In Hindsight: What’s wrong with the Security Council?
Parting Reflections of Executive Director Ian Martin
In three years of watching the Security Council from this unique vantage point, I have gained a far broader understanding of its role and functioning than I had from briefing it and seeking to implement its mandates as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General. It does not lead me to a happy conclusion. The world’s premiere body for maintaining international peace and security is crippled by multiple handicaps—at a time when the threats of not only intra-state but inter-state conflicts are higher than at any other time since the worst of the Cold War. Some of these handicaps are intractable, but others could and should be mitigated, if not overcome.
The first is a crisis of legitimacy stemming from the obviously anachronistic composition of the Council—its failure to reflect the geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century. The Council displays in its practice little awareness of how seriously this undermines its credibility in under-represented regions. With no current expectation that sufficient consensus to amend the Charter can be reached, the Council ought at least to show maximum openness to the wider membership, but this cannot be said to characterise the attitude of its permanent members.
Meanwhile, the optimism which followed the end of the Cold War, that the political divisions which had inhibited Council action were a thing of the past, has evaporated as new differences—not so unlike the old ones—have emerged and deepened. Nowhere is this more evident than over the Syrian conflict, which at the time of writing has seen 11 resolutions vetoed in an increasingly bitterly divided Council. The ineffectiveness of the Council on Syria in the face of the Russian veto is mirrored by its ineffectiveness on Israel/Palestine in the face of the US veto. And while Syria, Israel/Palestine and Ukraine are situations in which major national interests of permanent members are at stake, the divisions have spilled over to bedevil situations on the Council’s agenda where there are no such interests and Council consensus ought to be more readily achievable.
The depth of the divisions among the permanent members makes the role of the ten elected members more critical than ever. Their responsibility to those who elected them requires them to be a bridge between the Council and the wider membership. And despite their own ideological diversity, they can help to find greater consensus when permanent members are confronting each other. However, they face several impediments to their being able to play their part as strongly as is needed.
First, the manner of elections is far from guaranteeing that the ten elected members will be among those from their regions who can make the most effective contribution to the work of the Council. Uncontested candidatures endorsed by regional groups on a basis of rotation almost always go unchallenged in the General Assembly. Contests have tended to begin earlier and to involve increasing levels of expenditure, invitations to capitals, entertaining and gifts, as well as political lobbying by roving ambassadors and targeting of development assistance. In neither contested or uncontested elections is it clear that what weighs most with member states is the criterion set out in the Charter: that due regard shall be “specially paid” to the contribution of members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the organization, as well as to equitable geographical distribution.
Second, the most obvious handicap to the effectiveness of elected members is the brevity of the two-year term contrasted with the continuity of the permanent members, with their institutional memories and large diplomatic staffs. The ability of elected members to mitigate this handicap with preparation before commencing their two-year term has been somewhat enhanced by the decision of the General Assembly to bring forward the date of their election from October to June, and by the Council then bringing forward to 1 October the date from which it invites the newly elected members to observe all meetings and informal consultations of the Council and its subsidiary bodies.
These changes allow for better preparation by newly-elected members, including the handover of responsibilities for sanctions committees and other subsidiary bodies from their predecessors. And they allow more time for efforts to pass on experience from one group of elected members to the next. SCR itself has increasingly provided capacity development for incoming delegations and those who will support them in capitals. But the limitations of a two-year term and the disparity between the elected and permanent members are immense. In this context, the decision of Italy and the Netherlands, with the endorsement of the Western European and Others Group, to split the 2017-2018 term after five rounds of close voting in June 2016 is not a good precedent, notwithstanding the collaborative arrangements they established.
Third, the Council struggles with the weight of its agenda. In 1990, the Council held 69 meetings and 80 consultations. In 2017, there were 296 meetings—a fourfold increase—and 137 consultations. The Council adopted 37 resolutions in 1990, 61 in 2017. In 2017, 1135 Council documents were issued. It spent an average of 56 hours each month in formal meetings and consultations, to which can be added time spent in Arria-formula meetings, informal interactive dialogues, and sanctions committees and other subsidiary bodies, as well as in negotiations.
There can be no doubting the greatly increased weight of necessary Council business, but the Council adds to the burden on itself by poor time management. Reporting cycles do not necessarily correspond to the need for another round of consideration of an agenda item, and often result in discussions which add little to the one before. Despite repeated injunctions to itself, the Council spends much of its time in informal consultations in the delivery of repetitive prepared speeches, and only limited time in interaction with each other and with briefers focused on strategic issues.
