August 2013 Monthly Forecast

Posted 1 August 2013
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In Hindsight: The Media Stakeout

In our survey of Security Council statistics in the February 2011 Monthly Forecast, we identified a notable reduction in appearances at the Security Council media stakeout, the dedicated area for both planned and impromptu press appearances by Council members and others on their way to or from the Security Council. Though the decline in this informal but vital Council mechanism was ostensibly brought on by the relocation to temporary facilities in April 2010, we nonetheless voiced concern that such diminished information-sharing might become entrenched. 

In June 2013, the Security Council returned to its permanent premises, and the stakeout was restored to its place directly along the path members must take to enter the Council. An analysis of the number of stakeouts during the entire renovation period shows that there were indeed fewer appearances at the stakeout in the temporary location, prompting us to ask once more whether such reduced use will continue to be the status quo now that the Council is back in its refurbished chamber or whether Council members will reinvigorate this mechanism.

Using the same methodology as in 2011 (that is, focusing on stakeout appearances by Council members and excluding those that did not deal with Council matters), we found that Council members appeared at the stakeout 265 fewer times in the 33 months the Council was displaced for renovations than during the 33 months prior to renovations, an overall decline of approximately 34 percent. Stakeout appearances by the president during renovations averaged eight per month, compared with ten per month prior to renovations, or a decline of 20 percent. Stakeout appearances by other Council members during renovations also averaged eight per month, compared with 14 per month prior to renovations, a decline of 43 percent.

As in 2011, the immediate cause of this ebb can be linked to spatial changes: while in the temporary space, the bank of microphones and cameras that set the stage for the media stakeout was away from the path that Council members would take to the chambers. This minor inconvenience appears to have taken an outsize toll on the mechanism. Observers note that whereas the stakeout was previously a hive of journalistic activity, by comparison far fewer correspondents have regularly hovered around the stakeout in recent months.

Council members use the stakeout in a variety of ways to deliver messages outside the formal operations of the Council. Quite often, the stakeout provides an opportunity for members to communicate a national perspective on an issue when Council action (in the form of a resolution or presidential statement) proves impossible, as when, in December 2012, multiple constituencies spoke out against Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (see our January 2013 Forecast for a full description of this incident). In this case, beyond expressing frustration over Council inaction, the stakeout was used to make statements on the record following closed consultations. This appearance also provided an opportunity for Council members to signal to an international audience that the Council remained engaged on an issue in spite of disagreements, potentially restoring faith in the international community for an increasingly disillusioned public.

The stakeout also provides Council members the opportunity to make public Council dynamics that would otherwise remain hidden. One example of this is the divisions among the P5 on Syria that have emerged via the stakeout in recent months: in March Russia, France and the UK used the stakeout to trade accusations that each side was overstating the case that chemical weapons had been used by either the government of Syria or opposition forces in that conflict. Making disagreements like these public provides opportunities for Council members to leverage international opinion on particularly divisive issues (see our April Forecast Middle East brief for a fuller description of this incident).

Looking closely at the media stakeout, it is clear that permanent members make greater use of the mechanism than elected members. Some non-Council members observe that though certain states can be outspoken on particular issues when campaigning for a Council seat, once elected they tend to become far more timid. Many elected members worry that making controversial statements at the media stakeout will lead to negative consequences in Council negotiations. Others note that the P5 have both more capacity and more experience when it comes to using the stakeout. The lack of live translation services at the stakeout may also inhibit participation.

A related issue is that though media stakeouts have declined, the Council’s use of press statements has increased. During renovations the Council adopted, on average, six press statements per month compared with four per month for the 33 months preceding renovations. One might expect the increase in press statements to artificially inflate the number of media stakeouts, as many are read to the press by the Council president at the stakeout. However, this has not been the case, as increasingly press statements are agreed outside regular Council operating hours and issued electronically via the web. Though some Council members question the utility of publicly reading press statements aloud, the opportunities such events provide for unscripted interactions with the press should not be underestimated.

While the increase in the use of press statements might signal that the Council has become more responsive in recent years—pronouncing on issues with more speed and frequency—in fact the combination of the rise in electronic press statements and the decline in media stakeouts indicates that the Council may be less accessible than ever. These trends suggest that the Council is increasingly shying away from active interaction with the press and the international community at large. At the end of its Council presidency in June—the first month back in the permanent Council chamber—the UK noted on Twitter that it had made 14 stakeout appearances during its tenure (commendably more than the Council average). It remains to be seen whether other members of the Council, both permanent and elected, will continue to reverse the trend of recent years.