In Hindsight: Security Council Press Statement
Over the past two years or so, the Security Council has on several occasions chosen to communicate a set of complex political messages through press statements rather than a presidential statement or a resolution. The only mode of communication of Council decisions or views that is recognised in the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure is a resolution. Press statements and presidential statements, while in existence since 1946, albeit in a different format, mostly emerged in the practice of the Council in the early 1990s, as most of the Council’s work started being conducted in consultations.
Regarding presidential statements, according to Bailey and Daws [The Procedure of the Security Council, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2005], starting in 1991 the president of the Council would occasionally make “a statement to the media on behalf of the Council.” These statements were initially issued as letters from the president to the Secretary-General asking him “to circulate as a document of the Security Council the text of the following statement which I, in my capacity as president of the Council, made to the press”. Later on, they took the form of a Note by the president transmitting a statement made on behalf of Council members. These were issued as consecutive documents of the Security Council. In presidential Note [S/26015] of 30 June 1993 on various aspects of Council documentation, the Secretariat was asked to start, as of 1 January 1994, issuing presidential statements by the Council in an annual series using the prefix “S/PRST/_” and to list all such statements in the annual report of the Security Council to the General Assembly.
Since 1994, the Council has issued an average of 46 presidential statements a year, with numbers sharply decreasing since 2005 to a mere 22 in 2011. With presidential statements apparently on the wane, a separate format of Council messaging, press statements, started appearing anew. Most of these statements would subsequently be issued as press releases by the Secretariat.
Press statements were initially rare in Council practice in the 1990s. But on 8 March 2000 (International Women’s Day), the Council issued what may be one of its most seminal press statements to date—the first-ever Council pronouncement on women and peace and security. The initial plan had apparently been to adopt a presidential statement, but due to the opposition of some Council members, a tactical decision was made to instead have the president of the Council read a statement during the noon UN media briefing. Later that year, the Council adopted resolution 1325, referencing the press statement and reiterating one of its recommendations regarding the need for specialised training on the protection, special needs and human rights of women and children in conflict situations.
Researching and accessing press statements presents a bit of a challenge. Before 29 June 2001, when the Council issued a Note from the president [S/2001/640] requesting that the Secretariat issue all its press statements as UN press releases, it appears that some but not all press statements were issued in writing. Tracing past press statements has become easier since as they have been archived under the Council Presidency tab on the Council website (they are not available, however, in the Official Documents System (ODS) electronic data base).
When a press statement is made, it is usually read to the media by the president and then issued as a Security Council press release by the Department of Public Information with a symbol SC and a consecutive number. But the document has a disclaimer “for information media • not an official record” and the UN document archival symbol does not distinguish press statements of the Council from all the other press releases concerning the Council. Since 1996, the first full year when press releases were electronically archived, the overall number of Council press releases has always been much higher than the overall number of press statements archived (with the overall number of press releases ranging from about 150 to more than 670 a year during the 1996-2011 period, and the number of archived press statements ranging from zero to slightly more than 100 annually in the same period). Some but not all press statements are referenced in the monthly “Assessments of the work of the Security Council” presented by outgoing Council presidents and only some are referred to in the reports of the Secretary-General. In the last several years, the annual report of the Security Council to the General Assembly has listed the overall number of press statements, and more recently, has described the press statements under other Council work on a given topic.
Meanwhile, since 2001 press statements have become a frequent mode of communication, with the Council issuing between 35 to more than 100 press statements a year.
Press statements have been issued for a number of purposes, which can be loosely grouped in the following categories:
- Purely factual, usually very short, statements about a specific development in the work of the Council. These statements disappeared almost completely after media stakeout appearances by Council diplomats started being archived on the UN website (2003 was the first full year).
- Statements involving sanctions-related matters (nowadays rare because all Council sanctions committees now issue their own press releases).
- Statements related to a specific event, such as a terrorist act, violence against UN personnel, a natural disaster, the death of a head of state or other prominent personality (their annual numbers vary sharply depending on the occurrence of the actual events, peaking at more than 30 in 2011).
- Statements with political messages, issued when time is of the essence, or on the occasion of a briefing, an election (forthcoming or successfully held) or an international conference on an issue on the agenda of the Council. It appears that for certain issues, press statements (as opposed to other pronouncements) have become a routine practice (for example the Iraq-Kuwait missing persons and property issues or the work of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia).
Finally, there is the category that could be described as press statements that differ from presidential statements (and in a few cases, one could argue, even resolutions) only by the way in which they were made public.
These complex press statements have appeared annually since 2000, with 2003, 2004 and the period since late 2010 onwards accounting for the bulk.
It is probably fair to say that in most cases the Council opts for a complex press statement rather than a more formal format when there is an inability (either actual or anticipated) to reach agreement among Council members to adopt a formal pronouncement (presidential statements and press statements are consensus documents and are not voted on). On several occasions, the trade-off appears to have been between content and format. Occasionally, the authors of a particular statement would start with a more formal format as a matter of tactics and ultimately agree to a press statement in an effort to preserve the substance.
Some sensitive situations on the Council agenda have sometimes been addressed mostly by press statements. Such has been the case of Guinea-Bissau or Côte d’Ivoire (late 2010 through late March 2011). Sudan and South Sudan, starting in mid-2011 is another example (with one recent press statement taking more than six months to get approved). Occasionally, the Council has requested a report, which otherwise might not have been possible in a formal request, through a press release. (The 2011 request for a Secretary-General’s report assessing the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army is a recent example). In some cases, a press statement was the only pronouncement the Council could agree on with respect to a situation (as was the case with Fiji, twice, in 2006).
In hindsight, the format the Council chooses to convey a message probably should not affect its impact. The absence of a clear definition of the formal standing of press statements seems to allow the Council a certain degree of flexibility or “constructive ambiguity”. One could argue that in some situations if it were not for this communications tool, the Council would have remained silent, as was often the case during the Cold War.