In Hindsight: The Security Council in 2017
In 2017, the Council held the highest ever number of public meetings since it was created. It was also a year that saw the most vetoes cast since 1988, but among the resolutions that were adopted, there was a drop in non-consensual decision making. There was a fall in the total number of decisions taken—resolutions and presidential statements. There were five vetoes on Syria, all connected to chemical weapons. The sixth veto in 2017 was on Israel/Palestine. The Council continued to pay regular attention to several volatile places in the world, including the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali and South Sudan. It devoted considerable time to addressing the heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the testing of missile and nuclear technology by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), both through resolutions strengthening sanctions on the DPRK and thematic meetings on non-proliferation. Terrorism continued to be a focus in country-specific situations such as Mali, Iraq and the Lake Chad Basin countries. The Council also addressed it as a thematic issue through meetings on foreign terrorist fighters, trafficking of people, particularly by ISIL/Daesh and Boko Haram, and trafficking of cultural heritage.
The Council adopted 88 decisions, a decrease from last year’s 96, which had been the highest since 2008. It adopted 61 resolutions, a decrease from the 77 in 2016. Presidential statements, on the other hand, rose from a 27-year low of just 19 in 2016, to 27 in 2017. The majority of resolutions continued to be mandate extensions and sanctions renewals, but there were also several resolutions on counter-terrorism related thematic issues such as migrant smuggling; preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; protection of cultural heritage; and protection of critical infrastructure. The Council, furthermore, adopted resolutions on UN police, mine action and small arms. One resolution which attempted to address a potential crisis was that on The Gambia, which was adopted in January, following the deterioration in the political situation.
The Council chose to address potential volatile political situations and the implementation of political agreements in a number of situations, including Burundi, DRC, CAR, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan and Libya, through presidential statements. Presidential statements were also adopted on thematic issues such as sustaining peace and on famine. Press statements, which are not a formal decision of the Council but do require consensus, continued to fall. In 2017, there were 93 press statements issued, a slight drop from 2016 from the 106 issued in 2016 (the height was in 2014, with 138 press statements produced). Council members have been using press statements to condemn terrorist-related activities, and attacks on civilians, as well as attacks on UN personnel; these were the focus of over 64 percent of press statements.
The Council held 296 formal meetings: 282 public and 14 private. This highest number of public meetings in the Council’s history can be largely attributed to a push from some members to encourage greater transparency of positions. Regarding informal meetings, there were 137 consultations, a drop from the 169 held in 2016. The issues taken up most frequently in consultations were: Syria (33 times), South/South Sudan (19 times) and the Middle East, including the Palestinian question (ten times). The drop in the number of consultations may be partly attributed to the fact that some discussions that might otherwise have taken place in consultations were held as public meetings in 2017. “Any Other Business”, often used for more discreet discussion of issues, was employed on 39 occasions, a slight drop from 2016.
While the Council still spent considerable time in formal meetings and consultations, in 2017 the average number of hours per month dropped from 62 to 56. This may partly be due to fewer open debates in 2017. There were 18 open debates, (where the larger UN membership can participate) compared to 23 in 2016. The number of debates also fell from 14 in 2016 to 10 in 2017. Conversely, there were 44 more briefings in 2017. The debates included a number of regular thematic issues, including children and armed conflict, women, peace and security, and counter-terrorism, as well as newer issues such as trafficking. For the first time the issue of threats against critical infrastructure was discussed in the Council.
Trends in 2017
High Number of Vetoes on Specific Issues, but Overall Greater Unanimity
Six resolutions were vetoed in 2017, the highest number since 1988. They were, with one exception, all on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with four focused specifically on the renewal of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN. Russia vetoed all five Syria resolutions, with Bolivia also voting against all five. China vetoed, jointly with Russia, a resolution that would have imposed sanctions for the use of chemical weapons and abstained on all the other vetoed Syria draft resolutions. Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan were among those that abstained on a number of the Syria resolutions. As a result of the Russian vetoes on the renewal of the JIM, this mechanism, which was tasked to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, was terminated. Following US president Donald Trump’s declaration in December that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv, the US vetoed a resolution that called upon all states to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in Jerusalem pursuant to resolution 478 (1980) of the Council.
There were two non-consensual resolutions, compared to eight in 2016. Three members (Bolivia, China and Russia) abstained on a vote on a resolution renewing the authorisation for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access to Syria. There were difficult negotiations on this resolution as Russia argued strongly that given the establishment of de-escalation areas and the need to work with the Syrian government, changes were needed in the UN cross-border delivery process of humanitarian aid. The other non-consensual resolution was on the renewal of Somalia-Eritrea sanctions where Bolivia, China, Egypt and Russia abstained. These members believed that the Council should reconsider sanctions measures against Eritrea and wanted this reflected in the resolution. There was also one resolution on Syria chemical weapons related to the efforts to renew the JIM which was not adopted due to insufficient affirmative votes.
