In Hindsight: Security Council Open Debates
In the past few years, the Security Council has devoted more and more time to open debates. From 90 hours in 2013, the cumulative duration went up gradually to more than 160 hours in 2016. Most open debates in the last several years have been thematic, with situation-specific ones, other than the quarterly Middle East open debate, being rare exceptions.
Open debates are welcomed by the UN membership at large as they afford member states not on the Council an opportunity to present their positions on particular matters on the Security Council agenda regardless of whether or not they are directly affected by the issue. Originally, open debates were mostly conflict-specific, held at the request of a member or group of member states, and usually organised quite quickly following the request. Nowadays, most open debates are held at the initiative of the presidency of the Council, and some are planned a year or more in advance.
The idea of a debate in which any member state could present its views on an issue before the Council stemmed from a broad concern on the part of the UN membership about specific situations, such as apartheid in South Africa or the Balkan wars of the early to mid-1990s. The Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure stipulate that “any Member of the United Nations which is not a member of the Security Council may be invited, as the result of a decision of the Security Council, to participate, without vote, in the discussion of any question brought before the Security Council when the Security Council considers that the interests of that Member are specially affected, or when a Member brings a matter to the attention of the Security Council in accordance with Article 35 (1) of the Charter.” The interpretation of the rule was that only members with direct stakes in the issue would be allowed to participate in the discussion. Some departures from this interpretation occurred in the later years of the Cold War, with a number of public debates that saw the participation of non-Council members who were neither directly involved in the conflict nor in its geographical neighbourhood. These debates were relatively short, with only a few non-Council speakers, and not all Council members took the floor themselves.
The first debate that closely resembled what is today described as an open debate in terms of the number of speakers and its length was probably that held on 15-16 July 1992, with a focus on South Africa. It was organised in response to a 2 July request from the Organisation of African Unity, which was alarmed by a dramatic spike in violence in South Africa (including one massacre in which more than 300 victims were killed by police and the army) and a standstill in the negotiations to end apartheid that had been ongoing since October 1991. More than 30 member states—from all regional groups—asked and were invited to speak under Rule 37. All Council members took the floor at different points of the debate (some of them after non-members), and at the end of the second day the Council adopted a resolution condemning the violence and asking the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative. The debate contributed to the resumption of negotiations, culminating in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.
Several debates with similar characteristics were held in the next few years. They were each focused on a specific dispute before the Council and tended to be requested by non-members (including in some cases a state which was party to the conflict) and were usually organised at very short notice. The first time the term “open debate” was used in a Council document was probably the 8 February 1994 letter from the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the President of the Security Council with a “call for an emergency session of the Security Council with a formal meeting and the opportunity for open debate to the Member States of the United Nations” (S/1994/134).
During the General Assembly’s general debate later that year, there were several calls for non-members to be afforded opportunities to address the Council. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said in his speech that the Council should increase its reliance on public debate in reaching decisions. As a follow-up, France organised a Security Council debate in December 1994 on the Council’s working methods, with the issue of public debates of the Council and its greater transparency at the core of the concept note. The note suggested that when preparing to consider an important question, the Council should hold “orientation debates open to all Members of the Organization” (S/1994/1279).
At the end of that debate, held with the participation of several non-members, the Council adopted a presidential statement proclaiming that it was “the intention of the Council, as part of its efforts to improve the flow of information and the exchange of ideas between members of the Council and other United Nations Member States, that there should be an increased recourse to open meetings, in particular at an early stage in its consideration of a subject” (S/PRST/1994/81).
Over the next few years, several open debates were held at the request of member states. Most, but not all, were focused on specific disputes. An early example of a thematic open debate was the 20 December 1995 debate on the relationship with troop-contributing countries, requested in an 8 December letter from 34 permanent representatives, including several Council members, both permanent and elected ones. In the late 1990s, these meetings started being referred to as “open debates”, and also during that period, some Council presidents began taking the initiative of organising open debates, often with the country’s foreign minister presiding, as centrepieces of their presidencies.
During the mid- to late 1990s, open debates tended to be country- or region-specific, but from around 2000 thematic open debates began to increasingly outnumber those focused on specific disputes.
Except for the open debates on the Middle East, held since 2006, conflict-specific open debates are currently very rare, and in recent years, when they have occurred, they have been held at the initiative of the presidency rather than at the request of the wider membership. Relatively recent examples include the March 2011 and March 2012 open debates on Somalia, organised by China and the UK, respectively; the March 2013 open debate on Afghanistan, organised by Russia; and the March 2016 open debate on the Great Lakes Region, organised by Angola.
The large amount of overall time devoted by the Council to thematic open debates, combined with the ever-growing Council workload, has prompted some members to forgo open debates. In 2013, four presidencies—Togo, Australia, China and France—chose not to hold an open debate. More recently, the US in 2015 and 2017 and New Zealand in 2016 did not organise an open debate. Only time will show whether the growing number of disputes on the Council’s agenda will result in a return to holding open debates with a focus mainly on conflict-specific situations.