In Hindsight: The Working Methods Open Debate
On 30 November 2011, the Council held an open debate on its working methods, the fourth such debate on the issue with 35 delegations participating, including 20 members at large. As president, Ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral (Portugal) volunteered to speak last, allowing him to sum up the debate.
Developments since 2006
Many speakers referred to developments since the Council undertook a more systematic approach to its working methods in 2006. One of the initial steps was deciding that the chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions should serve on an annual—as opposed to monthly—basis. Japan chaired the group in 2006, 2009 and 2010, culminating in two presidential notes (S/2006/507 and S/2010/507), cataloguing and updating practices and understandings.
During November’s debate, Bosnia and Herzegovina, outgoing chair of the informal working group, highlighted some of the issues that the group had discussed:
- streamlining the issues under the Council’s active consideration; and
- distributing mandate renewals more evenly throughout the year.
Council members and members at large recognised some improvements, including:
- increased interaction with troop-contributing countries;
- briefings for non-Council members by presidents after the monthly adoption of the programme of work; and
- “horizon-scanning” briefings by the Department of Political Affairs.
“Always room for improvement”
Many delegations called for further implementation of note 507, describing it as “inconsistent”. Some, including China, said that there was “room for improvement” while others underscored the importance of the Council’s “continuing to innovate” [France] and being prepared to “evolve continually” [UK]. The Small Five (S5–Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) called for an action plan for implementation, suggesting that the informal working group could be mandated with this task.
Portugal, in a concept note circulated before the open debate (S/2011/726), encouraged suggestions that could make “a difference in the day-to-day business” of the Council. Five featured prominently:
(1) The P5’s designation of chairs and leading on country-specific resolutions
Several speakers called for review of the practice by which P5 members alone dictate the chairs of subsidiary bodies. Switzerland described this as an “anachronism,” while Mexico said that the “opacity” was unacceptable.
Several members also questioned the P5’s lead on country-specific resolutions. India stated that it was difficult to understand why pen-holding should “basically be a monopoly of permanent members.” New Zealand said both practices lacked “any obvious justification and should be discontinued.”
(2) Sharing of draft resolutions
Australia echoed many in calling for draft resolutions and presidential statements to be made available to non-members at an early stage. Spain directly linked this to paragraph 44 of note 507, which calls on the Council to do so “as appropriate” and “as soon as such documents are introduced.”
(3) Monthly presidency assessments and the annual report
Speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt welcomed the initiative of some presidents in preparing an analytical assessment of the work of the Council under their presidency. This trend should be institutionalised, it said, and be complemented by informal wrap-up sessions at the end of each presidency. Others, such as Japan and Nigeria, linked the improvement of monthly assessments to a more substantive and analytical annual report.
(4) Open debates and informal meetings
Several speakers called on the Council to further increase the number of open debates and public meetings, as well as more frequent “Arria-formula” meetings (informal, procedurally-flexible gatherings with relevant parties).
Mexico called for the speakers list during open debates to be reversed so that Council members would deliver their statements at the end, encouraging them to “truly listen” to the membership. It expressed regret that Portugal was not allowed to do so during the 30 November debate.
Singapore questioned how the Council could benefit from others’ views when outcomes were often predetermined, whereas Colombia said a reasonable break should be allowed between debates and the adoption of outcomes. Portugal concluded that the goal of open debates was to “reflect the relevant inputs…not speaking first, deciding on the outcome and then listening to the wider membership.”
(5) The use of the veto
Even though note 507 contains no provisions on the veto, three specific measures were proposed.
First, P5 members should provide an explanation of vote when casting a veto (suggested by Jordan, New Zealand and Spain). The latter described this as an “obligation of conduct.”
Second, P5 members should refrain from resorting to the veto when there are allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of international law. Jordan related this to the obligation to maintain peace and security “in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.” It said that in such cases, a veto-wielding member voting against measures agreed on by a majority of the Council should “at least explain how its position is consistent with the Charter.”
Third, Liechtenstein suggested that when an absolute majority had been obtained in the Council, P5 members be allowed to cast a negative vote without giving it the effect of a veto, thereby enabling them to take a position on the substance, without blocking adoption of a proposal.
In concluding the debate, Portugal said that the Council must intensify its commitment to monitoring implementation of agreed practices on methods of work and assess their impact. “There is always room for improvement”, it noted.
The informal working group is likely to discuss the proposed suggestions in 2012, and it is expected that progress will continue to be made on “internal” aspects of Council reform, such as distributing mandates more evenly. Progress on “external” issues—such as making the annual report more analytical, improving monthly assessments and encouraging presidents to be more forthcoming regarding outside communication—will also be sought.