In Hindsight: The Council’s Scorecard in the First Six Months of 2020
It has not been business as usual for the Security Council in the first six months of 2020. Since mid-March, the suspension of in-person Council meetings has required unexpected decisions and drastic changes. The restrictions on conducting its business in the Council chamber have pushed the body to find new ways to carry out its mandate of maintaining international peace and security. It has required applying the Charter and the rules of procedure to completely new territory and immersion into the use of technology new to most members.
Adapting to a New Working Environment
After an initial period of what appeared to be paralysis in mid-March, the Council has progressively moved closer to operating as it would normally. China, as the president in March, was faced with developing the initial provisional measures, which have been expanded by the Dominican Republic and Estonia during their subsequent presidencies. Starting with remote meetings described as closed videoconferences (VTCs), the Council now holds open VTCs that are webcast, as are the virtual open debates. These remote formats use an in-house platform that allows all Council members, as well as the Director of SCAD and briefers, to see each other on a single computer screen. In the virtual version of open debates, states not members of the Council take part by submitting written statements that are subsequently published as a letter from the president of the Council. This format has also maintained the possibility for civil society briefers to participate. The webcasts of the open VTCs, the written record of the briefings and statements, and outcomes of meetings are kept on the Security Council’s website under a new category labelled “Covid-19 related”. During this period of virtual meetings, more members are sharing their statements on their websites and through social media, including statements made in closed VTCs. In March, when meetings were not webcast, Council members made a concerted effort to adopt press elements to provide some information on Council activity. This practice has continued for some closed VTCs, with the press elements communicated by the Council president in a virtual stakeout.
By April, subsidiary bodies had established ways of getting their work done through virtual meetings and written statements. In March, two subsidiary body briefings, on South Sudan sanctions and the 1540 Committee dealing with non-proliferation, did not take place. The chairs of these committees, Estonia and Indonesia, respectively, instead circulated written statements, with Council members also able to submit their statements in writing.
By the end of June, VTCs had replicated almost all the regular Council formats. However, there were missing elements. The lack of interpretation led Council members to decide to conduct meetings in English. Frustrated with not having multilingual options, France, as president in June, chose to conduct meetings and deliver statements in French. Russia followed suit by delivering some statements in Russian, followed by English. There is also no provision for members to deliver an explanation of vote during adoptions. Although members can provide a written explanation of vote following an adoption, this is seen as a poor substitute for being able to publicly express their views in the Council chamber. As agreed in late March, resolutions are adopted through a 24-hour written procedure and presidential statements through electronic agreement. Results are announced by the Council president in a VTC, with members present but not speaking. Not having the wider membership participate live in the open debate format is also seen as a drawback.
An unexpected bonus of conducting business via VTC is the ease with which high-level representatives are able to participate. This has encouraged high-level participation in several meetings, including the protection of civilians meeting in May and the Middle East and Mali open VTCs in June. Members have also used the Arria-formula and informal interactive dialogue formats creatively during this period. Both allow for participation by a wider range of parties than the “open VTC” format. The first high-level Arria-formula meeting, on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on European soil, was organised by Estonia during its May presidency, with 45 out of 76 participating members represented at foreign minister level or above. Difficulty getting agreement on a briefer for a meeting on Syria chemical weapons in May led to the meeting being held as an informal interactive dialogue session with the suggested briefer.
One drawback of the virtual meetings being considered as unofficial meetings is how to conduct a procedural vote, as these are conducted in formal meetings. Members have found ways to have the necessary discussions on new issues such as Hong Kong and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Adding a new issue to the Council’s agenda, however, requires a formal meeting, of which there are currently none.
Meetings Hold Steady, Hours Drop
The overall number of meetings fell from 196 formal meetings and consultations in the first six months of 2019 to 182 formal meetings, consultations and VTCs in the corresponding period in 2020. This is largely attributable to the Council’s not having met at all from 13 through 23 March, leaving it with 20 meetings (including VTCs) in March 2020 compared to 31 meetings in March 2019. For the remainder of this period, the number of meetings this year is comparable to 2019, and occasionally higher.
