In Hindsight: Note 507
Following weeks of negotiations over most of the summer, the Council reached agreement on 30 August on a new version of the compendium of its working methods, commonly referred to as “Note 507”. The document was elaborated under the leadership of Japan, in its capacity as chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), the venue for most discussions regarding the Council’s working methods.
The 142 paragraphs of Note S/2017/507 address nearly all aspects of Council practice (an exception being working methods that apply to all sanctions committees, which will continue to be governed by notes and statements of the president of the Council indexed in document S/2006/78). While consolidating in one document several previously codified practices, the Note also addresses some new areas. Most notably, it includes guidelines regarding the processes leading up to the adoption of Council outcomes in the context of the currently prevalent penholder system, under which nearly all draft decisions on a situation or issue are initiated by a specific member, in most cases one of the P3—i.e. France, the UK and the US. The Note stresses the desirability for at least one round of discussions with all members of the Council on all drafts and of providing reasonably sufficient time for consideration. It also, for the first time, refers to silence procedure, a common practice, whereby a draft is circulated by email with a deadline for raising objections, in the absence of which the draft becomes final. In the Note, Council members recognise “that any Council member may request extension of and/or break silence if further consideration is required”. One practice never previously codified in a Council document and included in the first draft presented by the IWG chair—the regular holding by the Secretariat of situational awareness briefings—was not retained in the final version due to an objection from Russia.
Security Council working methods, while broadly grounded in the UN Charter and the Provisional Rules of Procedure, have over the years evolved in a way in which practice had almost always preceded written articulation. When the Council’s activity increased dramatically in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War, new practices began emerging, and the Council would occasionally issue a Note or, in a handful of cases, a statement by the president, to articulate its working methods on a number of matters. Examples include sanctions, relations with troop contributors, and terminology used for particular types of meetings.
The notes and presidential statements were meant to provide a reference for new Council members and the broader UN membership, but finding specific documents was quite difficult, especially in the period when documents were available only in hard copy and had to be either collected at the time they were issued or requested from UN document centres. It was not until 2002 that the Council produced the first index to its working methods, listing the symbols and subject matters of its previous documents on working methods in a single document published as Note by the President S/2002/1000. Acknowledging the interest of the full UN membership, this document also had a General Assembly symbol (A/57/382).
Overall, however, the working methods of the Security Council continued to be hard for outsiders to penetrate, prompting world leaders gathered at a summit in New York in September 2005 to recommend in the summit’s final document that the Security Council “adapt its working methods so as to increase the involvement of States not members of the Council in its work … enhance its accountability to the membership and increase the transparency of its work” (A/RES/60/1). Probably prompted by this recommendation, members of the Council took steps that led to making Council working methods easier to access both by outsiders and the elected members. In early 2006, Council members resolved to produce a single volume that would collect previously agreed documents on working methods and additionally capture practices that had not yet been articulated in writing. They also decided to reactivate the IWG and depart from the monthly rotation of its chairmanship by appointing Japan to be the chair for the full process. In July of that year, the Council agreed to issue a comprehensive Note by the President and published it with the document symbol S/2006/507.
When Japan returned to the Council for the 2009-2010 term, it took the leadership of the IWG for those two years and embarked on revising the Note to reflect certain changes in Council practice and update it with elements that were absent from the previous compendium, such as interaction with the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The updated Note was issued on 26 July 2010 as S/2010/507.
In October 2015, presidential statement S/PRST/2015/19 asked the IWG “to continue reviewing and updating relevant Notes by the President of the Security Council, in particular Note S/2010/507”. Japan was back on the Council in 2016 and again assumed the chairmanship of the IWG. During its first presidency, in July that year, it held an open debate on working methods. The concept paper prepared for that discussion stressed that Japan did not seek to have an outcome from the debate but, in its capacity as chair of the IWG, it intended “to follow up the discussions in the open debate, especially the specific practical suggestions made in the debate, in the deliberations of the Informal Working Group on an updated note 507, to be adopted in due course”. Starting in December 2016, the IWG met periodically to discuss several aspects of Council working methods with a view to elaborating a new version of Note 507.
The first draft of the new Note 507 was circulated in late May, and the IWG chair briefed members in consultations on 30 May. The process of elaborating the new version with agreement of all Council members proved complex, and several more drafts were circulated before a draft was placed under silence on 19 July. Silence was broken, new versions were placed under silence, and the chair held several rounds of bilateral consultations until a final version was agreed on 30 August. Most Council members participated actively at different stages of the process. Towards its end, the most active interlocutors were probably Russia (which sought several modifications, including passages regarding the Council’s relationship with the PBC) and Egypt (which insisted on ensuring that all draft decisions are negotiated by all members and that sufficient time is given for silence procedure).
The publication of the compendia of Council working methods under the same symbol, regardless of what consecutive number would correspond to that document on the date it is issued, is itself a working method aimed at making it easier to find the document. (In 2006, 507 was the consecutive number corresponding to the date, 19 July; in 2010 the number corresponding to the issuance date of 26 July would have been 399 or 400; and in 2017 the number corresponding to 30 August is approximately 745.) Since 2006, the Council has applied a similar approach to its documents containing the list of its agenda items by assigning it the number 10, and since 2008 also to the document listing the chairs of the subsidiary bodies by assigning it the number 2.
In a press statement issued on the day the latest Note 507 was adopted, Council members stated their willingness to “continue to consider ways to improve the working methods … including through the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions”. Japan, the member state with the most consistent contribution to making the Council’s working methods understandable and accessible to all interested parties, will end its current Council term at the end of the year. Who will continue to lead the process as the chair of the IWG was unclear at press time. However, if the Council meets its goal—articulated in Note S/2017/507—of appointing the chairs of the subsidiary bodies for the following year no later than 1 October, soon after this issue of the Forecast reaches our readers, the identity of that member state should be known.