October 2023 Monthly Forecast

The UN Security Council and Regional Organisations: a Brief Exploration of Chapter VIII


The Importance of Chapter VIII Today

The Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace calls for strong partnerships between the UN and regional frameworks as part of “networked multilateralism”.[1] Current geopolitical shifts make it imperative to reflect on how such partnerships should function—how the Security Council and regional organisations relate to each other in the maintenance of international peace and security. This is especially important in assessing how and when the Council must be involved with regional arrangements, including peace and enforcement operations.

Regional arrangements or agencies have an explicit role under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter in dealing with matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security “as are appropriate for regional action”, subject to certain caveats, while the Security Council’s primary responsibility and superior enforcement role are strongly enshrined in Chapters V-VII of the Charter. The Council itself has a mixed record in interpreting the provisions of the UN Charter, however.

Shifting Approaches to Chapter VIII

Analysts have called Chapter VIII an “ambivalent compromise”.[2] The text reflects the divisions at the time of its drafting between “universalists”, who were determined that the new organisation should not be undermined by regional organisations acting in the same sphere, and “regionalists”, who wanted regional organisations to keep a role in maintaining international peace and security.[3]

In practice, the Council has taken an à la carte approach to regional organisations, variously cooperating with them, deferring to them, or asserting its own primacy, depending on the prevailing politics and the issue at hand. Between 1948 and 1982, powerful Council members amplified the roles of regional organisations in which they exercised significant influence, or turned to these organisations to legitimise the action they wanted to take, bypassing the Council.[4]

With the end of the Cold War, the Secretary-General and member states approached regional organisations with renewed vigour, exemplified by the Secretary-General’s 1992 Agenda for Peace in which then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali noted that “regional action as a matter of decentralization, delegation and cooperation with UN efforts could not only lighten the burden of the Council but also contribute to a deeper sense of participation, consensus and democratization in international affairs”.[5]

In January 1993, the Secretary-General invited regional organisations to improve coordination with the UN. The Security Council adopted its first resolution on the UN and regional organisations in 2005, infused with the intention to “strengthen the interaction and cooperation with these organizations in maintaining international peace and security”.[6] It also reiterated the obligation of international organisations, under Article 54 of the Charter, to keep the Council fully informed of their activities for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Enhanced Interaction with Regional Organisations

By this time, Council meetings focusing on regional organisations were starting to take hold. An April 2003 debate, featuring a briefing by then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, began a practice that has endured over the past two decades of frequent interaction between the Council and regional arrangements. Annual consultative meetings with the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council have been convened since 2007. Debates, briefings, and other meetings on cooperation with a host of regional organisations—including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the AU, the European Union (EU), the League of Arab States (LAS), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), among others—are now the norm.

Council decisions encouraging regular interaction with regional organisations and requesting the UN Secretary-General to report on the relationship between the UN and these organisations have prompted a number of these meetings. At times, elected members have also chosen to focus on the relationship between the UN and an organisation from their region in signature events during their monthly presidencies.

What led to these enhanced interactions? The answer may lie in the Council’s July 2004 presidential statement on cooperation between the UN and regional organisations in stabilisation processes. It noted that effectively addressing the numerous conflict situations confronting the international community would require “an increased level of cooperation with regional organizations, where appropriate”.[7] In short, the Council recognised that it was overburdened.

Notwithstanding the increased activity, the nature of the Council’s engagements with regional organisations—and their effectiveness in maintaining international peace and security—varies greatly, depending on the issue and the regional organisation. The most developed relationship is with the AU, in line with the multiple situations in Africa on the Council’s agenda. However, even this relationship continues to face challenges in terms of burden-sharing, coordination, and differing perceptions of roles and responsibilities.

Interpreting Chapter VIII: Enforcement Action and Peaceful Settlement

The ambivalently qualified entry point of Chapter VIII (“Nothing in the present Charter precludes the existence of regional arrangements…for dealing with such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security…”) goes on to specify that these matters must be “appropriate for regional action”, and that the arrangements, agencies, and their action must be consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations. This opening article, Article 52, while encouraging regional organisations in the pacific settlement of local disputes, adds that nothing in this article “impairs the application of Articles 34 and 35” of the Charter—respectively on the Council’s investigation of “any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute”, and the right of any member state to bring such situations to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly.