Time spent in meetings has decreased in 2020. In the first six months, the Council spent 276.4 hours in meetings, with 147.7 of those hours in VTCs. At the six-month mark in 2019, the Council had spent 360.3 hours in public meetings and consultations. This decrease can be attributed to a number of factors, including the seven working days spent without meetings and the relative brevity of the virtual version of open debates. Council open debates often last six hours or more, whereas the open VTC format, which does not include the spoken participation of the wider membership, has tended to last about two hours. Some anticipated open debates have been postponed, as in the case of women, peace and security, or have been held as Arria-formula meetings. In addition, at least one open debate—on multilateralism—that had been anticipated during China’s presidency in March was not held as the Council had not yet decided on meeting modalities.
(Please see SCAD’s “The Monthly Highlights of Security Council Practice” for more details on these statistics.)
Essential Business Continues
Despite a more cumbersome adoption process, the Council has generally been able to adopt decisions that were needed to renew mission mandates and sanctions regimes. The number of decisions over this period is almost exactly the same as in 2019.The Council adopted 33 decisions (resolutions and presidential statements) in the first half of 2020. Over the same period in 2019, the Council adopted 34 decisions. The Council adopted six presidential statements during this period, one more than in 2019. The number of resolutions fell slightly from 29 to 27.
It was clear from the start that 2020 was not going to be an easy year for consensus in the Council, for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. The first resolution adopted (S/RES/2504) was on the cross-border and cross-line delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, which had 11 votes in favour and four abstentions. In February, two other resolutions—on Libya and Yemen sanctions—also failed to be adopted unanimously. During the period of working remotely, the Council has been able to adopt 13 resolutions, with only two that were not unanimous—one on South Sudan sanctions and another on the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. This may have been partly due to a willingness to have short rollovers in order to take the time to obtain consensus, as was done when renewing the UN/AU Hybrid Operation in Darfur, or to delay a decision, as with the March and June adoptions on the UN Mission in Somalia. In assessing the work of the Council during this period, its inability to adopt any product on COVID-19 was particularly striking.
The existing divisions among Council members may have made it harder to reach decisions in a virtual environment. While the Council has been able to get its work done during this period, often agreement required protracted negotiations, at times on issues that appeared peripheral. New stress points emerged with this pandemic. The relationship between the US and China deteriorated against the backdrop of the US position on the origin of the coronavirus and its criticism of the World Health Organization. There has been no improvement in relations between the US and Russia, reducing the prospects of substantive Council action on such issues as Syria and Venezuela. The US position on several matters has hardened, making it difficult to include language in outcomes on climate change, aspects of the women, peace and security agenda, and the ICC.
The ten elected members (E10) continue to meet regularly as a group and with the Secretary-General. However, the E10, too, have had greater difficulty finding common ground on issues upon which they were once in agreement, such as the humanitarian situation in Syria. Elected members were instrumental in getting the Secretary-General to brief on COVID-19 in early April, but the letter requesting the meeting was only signed by nine of the ten elected members as South Africa declined to do so.
Sub-groups of Council members continued to be visible during this period. The African members (A3), joined by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, have regularly taken joint positions. In a briefing on Somalia in February, South Africa spoke on behalf of this group. The EU members, at times joining with past EU members and on one occasion with the incoming members, have held 11 joint virtual stakeouts on a range of topics, including the Middle East, Myanmar, Syria chemical weapons, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
Council members have expressed frustration with some of the limitations of virtual negotiations. They note that the virtual platform makes it difficult to read body language and to have the sort of quiet corridor conversations that may help during an impasse. There might also be less sense of pressure to compromise when not faced with 14 other members in the same room. Members acknowledge that security concerns might make for less frank discussions on a virtual platform. Developing relationships and building trust, essential tools in a diplomat’s arsenal, are much more difficult in the virtual world.