The Security Council in 2016
Please click here for statistical graphs prepared by SCR of Security Council activity in 2016.
Decisions and Meetings
In 2016, the Council had one of its busiest years in the post-Cold War period. Several situations—Burundi, South Sudan, Syria, Western Sahara and Yemen—required sustained attention. One new situation, Colombia, was added to the agenda. Terrorism continued to be a focus both in specific country situations, such as Mali and Yemen, and from the perspective of the financing of terrorism. Non-proliferation featured prominently, particularly in relation to the DPRK’s activities, but also from the aspect of the dangers of non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The Council adopted 96 decisions (resolutions and presidential statements), the most since 2008. The number of resolutions (77) adopted was the highest since 1993. Presidential statements (19) were the fewest since 1990. Resolutions were largely related to mandate extensions and sanctions renewals, but occasionally were adopted on wider humanitarian concerns such as protection of health care in armed conflict or emerging issues such as human trafficking. Presidential statements were used mainly as a means for the Council to convey the importance of sustaining peace processes or conducting elections in a credible manner, and were occasionally the outcome of a thematic debate. Press statements, which are not formal decisions of the Council but require Council consensus, fell from 128 in 2015, to 106 last year. Slightly more than half of these were on terrorist-related activities, attacks against civilians or attacks against UN personnel.
The Council held 256 meetings: 237 public and 19 private. This was the second highest number of formal meetings in over 20 years. Regarding informal meetings, there were 169 consultations, rising to almost the same number as in 2014, after a slight drop in 2015. The issues that were taken up most frequently in consultations were Syria (50 times), Sudan/South Sudan (31 times) and Western Sahara (18 times).
A closer look at meeting activity shows a steady rise in time spent and the number of briefers in open debates. In 2016, the Council spent 160 hours in 24 open debates with 1,334 speakers; in 2006, only 67 hours were spent in 13 open debates with 64 briefers. The longest session in 2016 lasted nine and a half hours and was on strengthening coordination in counter-terrorism, during China’s presidency in April. The open debate on the Great Lakes Region during Angola’s presidency in March was the only conflict-specific situation discussed in this format. Thematic issues such as children and armed conflict; cooperation with regional organisations, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, peace operations, protection of civilians and women, peace and security were the dominant issues in the open debates, along with the regular quarterly open debate on the Middle East. The only month with no open debate was September, when the New Zealand presidency chose the shorter briefing format to discuss the dangers to civil aviation posed by terrorism and attacks on medical facilities and personnel.
A special aspect of last year’s activity was the time spent on the Secretary-General selection process. Although not reflected in the general statistics due to the informal nature of the meetings, Council members discussed this issue regularly during the monthly breakfast meeting of permanent representatives and under “any other business”. They also held six straw polls and one formal meeting, as well as 13 informal meetings with candidates.
Trends in 2016
Unanimity Continues to Decline
In 2016, Council members showed a greater tendency to put draft resolutions to a vote even when a unanimous adoption was not expected. There were ten non-consensual resolutions, two vetoes (both on Syria Aleppo-related resolutions) and two resolutions not adopted due to a lack of nine votes (South Sudan sanctions and Syria). The number of non-consensual resolutions was the greatest ever in the post-Cold War period. Nine Council members abstained at least once, on a range of resolutions covering the renewal of mission mandates in Liberia, South Sudan and Western Sahara; Israel/Palestine; establishment of a UN police component in Burundi; non-proliferation; international tribunals; sexual exploitation in UN peacekeeping; and human trafficking off the coast of Libya. Although there were abstentions by some members—Angola, China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela—who had abstained regularly in 2015, there were also rare abstentions from France, the UK and the US. When France, Russia and the UK abstained on the resolution renewing UNMIL’s mandate it was the first time since the vote on the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 that France and the UK did not vote in favour of a US-proposed resolution, and the first time since 1988 that the UK abstained on a resolution.
Members chose to vote against or abstain for substantive reasons as well as to express their disapproval with the negotiation process. Unhappiness with substantive revisions not being incorporated into the final draft and truncated negotiating time were among the reasons given for choosing to abstain. This was the case with the resolution on Western Sahara which was adopted with ten positive votes, two against (Uruguay and Venezuela) and three abstaining (Angola, New Zealand and Russia). It was the first time since 1991 that a resolution was adopted with two or more votes against it. Members also abstained because they felt that a resolution did not do justice to the complexity of an issue or that the Council was not the right venue for it. The former was among the reasons given when Venezuela abstained on a resolution on disrupting the illicit smuggling of migrants off the coast of Libya, and the latter when Egypt abstained on a resolution on sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel. While non-consensual decisions may allow for stronger resolutions, it raises questions about potential problems in implementation, particularly if it relates to mission mandates. The Burundi resolution establishing a UN police component and the South Sudan resolution authorising a Regional Protection Force, which were both adopted with ten votes for and five abstentions, have seen little progress.
A More Active E10
Elected members working together found their voice in 2016 on issues both old and new. They took the initiative in drafting resolutions and led on new issues. The E10 met regularly, partly prompted by a common desire to engage more effectively with the Secretary-General selection process, but also in recognition of the usefulness of banding together as elected members. In the process, they made inroads into the penholder system. The first cracks in the system came in 2013, when elected members took on the Syria humanitarian lead role. In 2016, elected members took on a wider humanitarian lead role. The resolution on attacks on healthcare, adopted in May, was orchestrated by Egypt, New Zealand and Spain (the 2016 Syria humanitarian leads), together with Japan and Uruguay, over a four-month period. The issue of Israel-Palestine saw a mix of penholders including France and Spain working together, New Zealand and Egypt each making separate attempts, and then a coalition of Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela finally getting a resolution adopted. There was a nudge towards co-penholdership with the P5: France and Spain co-drafted the Syria resolution on Aleppo in October; and Senegal and the US worked together on a draft resolution on UN-AU cooperation. Venezuela broke new ground by having the E10 negotiate a presidential note on working methods of subsidiary bodies ahead of P5 involvement. By working together, small groups of elected members have been able to build alliances among themselves, while making a little progress towards re-establishing a more equitable distribution of responsibility in the Council.
Increase in Council Visiting Missions
In 2016, the Council undertook five visiting missions, the most since 2000. They were: Burundi, with a visit to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (January); Mali and Guinea-Bissau, with a visit to the UNOWAS office in Dakar, Senegal (March); Somalia, with stops in Nairobi, Kenya and Cairo, Egypt, to visit the Arab League (May); South Sudan, with a visit to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa (September); and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a stop in Luanda, Angola (November). These visits, which allowed the Council to engage directly with stakeholders in complex political situations, as well as with regional actors, appear to have been used as a means of sending a message in threatening political situations. While difficult to assess their impact, it seems that when the Council is united in its messaging, it can have some positive effect on the parties in the conflict as well as on coordination with the regional actors. However, if the Council is obviously divided, or if Council members are unable to move around the country, these visits may have a limited impact. The meetings with the AU, Arab League and UNOWAS were a significant aspect of the visits, allowing for an exchange of ideas on regional issues. While the increase in the use of visiting missions is generally viewed as a positive development, it has been suggested that better strategic planning beforehand and sustained follow-up after might enable these missions to be used more effectively as a tool for conflict prevention or mitigation.