In Hindsight: Security Council Annual Report to the General Assembly
Under the UN Charter, the Security Council’s only clear obligation to the UN General Assembly is to submit an annual report for its consideration, as set out under Article 24(3). For nearly three decades, the annual report has been criticised by the UN membership. The Council has, however, made efforts to address some of the problems.
During the Cold War, the annual reports were often published with a delay—at times, the wait was several years. Interest in the annual report grew with the dramatic increase in the Council’s activity in the early 1990s. After the report covering 16 June 1991 to 15 June 1992 was submitted only in June 1993, too late to be discussed during the main part of the 47th session, the General Assembly adopted a resolution agreeing to hold a substantive debate on the annual reports from the Security Council (A/RES/47/233).
In subsequent General Assembly debates, members raised matters pertaining to the content, format and timing of the report. The format of the annual reports—at the time, prepared entirely by the Secretariat—had changed little since 1946, and was largely a compendium of Council documents, communications received, and meetings held. It contained no analysis.
In a June 1993 note by the president, the Council proclaimed that it would adopt the report in public and circulate its early draft to interested member states (S/26015). A June 1997 note by the president announced that “the report of the Council for future years will be changed, taking into account views expressed on the existing format” (S/1997/451). The changes included an earlier deadline—30 August—for the Secretariat to submit the draft in order that it could be adopted by the Council in time for a discussion during the main session of the General Assembly. Yet member states continued to complain that it remained a catalogue of documents and meeting dates, still lacking analysis and offering scant insight into how the Council worked.
After extensive discussions on the format and on including an element of analysis the Council issued a note by the president in 2002 entirely focused on the annual report (S/2002/199). In it, the Council again acknowledged that it had reviewed the report’s format having taken into account the views expressed during the debate on the report at the 56th session of the General Assembly. Henceforth, the introduction was to be an analytical piece capturing the year’s most important moments, assessing the Council’s ability to deal with problems at hand, and signalling difficulties and areas for improvement. In addition, the note said that starting in 2002, the introduction would be drafted by the delegation that held the July presidency—the first time that members of the Council would take an active part in the elaboration of the report. Members would adopt the introduction in a public session to allow for exchanges of views on the text. The body of the report, which would continue to be drafted by the Secretariat, was to be shortened significantly and made more informative.
The new format seemed to promise substantive changes. In 2002, the introduction was indeed analytical and quite concise. But the improvements were short-lived. In the following years the introduction became longer and lost its analytical edge. The only public debate the Council has held on its annual report also took place in 2002. Since then, it has been adopted in a short routine session with no discussion.
During successive annual General Assembly debates, members have continued to raise concerns about the annual report, especially its dearth of analysis. With ongoing calls for improvements, the Council’s subsidiary body responsible for much of its working methods deliberations, the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), has discussed aspects of the annual report and introduced further modifications.
On the joint initiative of Lithuania and Russia, the IWG again revised the process for the elaboration of the annual report in 2015. The resulting note by the president, S/2015/944 of 10 December 2015, changed the reporting cycle to cover a calendar year, starting with 2017. Since 1947, the Council’s annual report had covered a period of 12 months ending in June or July, relatively close to the start of the General Assembly session during whose main part it would be presented. The 2015 note moved the presentation of the report from the main part of the General Assembly’s regular session to the following spring.
The note also specified that the introduction should be concise, not to exceed 10,000 words, and would continue to be prepared under the coordination of the July presidency. If the member holding the July presidency were to leave the Council at the end of the year—and thus no longer be among its members during the drafting—“the task of coordinating the introduction of the report shall then devolve on the member of the Council next in English alphabetical order and who will not be leaving the Security Council that calendar year”. It stipulated, however, that the introduction should “be approved by all members of the Council who served on the Council during the reporting period” and that the report would “continue to be adopted at a public meeting of the Security Council, at which members of the Council who wish to do so may comment on the work of the Council for the period covered by the report”.
The most recent version of the comprehensive compendium of Security Council working methods—the so-called Note 507, which was updated in 2017 and issued as document S/2017/507—incorporated the 2015 document on the annual report with the addition of a few new elements, including a provision that the member drafting the introduction “may, when necessary, seek advice from other members of the Council. It may also consider organizing, where appropriate, interactive informal exchanges of views with the wider membership.”
Because of the transition to the new reporting period, there was no annual report to the General Assembly in 2016. The first report prepared under the new procedure (exceptionally covering 17 rather than 12 months) was adopted on 9 August 2017 and discussed by the General Assembly during the final weeks of its 71st session.
The experience of the first two years after moving to a calendar-year cycle with the aim of presenting the report to the General Assembly late in the session has been of much shorter, but also less focused, discussion in the General Assembly. Both in 2017 and 2018, the drafts were finalised considerably later than stipulated (the deadlines for circulating the drafts to Council members are 31 January for the introduction and 15 March for the body of the report). The Council adopted the drafts in August, pushing the General Assembly discussion to near the end of its session, with most delegations already gearing up for the opening of the next session. Once the Council succeeds in meeting its own deadline aspirations and, as intended, the General Assembly discussion is held during the spring, it will be easier to assess the impact of the revised process.