In Hindsight: Security Council Working Methods in the Time of COVID-19
For nearly two weeks following its last pre-COVID-19 formal meeting on 12 March, the Security Council became invisible and—in the eyes of the general public and fellow UN members—appeared to be idle. A new programme of work was posted on the Council’s website on 16 March, with that week’s meetings cancelled but retaining those for the weeks of 23 and 30 March. The subsequent versions of the programme of work listed fewer and fewer meetings, and the last one, posted on 27 March, showed no meetings between 12 and 31 March.
Yet March 2020 became an extremely busy month for Council members. When it became probable that the measures being contemplated to curb the spread of COVID-19 would leave the Council unable to meet physically, its members, with Secretariat support, began preparing for the use of video teleconferencing (VTC) instead. During the week of 16 March, there were some ten rounds of testing these virtual meetings, initially mainly at the political coordinators’ level and gradually also involving the permanent representatives and their deputies.
While numerous technical difficulties were gradually resolved, some fundamental procedural challenges arose. Key among them was whether VTC meetings would be considered official meetings of the Council, reflected on the programme of work and listed in the UN Journal. If the virtual meetings would not be considered formal meetings of the Council, how would the Council perform certain essential tasks, such as adopting resolutions to renew mandates that would otherwise expire?
These and other working methods and procedural matters were under intense discussion among members, with the March presidency, China, playing the leading role and as a priority, seeking agreement on a procedure that would allow members to adopt decisions. During the second half of March, members reached agreement on a written voting procedure to adopt resolutions that “would have the same legal status as those voted in the Chamber” and would also allow members to explain their vote in writing in a document that would be posted on the Council website. Members also agreed to a process for holding meetings by VTC.
On 24 March, members held their first fully virtual meeting: a briefing on the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by virtual meetings on Libya on 26 March, Syria on 30 March, and Afghanistan on 31 March. Using the new written voting procedure, the Council adopted four resolutions in late March—three renewing mandates and one on the safety and security of peacekeepers. To the outside world, however, the Council was still invisible because there was no agreement among members about announcing, webcasting and keeping records of the meetings.
Writing to the president of the Security Council on 30 March, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group of 25 member states raised concerns about the Council’s ability to discharge its mandate. It also warned that unless the Council was able to continue to adapt its working methods to the unprecedented circumstances, “the present way of operating also risks undermining progress made over the years in strengthening the transparency, inclusion and accountability of the Council towards the wider UN membership” (S/2020/252).
Facing the prospect of holding its entire April presidency under the COVID-19 measures, the Dominican Republic began working in late March on a set of temporary measures aimed at enabling the Council to conduct as much of its business as possible with greater transparency, a stronger record of developments, and means for the Council to communicate with the broader UN membership and the outside world.
Building on the newly emerging practices and using the terminology developed under the Chinese presidency, the Dominican Republic proposal foresaw two types of VTCs, open and closed, with open VTCs being equivalent to briefings or debates and closed VTCs being reserved for meetings that would have taken place in consultations. The briefings in open VTCs were to be broadcast live and then stored in the UN video archives. Starting on 21 April, the exchanges between Council members after open VTC briefings have also been broadcast and archived. The set of measures negotiated during the last days of March and adopted on 1 April at the closed VTC meeting of the Permanent Representatives on the programme of work also included formulations that would allow written records to be kept of the open VTCs. It was agreed that the president of the Council would circulate the text of the briefings and a compilation of members’ statements as letters addressed to the Secretary-General and the other Council members’ permanent representatives, issued as official Security Council documents. Furthermore, there would be an effort to negotiate and issue elements to the press following closed VTCs that the president would convey through a short VTC.
During the negotiations, the programme of work itself posed a particular challenge. All the meetings of the Council held virtually would be considered unofficial, leading some members to claim that the programme could not be formally adopted. There was also no agreement on announcing the VTC meetings in the UN Journal. For the sake of transparency, a compromise was reached whereby on the first day of the presidency members would agree on an “Informal Plan of VTC of the Security Council”, which would then be posted on the Council’s website.
Members also agreed in late March on measures that would allow non-Council members to participate in some Council discussions. China worked out an agreement among members allowing for participation of “specially affected” non-Council members in certain VTCs, and the Dominican Republic expanded the possibility of issuing such invitations to other member states, members of the Secretariat or individuals. A 14 April note verbale from the Dominican Republic sent to all UN members and observer missions outlined modalities for submission of written statements for VTCs that had originally been planned as open debates. Both measures added a degree of transparency to the new working methods.
Both the Chinese and the Dominican Republic presidents of the Security Council resorted to an unusual format to communicate the agreed upon provisional working methods to Council members and the public. They each issued a letter “from the President of the Security Council addressed to the Permanent Representatives of the members of the Security Council” (S/2020/253 of 27 March 2020 and S/2020/273 of 2 April 2020, respectively). Presidents of the Security Council do not habitually communicate with the other 14 members by such letters. Almost all letters from Security Council presidents over the last decade-and-a-half are addressed to the Secretary-General and convey the Council’s consent to a personnel appointment, a plan to conduct a visiting mission or to acknowledge receipt of a proposal. It appears that the format of a letter from the president to all Council members to convey the agreed temporary procedures was chosen to emphasise the extraordinary and temporary nature of the measures developed by the respective presidencies. (With the above measures applying initially through April and in light of the UN Secretariat’s anticipated closure extending into May, that month’s Council presidency, Estonia, was at the time of writing preparing a letter that would allow the Council to continue to work remotely.)
At the same time as Council members were developing their new temporary working methods, the Security Council’s website introduced new, user-friendly features, allowing those not on the Council to follow along more readily. The home page now has a button labelled “VTC meetings and outcomes March-April 2020” and links to the key documents about the provisional measures, while the monthly informal plan of VTCs is located under the “Monthly” button, and the “Daily” button contains information on the Council’s work plan for the day. The videos of meetings have been archived by the UN website under the usual button of “Meetings/Security Council”.
In its first few weeks of operating under the UN’s COVID-19 measures, the Council has gone from initial procedural rigidity to displaying considerable creativity and flexibility. The ability to adapt its working methods has been a feature that the Council has displayed throughout its history. The Security Council started grappling with its working methods at its very first meeting on 17 January 1946, when it needed to adopt rules of procedure before it could proceed. These were presented in draft form by the UN Preparatory Commission, and the Council adopted them on an interim basis. But the draft rules immediately prompted many questions and concerns, and the Council set up its first subsidiary body that day, a sub-committee for the consideration and possible revising of the rules, charged with reporting back to the Council “as soon as possible” (S/PV.1). The sub-committee tried for several months to agree on the rules. But on 24 June 1946, the Council gave up efforts to reach an agreement and adopted the rules as provisional. Through many new practices, documentation and communication methods in the intervening decades, the rules have nonetheless remained provisional ever since.