act, and that the resolutions the Council adopts will not be a representative sample of issues in international politics.
We see at least a few trends in that chart.
- The UNSC started passing a lot more resolutions as the Cold War ended around 1991, and it has largely sustained that higher pace over the ensuing 25 years. This fact isn’t surprising when you consider that the United States and the USSR/Russian Federation are both permanent members of the UNSC, with veto power over all proposed resolutions, but the abruptness and scale of the increase are still striking.
- The UNSC has become increasingly active on sanctions and weapons of mass destruction (wmd) in recent years. Those two topics still only account for about one-fifth of the panel’s resolutions each year, but that share was approximately zero during the Cold War. North Korea springs to mind as one case where those thematic streams cross, but only 19 of the 291 resolutions associated with either of those topics since 1991 has targeted that country.
- Terrorism first became a theme in Security Council action in 1989, more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks, but the panel’s activity on that topic visibly increased in the 2000s. It hit a historic high in 2017, with 13 resolutions adopted, all but two of them explicitly mentioning Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
- The UNSC started adopting resolutions on peacekeeping in the early 1960s, and it quickly became a focal point for the Council. Since the late 1970s, roughly one in five UNSC resolutions has addressed that topic.
The geographic focus of the Council’s activity has changed less over time than its thematic mix. The chart below shows annual shares (not counts) of resolutions adopted by the region of their target countries. Since about 1960, the vast majority of UNSC resolutions have targeted countries in Africa or the Middle East. The most significant divergence from this pattern came in the 1990s, when conflict in post-Communist Europe drew an increased share of U.N. attention, but things regressed toward the long-term mean as those wars cooled down.
As a closing thought, it’s worth considering how the Security Council’s membership and voting rules shape what topics and countries are targeted by the resolutions it adopts, and thus what we do—and don’t—see in these charts. The Security Council has 15 members, five permanent and 10 rotating ones. For a resolution to pass, it must receive at least nine votes in favor, including yesses or abstentions from all five permanent members. Those permanent members include the three most powerful countries in the world—China, Russia, and the US—whose interests often conflict, or are at least in tension. This arrangement guarantees that the Council will often find it hard to act, and that the resolutions the Council adopts will not be a representative sample of issues in international politics. This structure helps explain why the pace of UNSC action jumped so much after the Cold War ended; why the resolutions that it passes so often target poorer and “weaker” parts of the world in which there are no permanent members; and why those resolutions often involve demands without enforcement mechanisms, as was the case with its latest resolution on the Syrian civil war.