In Hindsight: Security Council Working Methods
On 26 November 2012, the Council held an open debate on its working methods (S/PV.6870 and resumption 1). It was the fifth open debate on the subject since the first in 1994 and followed an equivalent debate organised by Portugal on 30 November 2011 (S/PV.6672 and resumption 1). (See our January 2012 Monthly Forecast for background information.)
The 26 November all-day meeting enabled member states to take stock of what had been an eventful year on working methods. States commended Portugal for its proactive leadership of the Informal Working Group that addresses working methods. (Russia observed that the group had taken on a “new dynamism”.)
Several states welcomed the discussions that took place in 2012 aimed at increasing the interactivity and efficiency of the Council, which culminated in a presidential note on 5 June (S/2012/402). This note included references to the increased use of videoconferencing and of the more streamlined scheduling of Council work, among other housekeeping issues.
While acknowledging these positives, some states observed that improvements had been important but also “modest” and that within the Working Group, as stated by Liechtenstein, progress remained “limited and slow.” The chair of the Working Group, Ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral (Portugal), alluded to some of the challenges the group faced when he briefed the Council on 7 December: “It is never easy to get away from routine, which is always more comfortable than change; so it is a difficult task to generate interest in new measures, to discuss their usefulness and practicability and to adopt them” (S/PV.6881).
Several initiatives that had been discussed during the year were raised during the open debate, notably the role of “pen-holders”, which Germany said should increasingly include elected members. The desire for inclusive consultations on the appointment of chairs of the subsidiary bodies also featured prominently.
Following the open debate and several attempts to reach consensus during the preceding months, Council members agreed upon a presidential note (S/2012/937) of 17 December on the “chairpersons of subsidiary organs” issue. The note stated that Council members supported a process, with the participation of all members, to appoint the chairs in a “balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way.”
Nevertheless, decisions regarding the 2013 chairmanships had just been finalised, and no agreement had been reached on the “pen-holders” issue. (The disconnect between the pen-holders and the chairs of the subsidiary bodies is particularly glaring, as the former “trumps” the latter when drafting Council decisions.)
The open debate saw many recurring points raised. The permanent members largely espoused familiar positions, emphasising that the key test for the Council was its effectiveness in preventing and resolving international conflict, with the UK pointing to practical changes made to improve its efficiency.
Within the context of the Council’s enhanced interaction with non-members, many spoke in favour of the increasing number of open debates, as well as encouraging the use of flexible and innovative formats such as “Arria formula” meetings and informal interactive dialogues. Russia said that while it advocated a “reasonable increase” in the number of Council open debates, the “great importance” of closed consultations should be recognised.
Permanent members also reasserted that any potential modifications to the working methods were the “responsibility of the Council itself” (Russia). China and the US noted that the UN Charter provides that the Council shall adopt its own rules of procedure (Article 30). (Less attention was paid to Article 10, which states that the General Assembly may make recommendations to the Council on its powers and functions.)
Several speakers referred to the work in 2012 of the Small Five group (S5), particularly its list of twenty recommendations for the Council to consider regarding its working methods (A/66/L.42/Rev.2). (See our November 2012 Monthly Forecast for a background.) Several member states mentioned the worthiness of these recommendations. Some members suggested that discussions needed to go beyond presidential note 507 (S/2010/507), hitherto seen as the reference point for working methods improvements and that the S5 recommendations should serve as the “yardstick”. Japan, which played a key role in negotiating note 507, recalled that Ambassador Paul Seger (Switzerland) on 16 May had said the permanent members had expressed their willingness to consider the S5’s recommendations seriously. Japan asked, rhetorically, whether any tangible progress had been made since.
Singapore was emphatic in its criticism of the P5, suggesting that there was disconnect between the permanent members’ public statements and their actions behind closed doors where they appeared to block improvements. On the use of the veto, France reiterated that it supported the P5 “voluntarily and jointly forgoing the use of the veto in situations under the Council’s consideration in which mass atrocities are being committed and, more generally, which pertain to the responsibility to protect.” The other P5 members have kept silent on this, notwithstanding that some have called the vetoes on Syria “despicable” (US) and “inexcusable and indefensible” (UK).
Some new ideas emerged. Liechtenstein, supported by Switzerland, proposed that a subsidiary body address accountability issues of relevance to the Council, including notifications from the International Criminal Court on non-cooperation. New Zealand proposed that a Council open debate be held in 2013 focused on improving working methodologies under Chapter VI (Pacific Settlements of Disputes). South Africa suggested that the president of the Council interact regularly with the chairperson of the AU Peace and Security Council.
Speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Iran welcomed Council meetings with troop-contributing countries as part of wider efforts to improve peacekeeping operations. It also noted that the NAM was in favour of informal wrap-up sessions at the end of each presidency. (As Council President in January, Pakistan seems set to schedule such a session.) This suggestion was included in another presidential note agreed on 12 December (S/2012/922). The note also contained language aimed at enhancing interaction with member states, such as suggesting that Council members alternate their interventions with non-Council members during open debates. Furthermore, the note encouraged the inclusion of more substantive information in the annual report the Council must submit to the General Assembly in accordance with Article 24(3) of the UN Charter.