Security Council Working Methods
The adoption of a Note by the President of the Security Council on working methods on 19 July 2006 was the Council’s first significant move to collect in one document the body’s accepted practices and make this document publicly available (S/2006/507). The effort—spearheaded by Japan, which served on the Council in 2005-2006—came in the wake of the 2005 World Summit, in the final document of which world leaders recommended that the Security Council “continue to adapt its working methods so as to increase the involvement of States not members of the Council in its work, as appropriate, enhance its accountability to the membership and increase the transparency of its work”. On 19 July, as one of the highlights of its presidency of the Council and to mark the tenth anniversary of the culmination of its first working methods initiative, Japan is organising an open debate on working methods.
The 2005 World Summit’s seemingly innocuous recommendation to the Council was in fact highly charged politically. It was a manifestation of the growing impatience and frustration on the part of most UN members with the Security Council’s opacity and the lack of clear rules about how it should function. In the period since the end of the Cold War, the Council had increasingly called upon the wider membership to implement its decisions—for example, those related to sanctions or peacekeeping operations—but had lagged behind in making those members privy to information about its thinking and decision-making processes. Embarking on a project that led to the elaboration of the more than 5,000-word presidential Note—a document that in UN parlance became known as Note 507—was the Security Council’s somewhat reluctant response to this external pressure.
In 2016, Japan is chairing for the third time the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions, the principal venue in which Council members have discussed working methods. By holding the open debate during its July presidency, Japan hopes to prompt member states to look at the implementation of the Council’s previous agreed working methods, recognise useful and productive practices and identify gaps and shortcomings. Through the open debate, Japan hopes to obtain suggestions and recommendations for the process of updating Note 507.
The Council’s working methods have been evolving constantly, with changes necessitated by the fluctuating nature of the global peace and security environment, the evolving dynamics on the Council or the use of new technologies. When Japan chaired the Informal Working Group for the second time, in 2009-2010, it undertook the task of updating the original Note. The new document included areas not mentioned in 2006, such as the relationship with the Peacebuilding Commission and Security Council visiting missions. It also solidified some then-recent new practices in the relationship of the Security Council with troop- and police-contributing countries and highlighted areas of faulty implementation of previously agreed-to working methods understandings.
Over the years, however, working methods continued to be a sensitive area, with the permanent members insisting on the Council’s being the master of its own rules and resisting public discussion of the matter or yielding to ideas from outside. In this context, holding an open debate on working methods, which has been an annual event since 2010, was at one time extremely controversial. One such debate was held in 1994, but when an open debate was suggested in 2007, several of the permanent members opposed the initiative. In December 2007, Slovakia, Japan’s first successor as chair of the Informal Working Group, held an Arria-formula meeting on “Enhancing and widening interaction and dialogue between the Security Council and other United Nations Member States, as part of the implementation of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document”. Later, on its last day on the Council, Slovakia sent a letter to the president of the Security Council summarising the Arria-formula meeting (S/2007/784).
Working together, several elected members succeeded in organising the first open debate on working methods in more than a decade in August 2008, during the presidency of Belgium. The next such debate was held during Japan’s presidency in April 2010. During that meeting, several member states advocated holding such an open debate annually, and indeed from that point on the Council has discussed its working methods with the participation of the wider UN membership every year.
These annual meetings have provided an opportunity for sometimes very robust critiques of the Council by member states not on the Council (and indeed the anticipation of criticism had been among the reasons several permanent members were initially unenthusiastic about holding these public discussions). Over the years, members came to appreciate the usefulness of frank discussions, and some recommendations initially made during these debates were acted upon. Among the recurring themes regularly raised in open debates during the past several years has been the process and the timing of appointing the chairs of Council subsidiary bodies. Elected Council members usually chair these bodies, but the appointments have always been done through a decision by permanent members with little or no consultation with individuals and missions concerned.
A related matter, also frequently brought up in debates and other discussions, is the issue of penholders, i.e. member states considered as the lead on particular situations. Until approximately 2010, elected and permanent members alike took the lead on a country-specific Council agenda item, and the burden of producing drafts and chairing negotiations was shared among most of the 15 members. More recently, a system has emerged whereby the P3 (France, the UK and the US) have divided among themselves nearly all situations on the agenda into more or less permanent leadership arrangements. This system, while perhaps efficient in some respects, has been criticised as depriving the elected members of an opportunity to take initiative, reducing their input into the decision-making process and increasingly deepening the chasm between the permanent and elected Council members, thus negatively affecting overall Council dynamics.
An additional sore point has been the fact that the chairs of the sanctions committees spend most of their time on the Council dealing with the country situations to which these sanctions apply, acquiring considerable country-specific expertise, but short of being sought to participate in the resolution-drafting processes (including on sanctions as such), in some cases they are not even consulted by the penholder.
Both the selection of subsidiary bodies’ chairs and the issue of penholders featured prominently in the two most recent public debates on the topic of working methods: the October 2015 open debate on working methods organised by Spain and the February 2016 debate relating to sanctions organised by Venezuela. Both issues were addressed in the non-paper summarising the open debate prepared by Spain (S/2016/35). A Note by the president of the Security Council, issued following the February debate on sanctions, addressed various aspects of the selection and the work of the subsidiary bodies’ chairs (S/2016/170).
While no outcome is expected in July, the debate will likely feed into the process of revising, consolidating and updating the Council’s comprehensive document on its working methods, the task Japan is planning to undertake during the remainder of its chairmanship of the Informal Working Group.