In Hindsight: Towards a More Consultative Allocation of Subsidiary Body Chairs
The way chairs of subsidiary bodies are allocated has changed fundamentally in recent years. Although Council subsidiary bodies are chaired by elected members, with only rare exceptions, the allocation of these positions was historically decided by the permanent members, with minimal consultation. The decisions would be finalised late in the year, and sometimes not until January. Elected members were frustrated with the process that left them no time to prepare and with appointments that did not reflect their country’s interests and political priorities.
The more transparent and collaborative allocation process that has developed since 2016 gives elected members greater say. Its genesis is closely linked to that year’s shift in the date of the Council elections in the General Assembly from October to June. Bringing Council elections forward by four months gave incoming members extra preparation time before taking their Council seat on 1 January, and prompted the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), then chaired by Japan, to focus on the issue of the selection and preparation of chairs of subsidiary bodies.
In July 2016, the IWG issued a note on transitional arrangements for elected members (S/2016/619). Among other things, the note called on Council members “to make every effort to agree provisionally on the appointment of the chairs of the subsidiary organs for the following year no later than 1 October”. Consultations on the appointment should begin as soon as possible after the elections and be conducted in a “balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way” by two members of the Council “working in full cooperation”, with the understanding that the two members in question would be the IWG chair and one permanent member. The P5 initially resisted, but eventually agreed to this new appointment process. These new arrangements were incorporated in the 2017 “Note 507”, which also elaborated a set of measures aimed at enhancing the transparency of subsidiary organs, improving the preparation of chairs, and increasing the interaction and coordination among subsidiary organs and the Council.
This year, elected members began exchanging information on the subsidiary bodies they were interested in chairing almost immediately after the five incoming members were elected. As has been the case since 2016, the chair of the IWG–currently St Vincent and the Grenadines–coordinates the process among the incoming members and works with the P5 coordinator to finalise the list of chairs. (The P5 coordinator position rotates every three months; France holds it from August to October 2020.)
Over the years the Security Council has established a range of subsidiary bodies to support its work. They include sanctions committees, working groups and committees related to counter-terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protection of children in armed conflict. These subsidiary bodies are composed of all 15 members of the Council and work under its authority. Elected members also traditionally co-chair the informal working group (IEG) on women, peace and security, which although not a formal subsidiary body has at times been a popular choice for incoming members. Both IEG co-chair positions will be available in 2021, along with ten subsidiary body chair positions.1 (A chart showing the chairs of subsidiary bodies over the last ten years can be found on our website.)
For an elected member, deciding which subsidiary bodies to aim for requires understanding their workloads, which differ greatly, with some requiring a significant commitment of time and resources. The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict held 12 formal and 28 informal meetings, the most among subsidiary bodies in 2019; the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee and the 1540 Committee on weapons of mass destruction were also active, while the 1566 Working Group on Terrorism did not meet once. (For more information on the workload of the Council’s subsidiary bodies see the UN’s 2019 Highlights of Security Council Practice.)
An even distribution of the workload of chairing subsidiary bodies among the elected members is not always possible. Incoming members with fewer resources may be reluctant to take on a busy working group or committee, while the daunting political implications of chairing a sanctions committee has occasionally led to a member willing only to chair working groups. In general, members are wary of subsidiary bodies that are of particular political interest to P5 members or other influential member states. Two years ago, no incoming member wanted to chair the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee. Germany finally agreed, with the condition that its deputy permanent representative serve as chair rather than its permanent representative, a break with the historical practice of sanctions committees. (The chair of a sanctions committee serves in his/her individual, rather than national, capacity.) By having its deputy permanent representative chair this sanctions committee, Germany may also have been making a point about the workload on permanent representatives in taking on these positions.
Until the change in the selection process, the choice of chair often reflected P5 views on which elected member would be the most appropriate in the position. While these decisions may have been based on geo-political and resource factors, they did not lead to chairs generally coming only from a particular region. In the recent history of subsidiary bodies, only two appear to be chaired throughout by representatives from just one regional group: the Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa, which has had a chair from an African country since it was established in 2002, and the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Sanctions Committee, which has always been chaired by members of the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG).
