Conflict Prevention Briefings
Expected Council Action
At press time it seemed likely that Council members in January would hold another “horizon scanning” discussion on issues of potential concern, in line with similar consultations held in November 2010 during the UK presidency.
Key Recent Developments
On 4 November 2010 at the invitation of the UK presidency Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe briefed Council members in consultations during a “horizon scanning session” on emerging security issues in a number of countries, both on and off the Council’s agenda. Council members subsequently spoke about issues of concern to them and brought up issues arising in other international security threatening theatres.
Interestingly, during the month of December the US presidency did not follow the precedent.
The 4 November 2010 informal consultations were intended to promote a more proactive approach to peace and security and support a Council emphasis on conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy rather than on conflict management. (Over the last year or so, several members, including African states, Brazil and Turkey, have expressed interest in the Council focusing more on conflict prevention.) Apparently about a dozen situations were either presented by Pascoe or mentioned by a Council member. While the discussion was intended to include both continuing and novel threats, it appears that ongoing situations that the Council has acted on in the past received the most attention. The manner in which the Council has handled these situations, and the overall effectiveness of its response, were also touched on.
In addition to discussion of existing issues of concern and possible emerging threats to international peace and security, the exercise aimed to promote an unscripted and interactive exchange of ideas between Council members. It seems that most members participated in the discussion without relying on prepared remarks, in line with the underlying objective.
(In terms of Council working methods, it is interesting to note that several presidencies over the course of the previous calendar year have sought to encourage more unscripted exchanges in Council consultations to increase dialogue and support more creative responses to issues of concern. Pascoe’s November briefing of the Council in consultations during a “horizon scanning session” was the most focused and carefully prepared.)
Article 99 of the UN Charter provides that the “Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Historically, this mandate has been used only very rarely. (For example, it was invoked by the Secretary-General in 1960 in response to the crisis in the Congo and in 1979 in response to the occupation of the US embassy in Iran.) Nevertheless, successive Secretary-Generals have taken at times active, independent roles in identifying concerns or potential threats to international peace and security and raising these informally with Council members in consultations. Such briefings by the Secretary-General or his senior staff on actual or emerging security issues are therefore clearly grounded in the Charter.
It should also be noted that the November briefing was in line with procedures that were routine in the Council in the 1990s. For example, at that time the Secretariat provided a daily high-level comprehensive situation briefing to Council members in informal consultations and the discussion was not limited to previously agreed issues. (Please see our Special Research Report Security Council Working Methods—A Work in Progress? of 30 March 2010.) Consultations had the flexibility to respond to the Secretariat’s daily situation brief and allowed for free and unscripted discussion on a regular basis. At present, since the daily situation briefings are no longer provided to Council members, requesting a briefing from the Secretariat often occurs on a case by case basis and such a request can easily become politicised.
A key issue is whether Council members are using the new briefings to allow discussion of responses in a more proactive manner, thus playing a more preventive role in the maintenance of international peace and security.
- not repeating the “horizon scanning” exercise in the future;
- allowing the practice to continue from month to month at the discretion of each Council president;
- continuing the practice even more frequently but requesting the Secretariat to focus on only a few subjects per session; or
- asking the Secretariat to convey 24 hours in advance the key items to be raised—while not excluding the Secretary-General’s right to add other issues as the situation demands.
Council and Broader Dynamics
Most Council members seem to view Pascoe’s November briefing as having been useful in principle and to have gone reasonably well in practice. No members had objection to holding the briefing and all generally supported the goal of improving the proactive consideration by the Council of developing threats.
In light of the November experience it seems that a majority of members feel that “horizon scanning” sessions, if held on a continuing basis, would assist the Council in taking action oriented toward conflict prevention by offering a forward-looking assessment of potential emergencies before crises actually occur and require a response focused on conflict management. Some additionally seem to have found the briefing useful to discuss country-specific situations where they do not maintain a diplomatic presence.
Some members raised concerns in advance that specific topics be included or excluded. In addition, there are some members who appear to be relatively less enthusiastic about continuing the practice. In part this seems to be because of the possibility that the exercise will become a vehicle for raising historically divisive issues in the consultations.
There seems to be a wide perception that improvements could be made to the format. Some members take the view that the 4 November briefing was overloaded with too many issues and feel that limiting the number of topics discussed could also improve the quality of the discussion. Others stress that if a topic is raised which some members believe requires more preparation to be usefully discussed, a more detailed follow-up briefing could be scheduled on that subject.
There are still some who wish to prepare statements in advance and would therefore like to know the subject matters from the Secretariat in advance regarding which topics would be covered. Others are mindful that the rationale for the briefing was not only to identify emerging threats, but also to improve the interactive quality of discussion in consultations by promoting a more free-flowing and unscripted exchange. They note that some colleagues are still getting used to the idea and therefore had varying levels of comfort with interacting in an unrehearsed way.