In Hindsight: Signature Events in 2020 and Emerging Security Threats
The Security Council presidency, which rotates monthly in English-language alphabetical order, is an opportunity for Council members to showcase their foreign policy interests and goals. The “signature event”—convened as a debate, open debate, briefing or, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as open videoconferences (VTC)—is a prime vehicle for doing so. In contrast to meetings the Council is required to hold, whether to renew mandates of peace operations or discuss some reports of the Secretary-General, signature events are strictly optional, held at the discretion of the president. They have usually, but not always, been on thematic issues, and often take months to plan. Typically, Council members will hold one or two signature events during their respective presidencies, although on occasion a member has held more—or none at all. For elected members, with one or at most two presidencies during their two-year Council terms, the signature event can be a way of advancing particular priority issues and leaving their imprint on the Council’s work.
Signature events were first held in the 1990s and have been a common feature of Council presidencies during the past two decades. Over the years, these events have elicited mixed reactions. On the one hand, some of the topics pursued have been criticised for reflecting domestic political concerns as much as international peace and security imperatives. Some members have regarded long thematic debates—often the chosen format for these events—as a distraction from the core work of the Council. On the other hand, signature events have also brought greater focus to vital matters of peace and security, and raised wider awareness of non-traditional threats.
Several of this year’s signature events (listed below) allowed for expansive discussions on traditional topics, such as the relationship between the UN and regional organisations, upholding the UN Charter, and the safety and security of peacekeepers. But many of these events also demonstrated the complexity and fluidity of global challenges and the broadening perceptions of peace and security among Council members. In this regard, it is not surprising that ecological issues and COVID-19 featured prominently among the 2020 signature events. This year featured signature events on climate and security (Germany’s presidency) and the humanitarian effects of environmental degradation, focusing largely on the Sahel region (Niger’s presidency). As well, there were signature events on the implications of COVID-19 for peace and security (Germany’s presidency), pandemics and the challenges of sustaining peace (Indonesia’s presidency), and global governance post-COVID-19 (Niger’s presidency). The 3 November Open VTC initiated by St. Vincent and the Grenadines on “Contemporary drivers of conflict and instability and insecurity” looked at the security implications of climate change and COVID-19, among other factors.
The elected members have played a significant role in pursuing several of these initiatives, often making signature events not isolated showpieces of a Council presidency but part of a strategy to promote priority issues over the course of a Council tenure and beyond. Issues such as hunger and conflict, and climate change, have gained momentum over time in the Council, with elected members taking the baton from past E-10 colleagues and running with it, at times developing coordinated approaches with contemporaneous elected members and some permanent members.
When the Dominican Republic convened an open VTC on conflict-induced hunger and spearheaded the adoption of a presidential statement on this issue in April, it was following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, which organised a briefing on conflict and hunger as a signature event of its March 2018 presidency and wielded the pen on resolution 2417 in May 2018—a product that requested the Secretary-General to report swiftly to the Council when there arises “the risk of conflict-induced famine and widespread food insecurity”. The Dominican Republic continued its focus on hunger and conflict following its April presidency. In early September, it engaged members to explore Council follow-up to a Secretariat note that warned about worsening food insecurity resulting from armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, north-east Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen. This led to a request from eight Council members—Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger, the UK, and Viet Nam—for a briefing on these hunger crises. Indonesia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia, and the US subsequently expressed their support for the proposal. As a result, on 17 September, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, Executive Director of the World Food Programme David Beasley, and the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation Qu Dongyu briefed in open VTC format on the hunger crisis in the four countries.
The signature events that elected members have pursued on climate and security this year, as well as in previous years (for example, the Dominican Republic in January 2019 and Sweden in July 2018), are part of a broader effort to integrate this issue into the Council’s work. Ten current members—Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, the UK and Viet Nam—recently formed an informal expert group on climate and security to help inform Council decision-making on this issue. Some of these members have also spearheaded efforts to integrate climate-security concerns into Council resolutions and presidential statements.
This year’s signature events on pandemics, climate change, and hunger and conflict reflect the diverse global challenges confronting Council members in a complex international peace and security environment. In this respect, other issues such as hybrid warfare and cyber-threats have been discussed in informal meetings of Council members and are potential topics for future signature events, although they could be controversial for some members, and provoke resistance. Regardless of the issue, the signature event has always been most effectively used when it is part of a broader strategy to promote a particular issue in coordination with other like-minded members. Such coordination in recent years has been an encouraging aspect of Council dynamics.