October 2019 Monthly Forecast

In Hindsight: Striking the Balance between Transparency and Privacy

During different periods of the Council’s existence, the pendulum has swung between the need for more open meetings in the spirit of greater transparency, and the wish for closed-door consultations which may bring more effective decision-making.  In 2018, the Council held more than twice as many formal, and therefore open, meetings (275) as informal, closed consultations (120). Just six years earlier, there was near-parity in the two types of meetings. The growing proportion of public meetings has again raised questions about the optimum balance the Council should strike.

The Council has considerable freedom in deciding how to meet. The only reference to meeting formats is in Rule 48 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, which provides that “unless it decides otherwise, the Council shall meet in public”.  In its early years, that was largely how the Council met.  Public meetings are formal meetings of the Council and are used for open debates, debates, most briefings and adoptions. There is an official record of these meetings, which since the early 2000s have also been webcast. (There are also formal private meetings from which only a communique is issued; these are held infrequently, with fewer than 20 annually for most of the past decade.)

Through practice, the Council developed other meeting formats.  Informal consultations were less common in the Council’s first few decades. These are closed meetings limited to Council members and briefers from the Secretariat, for which there is no official record.

The Evolution of Public Formats

Starting in the early 1990s, member states’ interest in the Council’s work and in presenting their views in debates on issues of concern to them, such as apartheid in South Africa or the Balkan wars, prompted them to request meetings on these matters and to press for more meetings to be held in public. Under Rule 37, members with a direct stake in an issue began to participate in debates. Non-members can attend public briefings, and although generally it is only Council members that speak, often the government of the country being discussed—for example, the host government of a peace mission—will participate under Rule 37.

The concept of an open debate, with wide participation of the UN membership, also developed during this period. The first time the term was used was probably in an 8 February 1994 letter from the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the president of the Security Council, with a “call for an emergency session of the Security Council with a formal meeting and the opportunity for open debate to the Member States of the United Nations”.

The Rise of Informal Consultations

The evolution of Council meeting formats is linked to the changes that were taking place in the world. The end of the Cold War sparked a period of intense activity in the Council as relations between the permanent members improved, paving the way for significant decisions on international peace and security issues. Meeting in a private space allowed for frank briefings and discussions. Between 1989 and 1994, the Council authorised 20 peace operations requiring Council oversight and regular renewal. Unlike today when the negotiations and drafting of texts are done at expert level outside the official Council rooms, including by email, informal consultations were used in those years to resolve differences over draft texts face to face. Not surprisingly, the early 1990s saw a rapid rise in informal consultations, which by 1995 had become more common than public meetings.

This development was initially welcomed. Council members linked the confidentiality of informal meetings to greater efficiency. However, by 1994, there were also growing calls for a different balance between privacy and transparency. The wider membership had become increasingly discontented over the fact that interested third parties could not provide information to the Council in informal consultations, where participation is strictly limited. At France’s initiative, in December 1994, the Council held its first working methods debate, which focused on transparency. Following the debate, the Council adopted a presidential statement calling for “an increased recourse to open meetings, in particular at an early stage in its consideration of a subject” in order to improve the exchange of ideas and information between Council members and other member states.

The Pendulum Swings Towards Public Meetings

Secretariat briefings were also swept up in the spirit of openness. Until 1998, the Secretariat had briefed the Council during informal consultations, which are not open to the wider membership nor a matter of public record. In 1998, in a presidential note addressing several transparency-related issues, Council members agreed that the Secretary-General “is to be encouraged to make statements to the Council, when he deems it appropriate, in public meetings of the Council”. This seems to have encouraged public briefings by UN Secretariat officials more generally. The first such public briefing appears to have been held on 10 November 1998, when UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata briefed the Council.

The balance was tilting and shifted decisively towards public meetings starting in 2001.  Between 2001 and 2018, the Council consistently held more public meetings than consultations. Since 2014, the gap between the number of public meetings and informal consultations has widened significantly, peaking in 2017 with 282 public meetings, the most since the UN was created, and with informal consultations at their second-lowest level since 2001 (37).

There are a number of reasons for this change. The larger UN membership regularly lobbies for greater transparency in the Council’s work. During the last several years, Council members have pushed for more meetings to be held in public. Costa Rica and Uruguay, during their presidencies in November 2008 and February 2017 respectively, attempted to hold all meetings for the month in public, but encountered pushback from some Council members. The US during its presidency in September 2018 started out with a programme of work featuring only public meetings, although it eventually had to add consultations on Yemen. Although it had become the practice for Council members simply to listen during public briefings and then deliver their statements in informal consultations, Uruguay, while on the Council in 2016-2017, made a point of always speaking at the public segment of a meeting. This appears to have had a domino effect on members, and today most Council members make statements during public briefings. As a result, it is not uncommon for situations that used to be discussed in a public briefing followed by informal consultations now to omit the closed-door portion of the discussion, even though the latter is intended to serve a different function.  The increase in the Council’s workload may also have contributed to the desire to eliminate informal consultations in these circumstances.

The formalisation of informal consultations may also account for the decline in their numbers. Informal consultations were conceived as a format for frank discussion of sensitive issues facing the Council. In recent years, there has been criticism that members largely reiterate their public views behind the closed doors. Attempts at greater interactivity in consultations have been short-lived. It appears, however, that this year more members are moving away from scripted statements in consultations, which may make these informal consultations more attractive and add value to Council decision-making.

There is no magic formula in determining the right balance between the twin demands of openness and privacy. Arguably, at times of tension and difficult Council dynamics, public meetings can encourage playing to the gallery over stolid consensus-seeking.  In recent years the Council has met the demands for more of its work to take place in public. It may be time to reflect on whether there could be a more nuanced use of the public and private settings. There are clearly some politically sensitive issues that would benefit from being discussed out of the spotlight of the media and the wider membership. If the Council elects to hold more informal consultations, greater balance between transparency and confidentiality can perhaps be attained by having the Council president provide remarks to the press following these meetings.

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