In Hindsight: The Security Council Penholders
Contrary to a widespread assumption, the Security Council’s so-called penholder system is not a longstanding practice. Rather, it is still in its first decade. Under the current arrangement, most Council outcomes (including resolutions, presidential statements or press statements) are drafted by one of the P3 (France, the UK and the US) which are the penholders on most situation-specific issues on the Council’s agenda. As of early 2016, the US was serving as the penholder for eight of these situation-specific agenda items, the UK for seven and France for six. Elected members have been serving as penholders on Afghanistan and Guinea-Bissau and on some thematic issues.
Drafting of outcomes has been an increasing task ever since the workload of the Council exploded a quarter of a century ago, after more than 40 years of paralysis during the Cold War. Members, permanent and elected alike, took the initiative to produce a text. Specific, recurring topics were not seen as “belonging” to a particular Council member. Sometimes, members with an interest in a given situation would join forces or, on some occasions, compete to produce a draft first, in order to then chair the negotiations. Occasionally, members with shared concerns about a particular conflict would constitute “groups of friends”, fairly temporary and changeable arrangements which might be represented in the Council by either a permanent or an elected member.
Under the current penholder practice, one of the P3 produces a draft that is then agreed within the P3 group. The next step is to negotiate the text with China and Russia. Only thereafter, sometimes very close to the intended time of adoption, is it shared with the ten elected members.
Possibly the first example of this drafting and negotiating practice was the lengthy process leading up to the adoption of the Council’s first resolutions on nuclear non-proliferation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran in 2006. For a few years, this approach was used only for non-proliferation issues, with some elected members occasionally protesting (in one case in 2008, the adoption of a resolution on Iran had to be postponed by several days because South Africa requested time for its capital to study the text). In the next year or two, this drafting and negotiating system was gradually extended to more and more situation-specific issues on the Council’s agenda.
This arrangement may have seemed logical in terms of Council efficiency and convenience, but it soon developed several consequences. Elected members were left out of the drafting process altogether and were brought into negotiations only at the very end—and were often discouraged from making meaningful amendments because they might disturb the wording agreed to among the P5, sometimes after painstaking negotiations.
Furthermore, all members, permanent and non-permanent, began seeing the penholder as the lead on all matters related to the situation at hand. This cascade effect has resulted in the penholder being seen as the leader in taking the initiative on all other possible Council actions, such as holding emergency meetings, organising open debates or undertaking visiting missions. The chairpersons of the Council sanctions committees (all of which currently are elected members) are generally not involved in the drafting of resolutions on countries to which the sanctions apply—not even when the draft deals with sanctions issues. In at least two cases, there is a separate P3 penholder specifically for sanctions-related drafts.
In some cases, when a crisis arises while the penholder is either unwilling or unable to take the initiative (for example, because it is already managing other crises on the agenda), the Council is paralysed and delayed in taking any action. This “default” situation has quite possibly affected Council effectiveness in addressing conflicts.
The net effect is that while the demand for Council action has become the highest it has ever been, the burden-sharing within the 15-member body is probably at its historical lowest.
In 2014, the Council issued a note by the president (S/2014/268) in which it proclaimed that members of the Council agreed to support “where appropriate, the informal arrangement whereby one or more Council members (as ‘penholder(s)’) initiate and chair the informal drafting process” of documents, including resolutions, presidential statements and press statements of the Council. The note specified that any member of the Council can be a penholder. The document also emphasised Council members’ commitment to enhancing the participation of all members of the Council in the drafting process, including through early and timely exchanges and consultations, while continuing to consult informally with non-Council members.
The issuing of the 2014 note did not result in any noticeable change in actual arrangements. However, the dynamic with respect to the penholder system had possibly already begun to change in 2013. Elected members Australia and Luxembourg were instrumental in focusing the Council’s attention on the humanitarian aspect of the situation in Syria. Joined in 2014 by another elected member, Jordan, they drafted three resolutions on the topic that were adopted by the Council and had an impact on humanitarian access, also prompting regular monthly briefings to the Council. In 2015, after Australia and Luxembourg left the Council, elected members New Zealand and Spain stepped in to join Jordan as penholders on Syria’s humanitarian situation. After the end of Jordan’s term on the Council, Egypt joined New Zealand and Spain as co-penholder in 2016.
In February, Venezuela took the initiative of organising a Council debate on the politically sensitive issue of the Council’s approach to the use of sanctions, which resulted in agreement on a rare note from the president on the topic (S/2016/170). The interesting aspect of the process was that Venezuela started out by circulating the draft to the ten elected members and negotiating it initially within that group.
In May, the Council adopted a resolution on healthcare in armed conflict that was drafted jointly by five elected members—Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, Uruguay and Venezuela—who led all the negotiations on the draft and secured co-sponsorship by most Council members and by several member states not on the Council.
During its September presidency of the Council, elected member New Zealand took the initiative of holding a high-level debate on the overall situation in Syria, with the country’s Prime Minister John Key presiding.
During the annual Security Council open debate on working methods, the penholder system has received considerable criticism from the UN leadership at large, the elected Council members and also, in a recent case, from a permanent member, Russia. Speaking during the October 2015 open debate, the country’s Permanent Representative, Vitaly Churkin, said:
We are convinced that the Council would benefit from a democratization of its work, facilitated by a more balanced distribution of obligations informally linked to the so-called penholdership of some dossiers. Certain Council members should not consider countries or even regions to be their exclusive purview or act as mentors on issues concerning those countries. Such conduct is a remnant of days gone by that we need to abandon.
With these recent developments and the longer preparatory period for incoming Council members due to the fact that Council elections are now held in June, a new dynamic may develop and some new members may be more eager to serve as penholders or co-penholders.