In Hindsight: Looking Back to Look Ahead
Every January, five new members take their seats for a two-year term on the Security Council. In 2021, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway are the incoming five (I-5) replacing departing members Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa.
While we don’t have a crystal ball, the events of 2020 may provide an indication of what these members can expect in 2021.
The new members enter the Council following an extraordinary year. Forced to confront the unusual situation of being unable to meet at the UN because of restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, the Council had to find ways of continuing its essential work, particularly the adoption of resolutions extending mission mandates and sanctions regimes. Within two months, the Council recreated most of its meeting formats and developed a written procedure for voting, which, although more cumbersome, allowed for the adoption of resolutions and presidential statements. It also found a way of agreeing on other decisions without in-person meetings.
The statistics for 2020 confirm that the Council maintained its essential work. Overall, the Council continued to hold regular meetings on issues on its agenda and renewed mission and sanctions regime mandates. Fifty-eight resolutions were adopted in 2020, exceeding the 52 adopted in 2019. The number of presidential statements, which had already been on a downward trend, dropped from 15 to 13. Given the deep divisions on an increasing number of issues, members may have chosen not to pursue outcomes in this format given the need for consensus. Less clear is whether COVID restrictions exacerbated pre-existing Council divisions to a point where some outcomes were unattainable.
The amount of time spent in meetings dropped drastically, down by more than 200 hours compared to the 660 hours in 2019. This reduction can be partially explained by the fact that open debates, which have been held as videoconferences (VTCs) since May, have restricted speaking roles to Council members and briefers. Other participants have had to submit their contributions in writing. The almost two-week period in March 2020 of no Council activity, followed by more limited activities for a short period, additionally accounts for the drop in meeting hours. Furthermore, it became harder to meet on more controversial topics in 2020: in the past, such meetings have been informally negotiated face-to-face or decided through a procedural vote during a formal meeting. Given that the Council’s VTCs are not considered official meetings, however, procedural votes could not be held unless members were willing to meet in person. It is not clear whether some issues that were discussed in closed VTCs under “any other business” such as Hong Kong, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or Belarus might have been held as public meetings under normal circumstances.
In 2020, Council members held 22 Arria-formula meetings, the same number as in 2019, matching its peak use since it began in 1992. It seems that some members chose to hold Arria-formula meetings rather than Council VTCs so that the wider membership could take the floor. Estonia organised a high-level Arria-formula meeting, a first for this format, which has prompted greater interest in exploring the advantages virtual convening offers for high-level participation and engaging briefers outside of New York. China and Russia have in the past expressed reservations about this format, but in 2020 both chose to use it, in Russia’s case organising five Arria-formula meetings. With the prospect of the Council’s continuing to work remotely at least in the early part of 2021, there may need to be further discussion of whether virtual meetings should be considered official and of how to enable the larger membership to speak during open debates.
Before the pandemic, relations among the permanent members were already fraught. A global pandemic might have been expected to unify Council members to address its consequences for peace and security, as happened following the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2011. Instead, rather than narrowing the differences, it led to greater cleavages in 2020. Not being able to meet in person did not help. Divisive issues require face-to-face bilateral or small group negotiations in order to find compromises or creative language.
Not surprisingly, in 2020 the Council continued to struggle with obtaining unanimous agreement on Council outcomes. Twelve resolutions were not unanimous. They covered sanctions renewals (Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen), mission mandate renewals (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Western Sahara, Haiti, and Libya), criminal tribunals and the Syrian humanitarian situation. Significantly, on a number of resolutions, the disagreements were over language on human rights, gender, or climate and security rather than core elements of the mission’s mandate or the sanctions regime.
Several draft resolutions were not adopted due to a veto or the lack of sufficient number of votes in favour. In 2020 there were three vetoes, two of which related to the re-authorisation of the Syria cross-border aid mechanism. The Council’s working methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a written voting procedure and lack of in-person meetings, may have made these negotiations more difficult. Russia and China vetoed two resolutions, and two Russian-sponsored texts failed to garner enough votes to pass, before the Council was able to re-authorise just one border crossing. One of the last bastions of Council unity, counter-terrorism, fell when the US vetoed a draft resolution on the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs).
Iran was another divisive issue. In August 2020, the US introduced a draft resolution that would have extended indefinitely the existing arms-related restrictions under resolution 2231. The resolution failed to be adopted due to insufficient votes. With the change in the US administration in January, this is expected to become more of a consensus issue in the Council.
In a tough year, there have been signs of progress on some issues such as Libya, where a fragile ceasefire is holding at the time of writing, and Mali, where following a coup last August, the country is moving towards a political transition. Colombia continues to be an issue that has overall Council support. In 2020, the Council oversaw the establishment of a new mission, the Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), and in South Sudan, long-term political rivals came together in a new Transitional Government of National Unity. While these are positive developments, progress is fragile, and all these situations will require the Council’s watchful attention in 2021.
Two presidential statements on children and armed conflict were adopted in 2020, showing strong support for this agenda. Other thematic issues fared less well. The women, peace and security agenda continued to see pushback from several permanent members. The issue of climate and security also met with strong resistance from three permanent members, making an outcome impossible in 2020. However, members found other ways to keep a focus on this issue. Germany, Niger and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines chose signature events with a climate and security theme during their presidency. At the end of 2020, 11 like-minded Council members came together to form an informal expert group that, among other things, will work at systematically integrating this issue into the Council’s work. With four of the five new members expressing an interest in climate in the context of peace and security and the US position likely to be more positive, 2021 may provide opportunities for Council action on this agenda.
There may also be scope for consideration of non-traditional aspects of international security, including cyber threats and pandemics, in the new year. In May 2020, Council members attended a high-level Arria-formula meeting on cyber and security organised by Estonia during its presidency, and this issue may be raised again this year. The Council’s protracted inability to adopt a product on COVID-19 was in stark contrast to the Secretary-General’s activism; in addition to the ceasefire call, his office issued regular COVID-19 policy briefs. However, the pandemic was not absent from the Council’s agenda. The Council was able to discuss the issue in open VTCs and in meetings on country-specific situations, with mission mandates being updated to address the coronavirus situation. In 2021, the impact of the pandemic on issues on its agenda is likely to continue to be a key focus of the Council’s work.
As the five new members take their seats in the Council, there is hope that, although the effects of the global pandemic are likely to affect how the Council works for part of 2021, more normal working methods will return during the year. While some of the existing difficult dynamics are not going to disappear, the new members appear ready to carve out opportunities for progress on some of the most contentious issues and most difficult conflicts of the last few years.