The gavel passes quickly for U.N. Security Council presidents

Nikki Haley speaking (© Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu/Getty Images)
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks from the president's seat at the Security Council. (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

No one can run for president of the United Nations Security Council. The job simply rotates each month among the 15 nations on the U.N. body bearing primary responsibility for keeping the world at peace.

The presidency gives the country that takes its reins each month a high profile. It is a chance to press for action on some of the most challenging issues of international peace and security.

The United States assumed the presidency of the Security Council for the month of April. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, immediately prioritized three issues of topmost concern to President Trump for the Security Council agenda for April:

  • Reform of the U.N.’s indispensable yet costly peacekeeping operations.
  • The importance of the council’s attention to human rights in preventing conflict.
  • Addressing North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program.

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and businesswoman and a daughter of immigrants from India, said on April 3, “As president, I strongly believe that if you look at the conflicts we have in the world, they always go back to the human rights issues on the ground.”

As council president, Haley succeeded the United Kingdom’s ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, and will pass the torch in May to Uruguay’s ambassador, Elbio Rosselli.

A second U.S. official will occupy the president’s chair one day this month: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As the country’s top diplomat, he’ll be the ranking U.S. representative when the council meets April 28 to discuss North Korea’s weapons programs. (Other council members’ foreign ministers are also expected to attend the session that day.)

Circular desk lined with people (© AP Images)
With Nikki Haley in the president’s chair (top right), the Security Council voted April 12 on a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.  (© AP Images)

The Security Council has five permanent members — the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia. Ten of the U.N.’s 188 other sovereign states rotate onto the council for two-year terms.

That gives every council member the chance to become Security Council president and drive the council’s agenda. Ambassadors representing the five permanent members often preside multiple times, as the late Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin did during his 11 years at the U.N.

The president also speaks for the council to the press and, in crises, becomes its face to the world.

Under the U.N. Charter, it takes nine votes to pass Security Council resolutions, but each permanent member can exercise a veto. Russia vetoed a recent resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons, its eighth time stopping a Syria-related resolution since the conflict began.

The president also gets to switch hats and speak as her country’s representative during important debates, as Haley did in impassioned remarks April 5 when she held up pictures of children killed in a chemical attack almost certainly carried out by the Syrian regime.