Unlike in 2016, it seems that there were more attempts to obtain consensus on a draft text before putting it to a vote. The vetoes and abstentions were a response to substantive concerns, rather than a reaction to the process. Although negotiations were rarely easy, it seems that members were more willing to compromise, particularly on mission mandate renewals. In general, mandate renewal resolutions were adopted unanimously, in contrast to 2016 where members were not united on the mandates of a number of missions.
Unity Over a Serious Threat
There was significant activity in the Council as a result of the DPRK missile activities. There has been an increase this year in the pace of missile tests conducted by the DPRK, with signs of significant technological advances in the development of intermediate-range and submarine-launched missiles. In response, the Council increased the intensity of its attention to the DPRK, holding briefings shortly after a missile test and agreeing to an outcome in a shorter timeframe than in the past. In 2017, the Council held 12 meetings on DPRK (including one on human rights), and adopted one presidential statement and five resolutions. Four of the resolutions imposed stronger sanctions on the DPRK, while one renewed the Sanctions Committee’s panel of experts. The Council responded more swiftly to the missile launches than in previous years, particularly towards the end of 2017. In the past, negotiations on a resolution would take four to five months, whereas in 2017, resolutions were often adopted just weeks after a missile launch. China, which in the past had been reluctant to impose stronger sanctions, appears to have been more open to stronger measures in the face of the increasing threat from the DPRK, as well as possible concerns over US retaliation.
Last year elected members found their voice on a number of issues. The E10 voice got stronger in 2017 as elected members as a group continued to meet regularly. The E10 also began meeting with the Secretary-General. The 2017 elected members, in spite of their political differences, were united in wanting to play a substantive role in the Council’s work during their terms on the Council. On issues where the P5 were divided, such as Syria chemical weapons, the E10 more than once offered alternative texts in an attempt to break the impasse. As humanitarian leads on Syria, Egypt, Japan and Sweden played a pivotal role in getting the resolution on cross-border and cross-line authorisation renewed. In general, elected members have been particularly active on humanitarian issues, often exerting pressure on the penholder to pay attention to these issues, such as in relation to Myanmar and Yemen. Within the E10, the African members (A3) were also a cohesive force in 2017, in spite of having different positions on a number of issues. This was an important factor in getting agreement on a number of African issues. Elected members who were also troop- and police-contributing countries were actively engaged in negotiations on mandate renewals and were able to contribute substantively to draft texts.
Over the last few years, elected members have increasingly shown that they can play an important role, particularly on issues where there are deep P5 divisions. In negotiating texts they have been able to achieve compromises that would have been more difficult if proposals had come from a P5 member.
High Number of Council Visiting Missions
The Council continued its trend from 2016 of a high number of visiting missions. There were five Council visiting missions in 2017: to the Lake Chad Basin region (Cameroon, Chad, the Niger and Nigeria); Colombia; Haiti; Addis Ababa for the annual meeting with the AU; and the Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania). Most of these visits were proposed by the president of the Council for the month of the visit. Unlike in 2016, the visits did not focus on specific potentially volatile political situations, but had a variety of different objectives. Two of the visits focused on the impact of terrorism on a region. The visit to the Lake Chad Basin region was undertaken during the UK presidency and a key objective was to give members an understanding of Boko Haram’s operations and their impact on the region. The mission afforded Council members an appreciation of the link between climate change and the rise of Boko Haram, and shortly after their return, the Council adopted a resolution on the Lake Chad Basin region.
The visiting mission to the Sahel during France’s presidency allowed members to assess the situation in the affected countries regarding the level and nature of the threat posed by terrorism and transnational crime, as well as to assess the status of the operationalisation of the joint force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (consisting of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger). This visit also gave the Council an opportunity to deliver a message to parties in Mali regarding the implementation of the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.
The Council visited Haiti during Bolivia’s presidency as the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti was about to be replaced by its successor mission, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti. The visit allowed Council members to assess the progress made and steps taken toward closing down MINUSTAH and the transition between the old and new missions.
The Colombia mission, undertaken during Uruguay’s presidency, was used to show the Council’s commitment to the peace process in Colombia and took place at a sensitive moment for the process.
The mission to Addis Ababa, held during Ethiopia’s presidency, was solely for the annual AU-UN meeting, and unlike similar visits in the past did not include visiting other countries in Africa.
Compared with previous years, the 2017 visiting missions were organised faster and often planned strategically ahead of the Council’s consideration of the situation in the Council, allowing for a better understanding of the issues and challenges.