Feature: Estonia's UN Security Council non-permanent member seat explained

UN General Assembly vote on non-permanent Security Council membership at UN headquarters in New York, Friday, June 7.
UN General Assembly vote on non-permanent Security Council membership at UN headquarters in New York, Friday, June 7. Source: President's office

On January 1, 2020 Estonia took up its seat on the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member for the first time. Here's what you need to know about the Security Council and Estonia's ambitions for the coming years.

What is the United Nations Security Council? 

The Security Council's primary responsibility is maintaining international peace and security. It has 15 members, and each member has one vote. Under the Charter of the United Nations, all member states are obligated to comply with council decisions.

The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement.

In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Most Security Council resolutions are adopted by vote.

What powers and functions does the Security Council have?

  • To maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations;
  • To investigate any dispute or situation which might lead to international friction;
  • To recommend methods of adjusting such disputes or the terms of settlement;
  • To formulate plans for the establishment of a system to regulate armaments;
  • To determine the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression and to recommend what action should be taken;
  • To call on Members to apply economic sanctions and other measures not involving the use of force to prevent or stop aggression;
  • To take military action against an aggressor;
  • To recommend the admission of new Members;
  • To exercise the trusteeship functions of the United Nations in "strategic areas";
  • To recommend to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary-General and, together with the Assembly, to elect the Judges of the International Court of Justice.

Source: United Nations Security Council

The UN Security Council. Photo is illustrative. Source: ERR/EBU

Which countries are members of the Security Council?

The Security Council has 15 members but only five are permanent members: the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France. These five also have veto rights.

The remaining ten countries are elected for a two-year period, staggered in groups of five.

The 10 non-permanent seats are distributed on a regional basis as follows: five for African and Asian States; one for Eastern European States; two for the Latin American and Caribbean States; and two for Western European and other States.

In addition to Estonia, St Vincent and Grenadines, Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam, Germany, Belgium, the Republic of South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia will be apart of the council in 2020 and 2021.

Has Estonia been on the Security Council before?

No, this will be the first time.

Why does Estonia want a seat on the Security Council?

"Unprecedented visibility and experience" are two of the main reasons for pursuing a seat on the council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' undersecretary for political affairs Paul Teesalu told ERR earlier this year.

"It is important for Estonia to know the work of the UN Security Council from within, to know its procedures, the dynamics of relations between members, decision-making processes and leverage," he added.

"Membership would provide invaluable experience and know-how. We saw this benefit with our ally, Lithuania, which was a member of the Security Council in 2014-2015," he said.

How did Estonia win a seat on the Security Council?

To qualify as a non-permanent member a candidate country must collect at least 129 votes, two-thirds of the total of the 193-member UN assembly.

Estonia competed against Romania for a seat at the council and was expected to win.

Estonia received 132 votes against Romania's 58 and won during the second round of voting. The first round had been inconclusive as, although Estonia won the majority of votes, the figure did not pass the two-thirds mark needed.

President Kersti Kaljulaid casting her ballot in the election of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021. June 7, 2019. Source: Eleri Ever/Kersti Kaljulaid/Facebook

When and how did Estonia campaign for the seat?

The original decision to apply was made back in 2005, a year after Estonia joined NATO and the EU, with the later phase of the campaign starting in 2017.

In 2005, the then-foreign minister, Urmas Paet (Reform), first raised the idea of Estonia's security council candidacy. Paet told ERR in June he saw it as part of the continued restoration of Estonia's international position, as it had just become a member of NATO and the EU, with the UN campaign and prospective membership on the security council also contributing to raising Estonia's reputation.

The active phase of the campaign began in July 2017 and saw President Kersti Kaljulaid discuss the subject with leaders of more than 170 countries.

What duties will Estonia carry out?

As an elected member of the Security Council, Estonia will attend all sessions, have the right to vote and Estonia's permanent representative to the UN Security Council Sven Jürgenson will head the Sudan and Iraq sanctions committees.

