In Hindsight: Is There a Single Right Formula for the Arria Format?
The Arria-formula meeting format was conceived as the Security Council emerged from its stagnant Cold War period and members were open to wider information sources than government officials and the UN Secretariat on the many conflicts on its agenda.
In 1992, then-Permanent Representative of Venezuela, Ambassador Diego Arria, was contacted by Fra Jozo Zovko, a Bosnian Croat priest offering an eyewitness account of the violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because the rules of procedure made a formal audience with the Council impossible, Arria invited Council members to meet with Fra Jozo in the UN Delegates’ Lounge. This new informal meeting format came to be known as the “Arria-formula”. Since such meetings do not require Council consensus and allow members to opt out of participation, the Arria-formula format meant Council members could convene meetings on sensitive topics when consensus could not be reached on holding a formal meeting. By the end of April 2021, Council members had convened 320 Arria-formula meetings—207 on regional situations and 113 on thematic issues. Chart 1 below shows that African issues have remained the top focus, with more Arria-formula meetings (114) than on all other regional issues combined.
Over the years, the format and objectives of Arria-formula meetings have evolved. While they can be closed or open, Council members have gradually chosen primarily to hold open Arria-formula meetings. UNTV first broadcast an Arria-formula meeting on 8 August 2016—a discussion on the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, Syria—increasing the reach and visibility of the Arria-formula meetings. Since March 2020, all Arria-formula meetings have been held virtually, in line with the Council’s rules of procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chart 2 below shows that the frequency of Arria-formula meetings has fluctuated, with the 1990s seeing an average of eight meetings per year. The year 1996 was an outlier, with 20 Arria-formula meetings, many on African issues and five on the situation in the Great Lakes region alone, which focused on developments in Burundi and Rwanda.
Between 2003 and 2011, Arria-formula meetings became less frequent, with an average of just over five such meetings per year, falling to three Arrias in total in 2010-2011.
Since 2015, the number of Arria-formula meetings has risen steadily. Council members’ appetite for organising such meetings seems to have grown since they started being broadcast via UNTV in 2016. The years 2019 and 2020 each hit a record of 22 Arria-formula meetings, and 2021 is on track to meet or exceed that number, with 11 such meetings through the end of April. The rise in the use of Arria-formula meetings, given that they have traditionally been used to discuss sensitive aspects of topics difficult to cover in a formal format, may also be linked to the many divisive issues on the Council’s agenda, including the situations in Crimea and Syria. The high number of Arria-formula meetings continued when the Council moved to a virtual format in 2020, possibly due to the greater accessibility to high-level participation and a wide range of briefers.
Trends have also shifted in terms of the member states that choose to organise such meetings. Since their inception, Arria-formula meetings have mostly been organised by elected Council members. In the 2000s, the P3 (France, the UK and the US) more frequently initiated such meetings or joined elected members in co-organising Arria-formula meetings. China and Russia used the Arria-formula tool sparingly until September 2020, when China co-organised, with Russia, its first Arria-formula meeting, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia, which had previously hosted only a few Arria-formula meetings in the 1990s, organised nine such meetings in the years 2020-2021(to date); these focused on the use of chemical weapons in Syria (three), on the situation in Crimea (two), and one each on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Children and Armed Conflict, International Non-proliferation Regimes, and Universal Coercive Measures.
Since 2017, member states not on the Council have gradually joined Council members in organising Arria-formula meetings. This practice appears to facilitate a continuity of focus on particular issues, as incoming Council members can articulate a priority before entering the Council, while those rotating off the Council can continue pursuing issues of importance to them. In October 2018, for example, incoming Council members Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Germany, and Indonesia co-organised with several Council members an Arria-formula meeting on water, peace and security, a curtain-raiser for the interest they would draw during their terms to the nexus between climate and security.
The thematic issues addressed in Arria-formula meetings can be seen in chart 3 below. Arria-formula meetings over the years have had a significant focus on the protection of civilians; women, peace and security; and children and armed conflict. This reflects the priorities of the P3 and like-minded elected members of the Council, which have historically been the main organisers of Arria-formula meetings.