Article 53 of the Charter refers to the Council utilising regional arrangements for enforcement action under its authority (emphasis added), going on to say that “no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements…without the authorization of the Security Council”. Following the military coup in Niger in July, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to take “all necessary means”, including the use of force to restore democratic rule in Niger. If ECOWAS intervenes militarily in this situation, under Article VIII, the Council would by the strict letter of the UN Charter need to authorise this action. The Council has at times tacitly authorised operations, or acknowledged them belatedly, including insofar as the AU and ECOWAS forces are concerned. For example, the Council adopted resolution 788 in November 1992 commending the efforts of ECOWAS “to restore peace, security and stability in Liberia”,[8] more than two years after the sub-regional organisation’s force in the country (that is, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, or ECOMOG) had been deployed.

Some members have insisted that the Council should not address conflict situations while the relevant regional organisation is engaged (as African members have argued in the case of Tigray), or that the regional organisation should lead (ASEAN, in the case of Myanmar). On the other hand, others contend that the Council is not doing its job in the face of prolonged crises that regional arrangements appear unable to resolve.

The Primacy of the Council

Dag Hammarskjöld, speaking in 1954, emphasised that “where resort to [regional] arrangements is chosen in the first instance, that choice should not be permitted to cast any doubt on the ultimate responsibility of the UN.”[9] The UN Charter and the practice of the Council confirm that the Security Council has the authority to act at any time in respect of any dispute, including issues that are also under consideration in regional arrangements and organisations. The Council’s 2004 presidential statement underlined its own primacy over regional arrangements,[10] as also evident from Articles 24 and 103 of the Charter.[11]

It remains up to the Council to determine which matters it discusses, addresses, investigates, or delegates to a regional or subregional organisation. As part of the Council’s authority—and accountability—it can decide whether a matter is appropriate for regional action within the meaning of Article 52 of the UN Charter, and, again, whether it wishes to rely on regional arrangements for enforcement action under its own authority pursuant to Article 53. While the Council can delegate authority in any particular case, it cannot ignore its primary responsibility for international peace and security.

Article 54 says that “The Security Council shall at all times be kept fully informed of activities undertaken or in contemplation under regional arrangements or by regional agencies for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The Council has at times imposed specific reporting obligations on regional arrangements or coalitions—for example, in the cases of Afghanistan (S/RES/1510), Libya (S/RES/1973), and Iraq (S/RES/678).


At the Charter’s drafting, the question of whether regional arrangements should be able to use force on their own initiative has been described as the most important issue “in the argument concerning the political order of the postwar period”.[12] Some states feared that “local arrangements might degenerate into simple aggressive alliances incompatible with the aims and policies of the contemplated world organization.”[13]

There is little doubt that regional organisations capable of preventing, deterring or responding to armed conflict, in particular, would be invaluable in supporting the Security Council in its task of maintaining international peace and security. But for this to become reality, there needs to be greater coordination between the Council and the regional arrangements in addressing potential and current conflicts. Having a regular cycle for meetings with other regional organisations, such as the LAS and ASEAN, could allow for more substantive discussions and a greater focus on specific country situations. With the October meeting of the Council and the AUPSC, as well as this year’s possible draft resolution on the financing of AU-led peace operations, the coming months present a singular opportunity to reflect on the deepening of partnerships between the Security Council and regional organisations.

[1] New Agenda for Peace, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/our-common-agenda-policy-brief-new-agenda-for-peace-en.pdf

[2] H.P. Neuhold, The Charter of the United Nations, A Commentary, ed. B. Simma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 686.

[3] See discussion in Robert C. Hilderbrand, Dumbarton Oaks, (Chapell Hill: Universitty of North Carolina Press, 1990), 159-182.

[4] See extensive discussion in Bruno Stagno Ugarte, The UN Security Council in the 21st Century, ed D. Malone et al, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2016), 475-490.

[5] United Nations, “An Agenda for Peace: S/24111.” 31 January 1992.

[6] United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1631 (2005).” 17 October 2005.

[7] United Nations Security Council, “Statement of the President of the Security Council S/PRST/2004/27 (2004).” 20 July 2004.

[8] United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 788 (1992)”, 19 November 1992.

[9] H.P. Neuhold, The Charter of the United Nations, A Commentary, ed. B. Simma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 712.

[10] United Nations Security Council, “Statement of the President of the Security Council S/PRST/2004/27 (2004).” 20 July 2004.

[11] W. Hummer and M. Schweitzer, The Charter of the United Nations, A Commentary, ed. B. Simma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 838-9. Article 24(1) provides that member states confer primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace security on the Council and also agree that the Council acts on their behalf in carrying out duties under this responsibility.  Article 103 provides that member states’ obligations imposed by the Charter prevail over their obligations under any other international agreement.

[12] Bruno Simma, The Charter of the United Nations, A Commentary, ed. B. Simma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 732, referencing R.B. Russel and J.E. Muther, A History of the United Nations Charter (1958)

[13] Ibid.

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