Estonia will also be able to present topics in the forms of discussions and briefings; for example, there are plans to raise awareness about international cyber norms and the application of existing international law in cyberspace.

In 2020, Estonia will take over the presidency of the Security Council in May.

The work of the Security Council also deal with a large number of topics related to African countries, Ministry of Foreign Affairs undersecretary for political affairs Paul Teesalu told ERR. In 2018 the Security Council adopted 28 resolutions devoted to Africa out of a total of 54.

Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said that most decisions in the Security Council are adopted by consensus but there are many differences that prevent helping those in need. For example, in December, Russia and China voted against the Security Council resolution that would have allowed providing cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria. Attempts are made to reach an agreement early this month and Estonia will take part in making this decision.

How long will Estonia be a non-permanent member?

Estonia will hold the position for a two-year period from the start of 2020 until the end of 2021.

What are the country's priorities while it is a non-permanent member?

Rules-based international law, human rights, and cybersecurity.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu said for Estonia, it is especially important to highlight aspects of international law and its development that are essentially connected to the birth of the Republic of Estonia.

Reinsalu said Estonia with its painful history has a very clear understanding of the importance of international law and joint agreements for small states. "At the Security Council, we can make sure that the UN principle of prohibiting the use of force and threatening with the use of arms continues to endure. The policy of not recognising illegal and unlawful annexations is also crucial."

"Estonia has the responsibility and opportunity to work towards making sure that state borders are not shifted, that human dignity is protected and commonly agreed norms apply also in cyberspace. We consider it crucial to amplify the voice of small states in the Security Council," he said.

He added: "E-governance and cybersecurity are definitely priorities for us as a digital nation, and they are directly linked to our security."

Estonia also supports blocking or limiting veto rights in cases that concern genocide or other crimes against humanity.

How much will it cost?

The Ministry of Affairs said the seat will cost the country €4 million each year. But this does not include the amount spent on the campaign to win the seat which was reported to be approximately €1.5 million.

Ceremony taking place outside UN headquarters in New York. Source: Xinhua / Scanpix

Will additional staff be hired?

Estonia has sent 10 additional diplomats, plus administrative staff, to the UN Headquarters in New York, to work in connection with the security council seat. These employees will come from the Foreign Ministry, with no new employees being recruited for the purpose, a foreign ministry representative told ERR in June.

Estonia's Permanent Representative to the UN Sven Jürgenson will head the Sudan and Iraq sanctions committees.

Where there any controversies during the campaign? 

There were concerns Estonia's unwillingness to sign the UN Global Migrant Compact at the end of 2018 may have reduced the country's chances of getting a spot on the council.

A furore over the compact split the ruling coalition government along the fault line lying between its two junior partners, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDE) and the centre-right Isamaa.

What was the reaction to winning the seat?

President Kersti Kaljulaid said: "Since Estonia restored its independence, we have pursued the line of adopting value-based decisions among the international community. This has won us trust, and we need to observe this line in the future. Belonging to the UN Security Council is a historical step for Estonia. This is another layer in our defensive shield: On the one hand, we will have better opportunities than ever to make our voice heard on global issues, while on the other hand, we can make Estonia better-known, and increase the weight of our voice."

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) said: "Estonia has again proven that it is an active participant in the international community, one which is reflective, stands up for its values and makes a contribution towards the world to be a better place to live for all of us."

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said: "The UN is the most important organization with a remit for peace and security, and having a seat at the table of the Security Council provides Estonia with a chance to contribute to resolving conflicts and ensuring peace across the world."

Leader of the opposition Reform Party Kaja Kallas said: "I'm glad that Estonia was elected as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Getting there was ultimate mastery in foreign policy, and great respects go out to our diplomats and the president for that. The position enables us to raise the foreign policy clout of Estonia over the next two years and be larger than our borders,"

MEP Jaak Madison (EKRE) said: "Serious work now awaits Estonia to emphasize the security threats originating primarily from Russia, Africa and the Middle East."

The media were mostly positive about the win.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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