Other patterns can be discerned as well. For some subsidiary body chairs, there has been a shift, after some years, from one regional group to another. The first three chairs of the 1591 Sudan Sanctions Committee were WEOG members—Greece, Italy and Austria. The next three chairs came from Group of Latin American and the Caribbean (GRULAC) countries—Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela—and in more recent years Eastern European members have dominated, starting with Ukraine in 2017, followed by Poland and then Estonia. In the last 12 years the Working Group on International Tribunals had chairs from WEOG from 2008 to 2013, and was then led by GRULAC members until 2020, when Viet Nam took on the chairmanship. The 1592 Côte d’Ivoire Sanctions Committee established in 2004 was chaired by WEOG members until 2010, after which GRULAC members were the chairs until the committee was terminated in 2016 following the lifting of sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire.
The 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee was chaired by a WEOG member until 2017, when Kazakhstan became the chair, followed by Indonesia in 2019. The chair of this committee also always chairs the 1988 Taliban Sanctions Committee, which was once part of it; any member interested in one committee is aware that it will be taking on both.
Not surprisingly, the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations has been chaired by an elected member with an active presence in peace operations, often, but not exclusively, from an African country.
The 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee has possibly had the most diverse mix of chairs, including permanent members and members from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Europe and Latin America.
It is clear that there is no set formula for determining the chairs of a given subsidiary body. The recent significant shift lies in incoming members themselves negotiating their preferences, depending on their foreign policy priorities, the role they hope to play on the Council, and regional considerations. Members who seek to take over the chair of a subsidiary body from another member of their regional group may reflect a sense that such an “internal” handover may be smoother; it may also be the most straightforward for members who have limited information.
Today, permanent members chair no subsidiary bodies, and the issue of burden–sharing may come up during the current allocation process. A presidential note adopted in December 2019 reaffirmed that the informal consultation process for the selection of chairs should take place in a balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way but also stressed that it should “take into account the need for a shared responsibility and a fair distribution of work for the selection of the Chairs among all members of the Council, bearing in mind the capacities and resources of members”.
In November 2018, the ten elected and five incoming Council members wrote to the president of the Council conveying their conviction that a more equal distribution of work among all members, including through co-penholderships, would improve the overall effectiveness of the Council (S/2018/1024). For some years now, France, the UK and the US, have held the “pen” on most country-specific issues, taking on the role of drafting any decisions and leading negotiations and discussions on these issues. (Please see Security Council Report’s research report on penholders for background information on this issue.)
In the past, permanent members have chaired some subsidiary bodies. The UK was the first chair of the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee, and Russia its third. In 2005, France became the first chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, a position it held for three years. However, since 2009 the task of chairing formal subsidiary bodies has fallen exclusively on the shoulders of elected members. When Germany was about to enter the Council two years ago, it fought hard to share the pen with a permanent member, which led to its being the co-penholder with the UK on Darfur and on issues concerning Libya sanctions. None of the members incoming in 2020 pushed to be co-penholders, and it is not clear if any of the incoming members this year have the appetite to do so.
The process of negotiating the available subsidiary body chair positions has been refined over the last few years. In the aftermath of the 2016 changes, incoming members could not always agree to put forward a single candidate for each available position. As a result, the P5 made changes and several members did not get the positions they wanted. In the last two years, the incoming members and Kuwait, as chair of the IWG, coordinated closely at permanent representative-level in order present to the P5 a list without significant gaps or overlap. While this requires compromise from the incoming members, it appears to make it more difficult for the P5 to make significant changes. This was seen in 2019, when—possibly for the first time—all new members were appointed chair of the subsidiary body of their choice. While in the last three years, the decision on subsidiary body chairs was made earlier than in the past, so far the 1 October deadline has not been met. This year a list was sent to the P5 by mid-August, so the chance for a prompt decision appears good, and with it the added time for an elected member to prepare for a time–consuming and often delicate responsibility where an active, engaged chair can make a difference.