The Security Council is the main organ responsible for maintaining global peace and security. It has 5 permanent members -China, France, Russia (which assumed the Soviet Union's seat), the United Kingdom and the United States - and 10 members elected by the General Assembly. Canada served a two-year term from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2000 as a non-permanent member; this was the sixth time since 1948 that Canada has sat on the Security Council.
Council members are on call 24 hours a day in case an international crisis occurs. Any UN member or the Secretary-General may call a Security Council meeting if a threat to peace exists. A non-member state may also request a meeting if it feels that such a threat exists. When a meeting is called, those countries directly involved in the issue under consideration are invited to take part in discussions but they may not vote on Council resolutions. It takes a nine-member majority for a resolution to be carried, but none (except for procedural questions) can be adopted if opposed by one of the five permanent members (i.e. they have a "veto").
In the event of a conflict pitting one or more countries against another, the Council can order economic sanctions against the aggressor, and all other UN members are obliged to comply with these. If the sanctions fail to stop the aggression, the Security Council can authorize member states to launch joint military action. The Council authorizes such operations only as a last resort, when all peaceful means of resolving a dispute have failed.
In most cases, the Council tries to facilitate a cease-fire between the combatants. Once the fighting stops, UN peacekeeping forces may be sent to keep the two sides apart or to help implement a peace accord.
Last, the Security Council recommends the admission of new members to the UN. It also makes recommendations on filling the posts of Secretary-General and of judges on the International Court of Justice.