In Hindsight: Subsidiary Bodies’ Chairs and Penholders for 2021
The presidential note on the election of the chairs and vice-chairs of subsidiary bodies for 2021, issued on 7 January, was the culmination of almost six months of negotiations among Security Council’s incoming and permanent members (P5). Despite new working methods put in place in 2016 to facilitate a more efficient and transparent process, getting agreement this time was protracted and challenging. The difficulties had as much to do with the negotiations between the permanent and elected members as is it did with competition among elected members to head particular subsidiary bodies, coupled with reluctance to take on others.
Guidance and Practice in the Selection of Subsidiary Body Chairs
In 2016, the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG) issued a presidential note on transitional arrangements for elected members (S/2016/619) calling 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”. Since then, members have made concerted effort to reach agreement by this date, although it has never quite been met. Even if the list is agreed before the end of the year, the presidential note setting out the new chairs of subsidiary bodies is traditionally issued at the beginning of January.
The transitional arrangements conveyed in the 2016 Note were incorporated in the 2017 “Note 507” on working methods. These arrangements included that 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”. The understanding from the start has been that the two members in question would be the IWG chair and one permanent member. This year, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as chair of the IWG, coordinated the process among the incoming members and worked on the list of chairs with the “P5 coordinator”, a position that rotates quarterly. Last year, France was the P5 coordinator from August to October 2020, and China from November to January 2021.
This Year’s Process
This year’s elected members made a promising start. The first meeting to discuss subsidiary body chairs took place in late June, shortly after the five incoming members were elected on 17 June 2020. By early July, an initial list of members’ preferences had been drawn up. There were ten subsidiary bodies available: six sanctions committees and four subsidiary organs. Agreement was reached on all the vacant slots except for one sanctions committee, which was viewed as politically sensitive. One thematic working group had two elected members vying for the chair: it was proposed to split the chair, with each member getting a year. This initial list was conveyed to the P5 in mid-August. The P5 responded with a counter-proposal in late September, which was not acceptable to several incoming members. Following further discussions, the incoming members agreed to resubmit the original list, this time with no vacant slot or shared positions. The P5 accepted most of the allocations, but further negotiations were needed with at least one incoming member that remained dissatisfied with its mix of subsidiary bodies. The list of chairs was ultimately agreed on 5 January.
There are two unusual aspects to the 2021 presidential note on chairs of the subsidiary bodies. For the first time, the 1267 and 1988 sanctions committees will be chaired by different members. These two committees were created in 2011 when the committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) concerning Al-Qaida and the Taliban was split into one committee for more general terrorist listings, and another for the Taliban.
Second, the 2021 presidential note contains two footnotes. The first states that “India will be the Chair of the counter-terrorism committee until the end of 2022, after Tunisia leaves the chair”. The second footnote states that Mexico will be the Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict until the end of 2022, after Niger concludes its term as Vice-Chair. In effect, these negotiations have selectively brought 2022 chairing arrangements into the mix, giving some members dibs on future year arrangements and taking these slots off the table for the 2022 incoming members. While similar verbal agreements have been made in the past, these footnotes formalise such commitments.
Reflections and Takeaways
This year’s negotiations may have been especially complicated due to the mix of subsidiary bodies available as well as the composition of the five incoming members. With three of the five members having similar priorities regarding protection issues, files such as children and armed conflict, women, peace and security and climate and security were hotly contested. At the other end of the spectrum were “undesirable” sanctions committees, perceived as singularly politically sensitive or resource-intensive. It was hard for the incoming five to present a list without gaps or overlap, despite the general perception that giving the P5 an incomplete list is more likely to result in a reshuffling of positions.
This year informal bodies, such as the Informal Experts Group on women, peace and security and the choice of the elected members for the Peacebuilding Commission were treated as part of the mix of subsidiary bodies and included in the list given to the P5. In previous years, positions for informal bodies were de-linked from the appointment process for formal subsidiary bodies and they do not appear in the presidential note on the appointment of subsidiary body chairs. These positions have not traditionally required P5 sign-off; arguably, however, their inclusion can ease the overall negotiation process by putting more options on the table.
Committee chairs serve in their personal capacity and the general practice has been for the permanent representative to take on this role. However, departing from this practice in 2019, Germany appointed its deputy permanent representative as chair of the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee. Now, Norway has appointed its deputy permanent representative as chair of the DPRK sanctions committee. Late in the negotiations, questions arose over the role of vice-chairs and how they are chosen. The guidelines of many subsidiary bodies state that, when the chair is unable to chair a meeting, they will nominate one of the vice-chairs or a representative of their mission. While chairs often use the latter option, it appears that an actively engaged vice-chair, working closely with the chair, is more strongly positioned to play a substantive role. Further discussion may be needed on how vice-chairs can best be utilised.
Representational level also featured in the negotiating process. The initial discussions among the incoming members were held at permanent representative level, with final discussions among the political coordinators. The P5 were apparently represented at political coordinator level throughout the discussions, creating a perception of imbalance. It is possible that having more engagement among the P5 permanent representatives might allow for easier agreement.
There is also a continuity argument for designating one P5 coordinator to serve throughout the negotiations, rather than the mid-way change entailed by the position’s usual three–month rotation cycle, although this does not seem to have been an impediment in the recent process.
Penholderships and Burden-sharing
While today the subsidiary body chair positions are all filled by elected members, the position of penholder on most country files is largely in the hands of the P3, with few such penholder positions available to elected members—currently only Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, the Syria humanitarian file and West Africa and the Sahel. (The penholder role refers to the member of the Council that leads the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on a particular Council agenda item. Somewhat contentiously, there has been no structured link between the chair of a given subsidiary body and the penholder on the same agenda item.) Elected members have also called for better burden-sharing and more equal distribution of work among the members of the Security Council. A December 2019 presidential note stressed that the selection of chairs 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”.
Co-penholderships between permanent and elected members, another regular topic of discussion, became a reality for the first time when Germany joined the UK as co-penholder on Libya sanctions and Sudan in 2019. However, the 2020 incoming members did not seek such partnerships. It appears that while some of the 2021 incoming members were interested in co-penholding with a permanent member, they chose not to pursue this following signs that it would not be a viable proposition in 2021. As before, there are several co-penholder positions involving two elected members.
Elected members often come to the Council table with a clear idea of their priorities. Their subsidiary body preferences are often linked to these priorities as well as to the resources they can bring, including the country’s—or the permanent representative’s—experiences. To avoid gaps in the initial list for the P5, however, members may need to be flexible and willing to consider some positions not on their “wish list” or to give up those that are. As members prepare for a seat on the Council, an earlier understanding of the workings of the different subsidiary bodies might demystify some of the more opaque committees and spur interest in areas that had not been an initial priority.
While the incoming members may have had to plunge into tough negotiations, among themselves and with the P5, even before taking their Council seats, their ability to remain united in the face of proposed changes from the P5 was essential to having an outcome with which most members appear satisfied. Incorporating reflections from the 2021 appointment process may allow for an easier and earlier decision for the 2022 positions.
For more information on the penholders and chairs of subsidiary bodies, please refer to our 2021 table on Security Council penholders and chairs of subsidiary bodies as of January 2021.