Rule-based Decision-making through Complex Governance Structures?

A DSF funded research project


Project Description

In January 2014, the Chair of International Relations launched an externally funded research project on the interaction between the United Nations Security Council and its sanction committees.

The project examines for several sanctions regimes of the UN Security Council in comparative perspective, whether and how the assignment of decision making powers to sanctions committees modifies the prevailing decision process, and how this affects the content of the adopted decisions. Under its sanctions regimes, the Security Council frequently fulfils complex governance tasks that require regular adoption of detailed decisions over extended periods of time. These decisions are increasingly often assigned to sanctions committees. Empowering a sanctions committee creates a differentiated decision process that transforms the Council partially from a mere forum for great power politics into a complex governance structure and might promise to facilitate more consistent and rule-based decisions.

The project contributes to peace research in at least two ways. On the one hand, it will generate knowledge about the operations and decision-making mechanisms of the Security Council as the most important international institution for the preservation of world peace and international security. If this institution employs its far-reaching competences to perform complex regulatory functions over extended periods of time, it will matter how, and with what effects, this is done. On the other hand, the project provides access to modern organizational and institutional theory and related research on the consequences of institutional design. This strand has hardly been used to analyse international institutions of relevance for peace research.

Theoretically, the project builds upon modern organisation research relating to international institutions and the European Union, as well as upon the discussion on international administrative law. Drawing on organisation sociology, the Security Council is conceptualized as a selection apparatus with the core function of adopting collectively binding decisions. Drawing on rationalist institution theory, assignment of decision-making powers to sanctions committees is conceived of as delegation, assuming that delegation always introduces a degree of functional differentiation into a decision process. Even though the Security Council and its sanctions committees consist of the same group of member states, the two bodies operate under significantly different mandates and decision procedures. Following modern organization theory, it is expected that this institutional arrangement exerts influence of the behaviour of the participating actors and, subsequently, on the content of decisions.

In a first step, insights from organization theory and institution theory will be adapted to the specific conditions of the UN Security Council, in order to derive hypotheses. Subsequently, the consequences of assigning decision-making powers to the Al-Qaida/Taliban sanctions committee will be analysed. Under this regime, numerous individuals and private associations associated with Al-Qaida and the Taliban are subject to targeted sanctions. Of particular relevance are the division of labour between the Security Council and the sanctions committee and resulting consequences, including the increasingly dense set of rules that guide decision-making within the sanctions committee. In a next step, these issues are examined in comparative perspective for a number of other sanctions regimes targeting at individuals and private associations. Finally, the assessment is extended to two sanctions regimes in which the Security Council has assigned to sanctions committees the power to decide other issues, namely the listing of dual-use goods subject to trade restrictions under the Iran sanctions regime and the decision on exemptions from the overall trade restrictions under the Iraq sanctions regime of the 1990s. The comparative perspective enables to identify general implications of functionally differentiated decision-making that are not immediately related to the specific circumstances of a particular crisis situation.

The project promises to generate policy-relevant insights on whether the Security Council, despite strong influence of the great powers, allows establishing opportunity structures that facilitate the (partial) transition from power-based to rule-based decision-making. Findings on the consequences and mechanisms of functionally differentiated decision-making within this organization will elucidate the conditions under which a particular design of decision processes can drive decision-making within the Council toward a more consistent application of general rules, as well as the consequences of the absence of such rules. The project thus promises to identify institutional arrangements that are likely to increase the legitimacy of a particular subset of Security Council decisions without jeopardizing the influence of the member states, in particular the great powers.


Senior Researcher: Prof. Dr. Thomas Gehring

Researcher: Thomas Dörfler, M.A.

Funding: Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung (DSF)

Duration: 24 months (January 2014 - December 2015)

Status: To be completed



Selected Publications

Dörfler, Thomas and Thomas Gehring (2015): Wie internationale Organisationen durch die Strukturierung von Entscheidungsprozessen Autonomie gewinnen. Der Weltsicherheitsrat und seine Sanktionsausschüsse als System funktionaler Ausdifferenzierung. In: Politische Vierteljahresschrift 49 (special issue), pages 30-56.

Stollenwerk, Eric; Thomas Dörfler and Julian Schibberges (2015): Taking a New Perspective: Mapping the Al Qaeda Network Through the Eyes of the UN Security Council. In: Terrorism and Political Violence (online first).

Gehring Thomas and Thomas Dörfler (2013): Division of Labor and Rule-based Decisionmaking Within the UN Security Council: The Al-Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Regime. In: Global Governance, Vol.  19, No. 4, pages 567-587.


Selected Conference Papers

Dörfler, Thomas and Thomas Gehring (2016): Complex Governance Structures and Rule-based Decision-making within the UN Security Council. Paper presented at UNU-CPR & Kroc Institute Workshop “The Sanctions Enterprise” Manhasset, NY, USA, 11-13 February.

Gehring, Thomas; Christian Dorsch and Thomas Dörfler (2014): Institutional Constraints as Sources of Organizational Autonomy. The Impact of Doctrines and Delegation to Sanctions Committees on Decision-making within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Paper presented at the 56. ISA Annual Convention, New Orleans, 18-21 February.

Stollenwerk, Eric; Thomas Dörfler and Julian Schibberges (2013): Eyes Wide Shut? Mapping the Al-Qaida Network through the Eyes of the UN Security Council.  Paper presented at the 8th Pan-European International Relations Conference, Warsaw, 18-21 September (presented by Eric Stollenwerk).