In Hindsight: The Annual Report to the General Assembly—Can It Be Improved?
The Security Council’s annual report to the General Assembly has been one of the most belaboured aspects of the Council’s working methods. Numerous initiatives undertaken by member states since 1993 have aimed at making the report more useful to its principal addressee, the General Assembly, and to the general public. The most recent of these initiatives culminated in the adoption on 27 December 2019 of a note by the president of the Security Council, tightening the report’s preparation timeline with the aim of presenting it to the General Assembly before the beginning of summer, starting with the report for 2020.
Changes to the annual reporting process have come in response to pressure from the UN membership, which since the end of the Cold War has been increasingly called upon to implement Council decisions in matters such as peacekeeping and sanctions and has wanted better insight into, and more accountability for, the Council’s work. Among recurrent criticisms were calls for the Council to make the annual report more analytical and for its timeline to allow for a thorough examination by members prior to the discussion at the General Assembly.
Responding to the timing-related concerns, the Council revised the process for the elaboration of the annual report in 2015, changing the reporting cycle to a calendar year and moving the presentation of the report from the main part of the General Assembly’s regular session to the following spring. Until then, the Council’s annual report had covered the 12–month period ending shortly before the General Assembly session at which it would be presented. In practice, there was usually insufficient time between the completion of the report and the end of the main session for members to examine the report thoroughly ahead of its discussion.
Despite the intention to afford member states more time for the study and discussion of the report, the opposite happened in the first two years after moving to a calendar-year cycle. The introductions of the 2017 and 2018 reports were finalised much later than the intended 31 January deadline, the reports’ adoption took place in August, and the General Assembly discussed the reports at the very end of its session, with most delegations busy preparing for the opening of the next session. Only a few participated in the report’s discussion. In 2019, the annual report was again adopted in August but, when scheduling the discussion at the General Assembly, its president allowed more time for preparations. This time, 27 speakers, including 14 permanent representatives, participated.
This year, the Council adopted its 2019 annual report on 14 July, earlier than in previous years, during its first in-person meeting since the special measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic went into effect in mid-March. In turn, the 31 August discussion in the General Assembly (held as an informal virtual meeting) included 37 member states, most of them represented by permanent representatives.
The most recent adjustment of the timeline—stipulating that starting with the 2020 report, its adoption should happen by 30 May “in time for its consideration by the General Assembly immediately thereafter”—will be tested for the first-time next year. It may lead to more predictability and thus a more deliberate treatment of the report by the General Assembly.
The situation seems to be more complex with respect to addressing the other major criticism of the annual report: its insufficient analytical content. For more than two decades, the Council has made an effort to inject an element of analysis into the report.
In a 1997 note by the president that outlined a new structure for the annual report, Council members specified that the report would contain, as an addendum, “brief assessments on the work of the Security Council, which representatives who have completed their functions as President of the Security Council may wish to prepare, under their own responsibility and following consultations with members of the Council for the month during which they presided and which should not be considered as representing the views of the Council”. Up to that point, the annual report had been prepared by the Secretariat and did not contain any input from Council members.
A 2002 note by the president of the Council introduced several changes to the structure of the annual report, many of which were aimed at reducing its volume, which had swollen to almost 600 pages. Thus, the report would no longer reproduce the monthly assessments in full but would simply list the assessments “issued by the individual monthly Presidencies of the Council on its work”. At the same time, the Council would begin the practice of assigning responsibility for drafting an introductory essay for the annual report to one of its members (the July presidency) to enhance its analytical content. The note also said that during the public meeting when the report is adopted, “members of the Council who wish to do so could comment on the work of the Council for the period covered by the report”. The Council’s only public debate on the adoption of its annual report took place in 2002, and the introduction, which initially was indeed analytical, soon started losing this edge.
Based on conversations with diplomats charged with drafting the introductory essay in the last few years, it appears that achieving analytical content is hard for both substantive and political reasons. Substantively, the monthly assessments by different presidencies—which constituted important primary material for the drafters of the introduction and since 1997 had been produced by all presidencies, usually quite quickly—have, in the last few years, been submitted erratically. When the 2017 and 2018 annual reports were circulated, only three of the 12 presidencies for each year had submitted assessments. For 2019, eight members submitted their assessments in time to be used if the introduction drafter so desired. Politically, the heightened divisiveness within the Council during the past several years has made agreeing on the introduction—which is a consensus document—more difficult and time–consuming.
Some options for making the report more useful and its discussion more substantive have emerged from the General Assembly’s considerations of the report and the working methods open debates at the Council and from the observations of interested diplomats.
With the Council due to adopt the 2020 report by 30 May 2021, the General Assembly should schedule its discussion in June, as several participants in this year’s Assembly discussion suggested. Early consultations between the two bodies’ presidencies could facilitate advance planning.
While producing and agreeing on the introductory essay has been a challenge for Council members, it seems generally useful when the drafting delegation assigns the lead writer early on, who then drafts as the year progresses rather than waiting for it to end. Relieving the drafter of some of his or her regular diplomatic responsibilities may also be helpful. Budgeting sufficient time for reaching consensus on the introduction’s content would be essential to meeting the 30 May deadline for the report’s adoption.
Making the introductory essay more analytical is probably a bigger challenge, and delegations put forward specific recommendations during the 31 August informal discussion of the 2019 report.
Several speakers—including Switzerland, speaking on behalf of Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT), a diverse group of 25 member states sharing the objective of encouraging better Security Council working methods and enhanced transparency—suggested that the drafters focus attention not only on individual files but also address trends in the areas of international peace and security and the work of the Council.
Various delegations suggested that, in addition to describing what the Council had accomplished during the year, the introduction should also analyse what the Council was unable to achieve. Other suggestions included analyses of trends in voting during the year (such as unanimous versus contested decisions, use of the veto, or non-adoptions because of an insufficient number of affirmative votes). The goal of such analyses, as Singapore stressed, would be “to allow all members of the General Assembly to understand trends in the Council so that all of us can work together to build convergence on the most important issues of the day”.
Whether it is possible to agree on a more analytical essay under today’s Council dynamics remains a question. During the May Council open debate on working methods as well as in the Assembly’s informal discussion of the annual report, several members highlighted the importance of all Council presidencies’ producing their respective assessments of the work during that month. It has been stressed that the assessments, while produced in consultation with Council members, are submitted by the individual delegations and should not be considered as representing the views of the Council. Assessments produced soon after the end of a presidency could be a vehicle for providing both analysis and capturing details that might later be overlooked. In a sense, coming full circle to the point when the monthly assessments were introduced in 1997, the set of assessments from a given year could form a companion piece to the annual report. Another opportunity for individual Council members to share their analyses of the Council’s work during a particular year—and thus enhancing the Council’s transparency and accountability to the broader membership—would be their own participation in the public discussion during the meeting held to adopt the annual report. The most recent compendium of working methods, the 2017 “Note 507”, stresses that during that meeting, “members of the Council who wish to do so may comment on the work of the Council for the period covered by the report”.