In Hindsight: Horizon-Scanning Briefings
From November 2010 through March 2012, with a break in December 2010 during the US presidency of the Council), “horizon-scanning” briefings by the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) were a regular feature of the programme of work of the Security Council. The UK initiated these briefings to provide the Council with information that might allow for better preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention. Additionally it was hoped that this format would allow for an unscripted exchange of ideas.
After a strong start, the cycle was once again broken by the US presidency in April 2012. During the next three months Azerbaijan, China and Colombia also chose not to have these briefings. France and Germany temporarily revived the practice in August and September 2012, but there have been no horizon-scanning briefings since. It seems that Rwanda, before its presidency in April of this year, showed some interest in reviving this practice but could not find sufficient support for it.
The change in attitude was due to several factors. B. Lynn Pascoe, the former head of DPA who conducted 14 of the 16 briefings, tended to inform Council members of the topics only a couple of days before the meeting. Many Council members wanted more time to prepare. At the start these sessions were more interactive than the average Council consultations, but they became more formal over time, with Council members reading statements.
During 2012 some members began to question the usefulness of the briefings and whether they needed to be held every month. Although never spelt out, it seems that these members may have been uncomfortable with the lack of control the Council had over the issues covered. In April 2012, the US circulated a non-paper on guidelines for the briefings, which included suggestions on the purpose, topics, members’ participation and frequency. However, some members disagreed with the text, effectively killing the idea.
Analysis of Issues Covered in Horizon-Scanning Briefings
The horizon-scanning briefings ranged from covering just one issue to more than nine. A number of issues that have since needed sustained attention by the Council—such as Gulf of Guinea piracy, Tuareg activity in northern Mali and the instability in Guinea-Bissau following the death of President Malam Bacai Sanhá—were first raised at these briefings.
These sessions were also a useful forum to discuss emerging crises such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. Although these issues featured in other Council meetings, all three were regularly on the horizon-scanning briefings, allowing the Council to be updated on fast-changing situations. These briefings also allowed for issues not discussed so regularly, such as Iraq, to be covered.
More controversial for some members was having the situation in countries such as Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives or Mexico discussed during the briefings. In these cases the briefings served as a way of alerting Council members to situations that had the potential for instability. However, some members were not comfortable with this, feeling it could give the appearance that these issues were on the Council’s agenda. Focusing on elections in particular regions, such as Africa and Latin America, also generated negative reactions. And raising situations such as Israel/Palestine and Myanmar made some members unhappy. Some members may also have found it difficult to justify discussing Camp Ashraf (now Camp New Iraq) for three consecutive months in 2012.
The rationale for including issues such as the financial implications of political missions, political field missions and problems with appointing sanctions experts may also have been questioned. It is less clear how these issues fit in with the concept of conflict prevention.
Trips made by the head of DPA were also often covered. Pascoe briefed Council members on his visits to Cameroon, Egypt, Gabon and Tunisia, and following AU meetings, often in relation to ongoing situations in the Middle East or Africa.
Reactions to these briefings had clearly changed by mid-2012. With a few exceptions, Council members reacted well to the briefings at the start. But more critical views began to be expressed by mid-2012. Among the complaints was that while in theory a good idea, in practice the briefings had been disappointing. There were calls for more analysis rather than information already in the public domain. Objections were raised about some of the issues covered, with certain members attempting to influence the agenda. In 2013 the positions of those against these briefings appear to have hardened, making it difficult to get consensus on having them at all. Few members seem willing to put the matter to a procedural vote at this point.
The horizon-scanning briefings are very much in line with Article 99 of the UN Charter, which 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.” Resolution 1625, adopted on 14 September 2005 following a summit-level meeting on conflict prevention, encouraged the Secretary-General to provide information to the Council on developments in regions at risk of armed conflict. The 2008 and 2011 Secretary-General’s reports on preventive diplomacy cite Article 99 as the basis for his preventive mandate.
Past Secretaries-General have brought issues to the attention of the Council in other ways. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1959 brought the matter of a letter from Laos before the Council but specifically stated that he was not acting under Article 99 and Rule 3 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure. Instead, he said he wanted to raise the issue because he felt it was personally necessary, but he was leaving the Council the option of deciding whether or not to place the issue on its agenda (S/PV.847). In the 1990s, there were daily high-level comprehensive situation briefings provided by the Secretariat to Council members during informal consultations.
Suggestions for other ways to apprise the Council of emerging issues have included the “Any Other Business” part of Council consultations, and the once-a-month Secretary-General’s lunches and Council wrap-up sessions. While these are useful forums to raise issues, none of them currently serve the Council as early-warning mechanisms. With scant conflict prevention mechanisms in place, ensuring that horizon-scanning sessions are truly informative and interactive might be worth the effort.