In Hindsight: Chairing the Security Council’s Subsidiary Bodies
Not knowing in advance which subsidiary bodies a new member would chair left insufficient time to prepare—either to secure the right expertise within their teams, or even to have a proper handover from the exiting chair. Permanent members opposed several efforts aimed at changing the practice, but in 2016, the new election timetable prompted Council members to agree on several new practices for the incoming members’ longer preparatory period, including an earlier and more consultative process of appointing the chairs of Council subsidiary bodies.
Now, two Council members—one permanent, the other the elected member chairing the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), the subsidiary body dedicated to Council working methods—conduct consultations with the current and incoming Council members with the aim of having the appointments in place by the beginning of October. This process has been used three times, and the 1 October target has been missed each year. In 2016 and 2017, the appointments were finalised on 31 and 6 October, respectively, while in 2018 the appointments were agreed in late November. The lengthy 2018 process exposed some of the difficult dynamics accompanying the selection of chairs of subsidiary bodies. During this period, several of the elected members called for a different distribution of labour within the Council, arguing that the P5 should share the burden of chairing the subsidiary bodies.
At present, all subsidiary bodies other than the Military Staff Committee, which is composed solely of P5 members, are chaired by elected members. This wasn’t always the case. Permanent members have served as initial chairs of newly-established subsidiary bodies: the UK chaired the 1267 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee in 1999 and the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee from 2001 to 2003; France chaired the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict from 2005 to 2008; and the US served as co-chair with Slovakia in 2006 of the Ad Hoc Committee on Mandate Review to conduct the review of Security Council mandates called for by the 2005 World Summit outcome document. Furthermore, several subsidiary bodies currently have permanent members serving as vice-chairs. Since 2007, Russia has been vice-chair of the 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, and, since 2011, of the 1988 Taliban Sanctions Committee. This has also been the case for the UK on the 1540 Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee since 2005, and for both France and Russia on the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee since 2008 and the 1566 Working Group since 2013. The UK has been the vice-chair of the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations since 2013.
Before 2018, there had already been calls on the P5 to chair subsidiary bodies. In mid-2012, Portugal, as chair of the IWG, circulated a draft note by the president on the appointment of Council subsidiary body chairs, which said that the process “should … ensure a balanced representation of all Council members as Chairpersons of subsidiary bodies”. After months of negotiation, the IWG agreed on a short note in December 2012 calling for a more inclusive process, but the reference to all members chairing subsidiary bodies was not retained, due to P5 opposition (S/2012/937). Neither this note, nor two other presidential notes on related topics issued in 2014 and 2015, changed the process of the P5 matching elected members to subsidiary bodies.
In 2016, the first year of early elections to the Council, Japan as chair of the IWG decided that the IWG should consider how the newly elected members could best take advantage of the extended pre-Council period to prepare themselves for the demands of their two-year term, with the goal of issuing a presidential note on this matter by the June election.
Through many drafts of this note, the P5 resisted the proposal that the chairs of the subsidiary bodies would be decided through a process facilitated by the president of the Security Council. This issue eventually led to bilateral consultations between two members, New Zealand and the US. The compromise formula found in the note issued on 15 July was that the appointment of subsidiary bodies’ chairs “will be facilitated jointly by two members of the Security Council in full cooperation.” The unwritten understanding was that the two members in question would be the chair of the IWG and one permanent member (S/2016/619).
In 2016 and 2017, the chairs’ appointment process worked reasonably well. In 2018, the ten elected members and the five incoming delegations addressed a joint letter to the president of the Security Council highlighting, among other issues, “the need for fair burden-sharing and an equal distribution of work amongst all members of the Security Council, including its permanent members” (S/2018/1024). The letter had no immediate impact, but the IWG, currently led by Kuwait, took up this issue in early 2019 and has been discussing it at press time. Among the draft notes by the president that the group has been working on is one on the chairs’ selection process that reaffirms the need for the process to be conducted in a balanced, transparent, efficient, and inclusive way, with better burden-sharing as part of the collective responsibility that would involve all the members in the leadership of the Council’s subsidiary bodies.