In Hindsight: The Security Council in 2019
In 2019, geopolitical tensions continued to be reflected in Council action. Difficult and protracted negotiations were a regular feature, with pushback on previously agreed language from past resolutions. This difficult dynamic among Council members is apparent in the 2019 statistics. Formal Council decisions were at their lowest number since 1991. There were fewer formal meetings and consultations than in 2018, occupying slightly less time, too.
More time was spent in sanctions committees and working groups, which met 172 times in 2019, compared to 144 times in 2018. Informal formats—Arria-formula and informal interactive dialogue meetings—stood at about the same number.
Finding consensus on the most contentious issues was difficult. Six draft resolutions failed to be adopted due to either vetoes or insufficient votes—over ten percent of the 58 resolutions tabled. The three vetoes, the same number as in 2018, were on Syria (two) and Venezuela (one). Two Syria draft resolutions and one Ukraine draft resolution were not adopted because of insufficient votes. Eight resolutions out of 52 adopted had fewer than 15 votes: just over 15%, compared to just over 16% non-unanimous resolutions in 2018. These abstentions came on sanctions resolutions (South Sudan and Somalia), peacekeeping mandate renewals (Haiti and Western Sahara), and for the first time on a women, peace and security resolution. Members abstaining on the different drafts included China, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, and South Africa.
There were only two procedural votes, after four in 2018. They were on Ukraine and Venezuela, both over an objection to the provisional agenda for the meeting. The lower number of procedural votes may signal greater uncertainty, in 2019, that nine votes would be available on some issues. As in 2018, a meeting on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which for four years had been held following a procedural vote, was not requested because of calculations that there would be insufficient votes to have the meeting.
There were 22 Arria-formula meetings, surpassing the 21 in 2018, which had been the highest since the start of this format in 1992. Members appear to be using this format for issues that are likely to be blocked if brought to the Council for a formal discussion.
One new issue, Venezuela, was added to the formal agenda of the Council. Adding it proved to be polarising, requiring a procedural vote. For the first time since 1965, the Council met on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir under the agenda item “The India-Pakistan Question”.
One new mission was established: the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), and one follow-on mission, the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH), which succeeded a peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti.
Trends in 2019
An Overall Decline in the Number of Decisions
The Council adopted 67 decisions (resolutions and presidential statements) in 2019, the lowest in 18 years. The number of resolutions has been falling since 2016, and although the 52 adopted in 2019 was only two fewer than in 2018, it was the lowest in six years. Most resolutions continued to be mandate extensions and sanctions renewals, but there were also resolutions on thematic issues, including terrorism; protection of civilians; and women, peace and security. Presidential statements fell even more drastically, from 21 in 2018 to 15 last year. The low number may be attributed to greater difficulty in reaching consensus, resulting in presidential statements either not being adopted or Council members choosing not to use this format, particularly following a presidency’s signature event. The Council was unable to reach agreement on a draft text following the closure of the mission in Haiti although it is customary for the Council to issue a presidential statement on such occasions. Presidential statements in 2019 were largely used to urge implementation of an agreement, or to show support for a new agreement or the work of an organisation or a regional office. Presidential statements were also adopted following meetings on peacekeeping, the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, Iraq-Kuwait and missing persons, and the League of Arab states.
Press statements, which for some years had been the Council’s most common format for responding to specific violent incidents, fell sharply from 88 in 2018 to 67 in 2019. One reason for this may be that Council members were more selective about issuing press statements following attacks by terrorists and against civilians, which dropped from 54 percent of all press statements in 2018 to 43.4 percent in 2019.
The fall in the number of formal outcomes correlates to the difficulty in getting agreement. A number of outcomes were negotiated but not adopted, including draft presidential statements on mediation and mercenaries and a draft resolution on the financing of African-led peacekeeping missions. Members may also have been more reluctant to suggest outcomes in the face of potential vetoes or tough negotiations that could result in watered-down consensus outcomes.
Fewer Public Meetings, More Consultations
There was a small drop in the number of formal public and private meetings and consultations, from 396 in 2018 to 384 in 2019. However, there appears to have been a shift in the trend of the last three years, which favoured meeting in public rather than in consultations, as Council members acknowledged the desire for better balance between the transparency of public meetings and the need for private discussion. Council members met 135 times in consultations, compared to 120 in 2018: a 12.5 percent increase.
Formal meetings dropped by 10.4 percent. After a record-high number of public meetings–275 in 2018 and 282 in 2017–the Council held 243 public meetings in 2019. Fifteen private meetings were held, slightly more than in 2018. Unusually, this format, typically used for meetings with troop-contributing countries, was used for a discussion about chemical weapons in Syria with the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as the closed setting allowed the Council to have a frank discussion with a briefer not from the Secretariat.
In May 2019, during the Secretary-General’s retreat for Council members, the UK suggested that a new informal format for frank discussions among the permanent representatives was needed. Indonesia, as president for the month of May, hosted the first meeting in this format, referred to as “sofa talks”.
A Council Divided
Strained relations among the permanent members (P5) on the global stage continued to affect Council dynamics. For the last few years, Russia and the US have been on opposing sides in conflicts in the Middle East and Europe. There are rising tensions with China, which has become increasingly assertive globally and in the Council. At the same time, the US has retreated from active engagement in multilateral institutions and is increasingly focused on domestic issues and on pursuing issues bilaterally.
In the Council, Russia and the US remain deadlocked on Syria, on which Russia cast its 14th veto in December 2019, and on Ukraine. The situation in Venezuela came in as a new divisive issue. China has begun to take strong positions on issues that affect its wider domestic priorities. It has been particularly assertive on Afghanistan, threatening to veto the renewal of the UNAMA’s mandate over language related to its Belt and Road Initiative, and on Jammu-Kashmir, on which it initiated a Council meeting and proposed a draft text.
France, the UK and the US (P3), which had been a united block for years, now have differing positions on issues ranging from the Sahel to Iran. The biggest change has come from the US, which on issues such as sexual and reproductive health rights in conflict, the ICC, and climate and security appears more aligned with China and Russia than with France and the UK.
The elected members (E10) have continued to meet regularly among themselves as well as with the Secretary-General. They have joined forces around working methods and made their first statement as a group in a Council meeting during the working methods open debate in June. The E10 made a joint media statement in November 2019 on Israeli settlement activity but have found it more difficult to rally around Syria humanitarian issues than they have in the past.
Difficulty in reaching agreement on several issues has led regional sub-groups to show Council support on divisive issues. In 2019, the recently departed, present and future EU members of the Council presented seven joint statements and appeared together at press stakeouts. The statements were on the DPRK, Gaza, Georgia, the Middle East, Turkish military action in north-eastern Syria, and Ukraine, which was the subject of two statements. For what appears to be the first time, the African members (A3) made joint statements, including when the Council failed to support the AU’s call for a transition to civilian rule in Sudan.