In Hindsight: Security Council Visiting Missions
Council members appear to have a renewed interest lately in making use of the visiting mission as a tool that can serve a number of purposes. Since the Council first travelled to Cambodia and Viet Nam in 1964, it has used the visiting mission for preventive diplomacy, gathering first-hand information, supporting peace processes and mediation. In the period since the end of the Cold War through January 2016, the Council undertook 51 visiting missions to a total of some 45 countries and territories. Several locations were visited repeatedly, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) holding the record at 12 and Burundi in second place with nine visits.
Following the visit to Burundi in January this year, Council members seem to appreciate anew the usefulness of Council missions, including return visits, and the value of speeding up the deployment of a mission. The Council had previously visited Burundi in March 2015 in an attempt to address the crisis then looming. In light of the growing violence and deepening political divisions late last year, the Council resolved to dispatch another mission to the country, and after securing the government’s consent, travelled there in January. It is too early to assess the true impact of that visit, but the combination of a clear and united message from the Council in Burundi and a Burundi-focused working meeting with the Peace and Security Council of the AU held on the way back appears to have encouraged increased engagement between the government and the international community.
Several members spoke about the Burundi visit during the 29 January wrap-up session held by Uruguay at the end of its presidency (S/PV.7616). Egypt called it an example of a “genuine engagement with a crisis” and Angola said it was a “contribution to easing tensions in Burundi”. France, which led the visit, expressed interest in reviewing the Council’s methodology for preparing for missions.
It may be interesting to examine how various aspects of this practice, such as the decision to deploy a mission, mission composition and mission leadership, evolved over the years.
In the 1990s and the early 2000s, a decision to undertake a mission, the actual visit and the subsequent publication of the relevant report tended to happen in quick succession. The reports were written literally on the flight back and published just days after the Council delegation returned to New York. In one case, a Council visiting mission to Indonesia and East Timor in September 1999, at the time the first Council mission for more than four years, the decision to undertake the mission and the departure of the delegation took place on the same day. More recently, the whole process has been much slower. It has tended to take several months for Council members to reach agreement on the destination of a proposed mission, its timing and duration. For example, a mission in response to the December 2013 implosion of South Sudan took place only in August 2014. Mission reports have been issued following delays of several months and, in a few cases, well over a year.
In the 1990s, all Council missions consisted of a sub-set of Council members. The June 2001 visit to Kosovo (led by Bangladesh) was the first Council mission in which all 15 members participated. Since then, most missions have involved the full Council, though there have been some exceptions, most recently the November 2012 mission to Timor-Leste in which six members participated.
The structure of leadership of visiting missions has also evolved over the years. For several years, each mission had a single permanent representative as leader, and in the first several post-Cold War years, all were led by an elected member. The US became the first permanent member to lead a mission with the 4-8 May 2000 visit to the DRC, Eritrea and Ethiopia. For the next few years, the leadership of missions would alternate between a permanent and an elected member. The first mission with different leaders for different segments was the 2003 visit to West Africa, during which Mexico and the UK alternated. And in 2007, during a mission to Africa, the practice of co-leadership emerged, whereby the UK and South Africa jointly led the visit to Addis Ababa, Accra and Khartoum. Since then, almost all missions have had different sets of co-leads (usually a permanent and an elected member) for each segment.
Most missions over the years have involved travel to more than one country, though in the past, despite multiple destinations, the focus would be on one conflict situation, and the different stops involved interactions with the different key relevant actors. (The January visit to Africa may signal a return to this approach as the stop in Addis Ababa also had Burundi as its main focus.)
The new momentum surrounding Council visits that has developed following the January travel has resulted in a quick decision to undertake another mission to seriously troubled countries. The Council is set to visit Mali and Guinea-Bissau in early March, followed by a stop in Dakar (the seat of the UN Office for West Africa), to gain a broader, regional perspective as well as to familiarise itself better with the preventive diplomacy role performed by UN regional political offices.
All the changes in the methodology of visiting missions as well as the speed with which they sometimes occur illustrate that this is a very flexible tool and that it is up to the creativity of the lead(s) as to how to get the most value out of the missions. The past practice also suggests that, like several other Council tools, it is likely to continue to evolve. The renewed energy surrounding the visiting missions may also signal that they will happen faster, have more clearly defined goals and give rise to reports submitted in a timely fashion.
For more background on the Council’s visiting missions and a complete list of missions undertaken by the Council since 1992, please visit: Security Council Visiting Missions