The time devoted to open debates and thematic issues also merits scrutiny. From 90 hours in 2013, the cumulative duration of open debates went up gradually to more than 170 hours in 2017. But their contribution to Council decision-making, especially as regards core situations on the Council’s agenda, is questionable. The Council’s thematic debates have made important contributions to normative developments, such as those regarding women and peace and security, children and armed conflict, and the protection of civilians. But they too can become repetitive with little impact on country situations. Most elected members feel they should mark their presidencies with thematic debates, perhaps to fulfill campaign commitments or to provide platforms for their ministers. The Council, however, needs to refocus on how its permanent representatives can devote sufficient time to strategic discussion of its core responsibilities, notably intractable country and regional situations and ensuring effective mandates and political support for peace operations.
Fourth, the greatest obstacles to the effectiveness of elected members are found in the working methods which permanent members have imposed on the Council. The domination of the permanent members was always considerable, but as SCR’s first Executive Director wrote of his experience on the Council, “‘it was not unusual in the early 1990s for elected members to take initiatives on major substantive items and to strongly contest the policy options on other items where a member of the P5 had the lead”. Countries which have recently come back onto the Council after a substantial interval remark on the closing down of space for the initiative and effective contribution of elected members.
Central to this is the operation of the penholder system. It is a relatively recent practice, which has become entrenched in the past decade. Since 2014, Notes by the President—the form in which Council working methods are articulated—have institutionalised penholdership as a recognised, if informal, arrangement. In doing so, they state that any member of the Council may be a penholder. Yet there is no process by which the Council agrees to designate a penholder or reviews the allocation of penholderships. In practice, three permanent members—France, the UK, and the US —are today sole penholders on the overwhelming majority of country situations on the Council’s agenda.
A joint statement of six elected members from six regions—Angola, Chile, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Spain—in an October 2015 open debate on Council working methods noted that the penholder system ‘”has diminished the opportunity for wider Council engagement, especially by the elected members”, and “cuts across the principle of collective responsibility that underpins the Charter”.
Closely linked to the penholder system is the manner of negotiations, the quality and outcomes of which are of supreme importance to the effectiveness of the Council. But these are vitiated by penholder domination. As one permanent representative noted in a July 2016 open debate: “…the Council was intended to be a collective security body. Too often, it is a forum for polarizing initiatives and last-minute take-it-or-leave-it drafts tabled by so-called penholders.”
Notwithstanding these handicaps, the trend towards diminished space for the contribution of elected members has been increasingly resisted in the past few years and has begun to be somewhat reversed. SCR has analyzed such dynamics in successive In Hindsight articles. Amid the Council’s greatest failure, to bring an end to the conflict in Syria, elected members became penholders on the humanitarian situation from 2013; made efforts—ultimately unsuccessful—to find consensus after an April 2017 chemical weapons attack and to save the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN; and this February negotiated a call for a month-long ceasefire. In 2016, five elected members took the initiative in drafting and negotiating a resolution on the protection of health care in armed conflict, at a time when four of the five permanent members of the Council were associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health-care structures, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. In December 2016, elected members were instrumental when the Council issued a rare rebuke of Israel, with the adoption of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements as having no legal validity and constituting a major obstacle to a two-state solution. Dismayed by the inaction of the Council in the face of persistent violations of international humanitarian law and the greatest of the world’s extreme humanitarian crises in Yemen, elected members have pressed for greater Council action and threatened to move forward if the UK as penholder continued to stall.
The political differences among elected members are as wide as those among the permanent members, but SCR has set out in its most recent research report the ways in which they have pursued their common interest in promoting more transparent and open working methods, with greater space for elected members and non-members to influence Council decisions.
As I leave SCR, the internal politics of the permanent members and the relations among them seem to offer no prospect of improvement in the effectiveness of the Council, confronted as it is by threats of great danger and complexity. Reform of the composition of the Council is essential as a matter of justice and legitimacy, yet seems still beyond the ability of governments to agree upon; it would not in itself be a guarantee of effectiveness, and indeed an enlarged Council would all the more need to improve its working methods. In the immediate future, it is the quality and determination of ten elected members on which some incremental improvement in performance most depends.