September 2013 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 August 2013
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In Hindsight: Penholders


Penholder is a relatively new term in the Council vocabulary that started to appear in Council-related exchanges probably some four or five years ago. But, in principle, the concept is not new. Ever since the end of the Cold War, when a previously paralysed Council saw a dramatic increase in activity, the Council has experimented with different ways to address the division of labour. It has developed a number of practices and working methods reflecting the increased cooperation to tackle the growing workload.

Drafting resolutions and chairing the subsequent negotiations has been one of the key chores (the number of resolutions went from 20 in 1988 to 93 in 1993; more recently, during the five years from 2008 through 2012, the average annual number of resolutions has been 58). In the early to mid-1990s, the drafting of resolutions would often be undertaken by whichever member took the initiative to produce the text. Specific, recurring topics did not “belong” to a particular Council member. Sometimes, members with an interest in a given situation would join forces or, on some occasions, would compete to produce a draft first in order to then chair the negotiations. Both permanent and elected members routinely undertook the drafting. With the increased number of crisis situations on the Council agenda, a more structured division of labour seemed necessary, and a system of Groups of Friends emerged within the Council. Starting around 1990, Groups of Friends had initially been used by the Secretary-General, who would enlist a set of interested states, often for a range of reasons, in a particular conflict to assist his good offices efforts. At the Council, members with stakes in an issue, or a particular commitment to, would come together to draft resolutions on that issue with both elected and permanent members playing a leadership role (for example, Canada on Haiti or Norway on the Horn of Africa). These groups furthermore often included non-Council members that had particular expertise, specific commitments or stakes in the situations (such as Spain on Western Sahara, Germany on Georgia and Iran or Australia and New Zealand on East Timor) or had kept their involvement beyond their stay on the Council (for example, Canada with respect to Haiti).

The system of Groups of Friends, while generally efficient, garnered increasing criticism within the Council from both permanent and elected members, although for different reasons. Some permanent members considered the lead role of configurations other than those involving the P5 as potentially undermining their authority. A particularly sensitive aspect was the fact that several Groups of Friends included non-Council members and thus they had been part of the early stage of drafting while some Council members were excluded from the decision-making process until much later. That is because Groups of Friends tended to keep the drafting process away from the full Council until shortly before the vote. A February 1999 Note by the President said: “It is important that all members of the Security Council be allowed to participate fully in the preparation of the resolutions of the Council and statements by the President of the Council. Contributions by members of groups of friends and other similar arrangements … are welcome. …While the need is recognized for the Council, in many instances, to adopt its decisions expeditiously, sufficient time should be allowed for consultations of all members of the Council and for their own consideration of the drafts, prior to action by the Council on specific items” (S/1999/165).

Some Groups of Friends still exist (including on Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Western Sahara), but in mid-2000 the Council began organising its work on particular situations around a lead country. Initially, those arrangements were fairly temporary and changeable and lead nations were both elected and permanent members (for example Belgium led on Ethiopia/Eritrea in 2007 and 2008; Panama and Costa Rica co-led on Haiti in 2008 and Costa Rica led on Haiti in 2009).

Starting around 2008, however, a new system seems to have emerged. The P3 (France, the UK and the US, the more legislatively active of the P5) have divided most current situations on the agenda among themselves, assuming in each case the role nicknamed penholder. These arrangements have been informal and unwritten but, given the permanent positions of these nations, this leadership essentially remains unchanged.

Our research identified over 40 penholder arrangements as of early 2013 (please see our February 2013 Monthly Forecast) with over 30 split more or less equally between the P3, Russia leading on a couple of issues and the rest, mainly thematic issues, led by elected members.

Although this system may seem logical in terms of efficiency, a side-effect of the penholder system has been a deepening gap between the permanent and elected members. The P3 usually agree upon a given draft among themselves and then negotiate it with China and Russia. The agreed text is then circulated to the elected members, usually quite close to the adoption date. The elected members are often discouraged from making amendments because this might disturb the sometimes painstakingly achieved consensus among the P5.

The penholder is seen by all members, permanent and elected, as the leader on an issue as it takes the initiative on all matters related to that situation (even in the cases where there is a subsidiary body on that country chaired by an elected member). This in turn creates a situation of default where the other members defer to the penholder. If a crisis arises and the penholder is either unwilling or unable (for example, because it is already managing one or two other crises) to take the initiative, the Council may seem paralysed or act with what is perceived as considerable delay.

At the moment, attempts to modify this system have been unsuccessful. In 2012 Portugal, then chair of the subsidiary body dealing with Council working methods, circulated a draft presidential note outlining a system under which all members would have an opportunity to be penholders or co-penholders. After nearly six months of negotiations, no consensus was reached. The proposal was abandoned.