The Continuing Relevance of the Arria-Formula in a Changing Landscape
Arria-formula meetings have come a long way from their inception in the Delegates’ Lounge in 1992 to the often highly publicised digital events that take place today. In light of the intensive use of this format, it is worth re-examining whether or not Arria-formula meetings are still driven by their original purpose.
The original spirit of the Arria-formula meeting was for Council members to receive crucial information that might not otherwise be available to them, particularly through civil society briefers, to help enhance their awareness of complex problems and inform their decision-making. In the 2000s, for example, Arria-formula meetings helped promote the women, peace and security agenda, as it allowed Council members to hear from female civil society briefers ahead of open debates on thematic and regional issues (such as a December 2008 Arria-formula meeting hosted by Belgium on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo). However, while in the past there was some pushback against including NGO briefers in Council meetings, such briefers have become the new norm, and indeed the Council has committed itself, including in resolution 2242 (2015) and resolution 2419 (2018), to inviting civil society members from women-led and youth-led organisations, respectively, to brief the Council. The NGO working group on women, peace and security has noted that nine women civil society briefers addressed the Security Council in 2016, and 40 did so in 2019.
The fact that a large percentage of Arria-formula meetings organised by elected members in the years 2019-2020 addressed issues that enjoy general Council support, such as the Afghan peace process or the women, peace and security agenda, suggests that the briefers could arguably have briefed the Council in a formal meeting. This does not mean, of course, that proposed Council briefers are always agreed to by members, and in at least one case, in March 2018, a refusal by several Council members to hear a briefing from the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in Syria led to the swift convening of an Arria-formula meeting for that purpose. A closed Arria-formula meeting can also allow the Council to hear from briefers who may be unable to brief in an open Council meeting due to safety concerns.
While historically Arria-formula meetings would often be held as closed meetings conducive to a frank exchange of ideas, in recent years they have routinely been large open meetings that provide organisers with a platform to amplify messages on issues of importance to them. Such meetings can socialise emerging issues not yet on the Council’s agenda, such as cyber threats: after its first Arria-formula discussion, co-organised by Spain and Senegal, on “Cybersecurity and International Peace and Security” in November 2016, Ukraine organised a meeting on “Hybrid Wars as a Threat to International Peace and Security” in March 2017 during which cyber threats were discussed. And this month (May 2021), China plans to host an Arria-formula on the impact of emerging technologies on international peace and security.
While elected members have found the Arria-formula format useful for highlighting their priority issues, this, and the potentially divisive impact of some Arria-formula meetings, appears to have led some Council members, and member states who are not on the Council, to question their role and to view them less as a serious forum to inform Council decisions, and more as a platform to influence public opinion.
Elected member India, for example, has publicly expressed its reservations regarding this format. Since 2003, when then-Council member Pakistan sought to organise an Arria-formula with Kashmiri dissidents, India has refrained from participating in Arria-formula meetings, save for two which were held in recent years (the most recent one being the November 2020 Arria-formula meeting on the peace process in Afghanistan). The Arria-formula meetings on the situations in Crimea and Syria are also illustrative, having become a battleground for alternative narratives promoted primarily by China and Russia, on the one hand, and the P3 (France, the UK and the US) on the other. In 2019, at least six out of the 22 Arria-formula meetings were held on topics which might be deemed divisive to some Council members (including Syria, Myanmar and climate change). In the year 2020, the number of such potentially controversial Arria-formula meetings had increased to at least ten out of 22.
Some members anticipate a risk that overuse of this tool could devalue this format, or further highlight Council disunity. However, while the goals and uses of the Arria-formula meeting have shifted in tune with changing Council needs and dynamics, the Arria-formula format evidently remains of value to Council members. It seems that many Council members find them most useful when they are strategically planned and fill a gap that cannot be filled by other means, such as a formal meeting of the Council or an Informal Interactive Dialogue. Members seeking to regain the Arria-formula’s original benefit of allowing for candid interaction—among themselves, and with the briefers—might seek a different balance between open and closed Arria-formula meetings.