The UN Security Council, normative legitimacy and the challenge of specificity

Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy:371-391 (2020)
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This paper discusses how the general and abstract concept of legitimacy applies to international institutions, using the United Nations Security Council as an example. We argue that the evaluation of the Security Council’s legitimacy requires considering three significant and interrelated aspects: its purpose, competences, and procedural standards. We consider two possible interpretations of the Security Council’s purpose: on the one hand, maintaining peace and security, and, on the other, ensuring broader respect for human rights. Both of these purposes are minimally morally acceptable for legitimacy. Second, we distinguish between three different competences of the UNSC: 1) the decision-making competence, 2) the quasi-legislative competence, and 3) the referral competence. On this basis, we argue that different procedural standards are required to legitimise these competences, which leads to a more differentiated understanding of the Security Council’s legitimacy. While maintaining that the membership structure of the Council is a severe problem for its legitimacy, we suggest other procedural standards that can help to improve its overall legitimacy, which include broad transparency, deliberation, and the revisability of the very terms of accountability themselves.

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Antoinette Scherz
Stockholm University


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