In Hindsight: The Security Council in 2021
The Security Council enters 2022 following a challenging year. Political upheavals in countries long on the agenda, such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Mali, Myanmar, and Sudan, required close Council attention. The Council faced a continuing crisis as a result of the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia.
With an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Council adhered for months to the working methods protocols developed in 2020, meeting virtually and adopting outcomes through written procedure. Starting in May, it gradually resumed more normal functioning, moving back to the chamber and consultations room over the second half of the year. As travel began to normalise, the Council also went on a visiting mission in November to Mali and Niger, its first in two years. However, sharply rising COVID cases in New York at the end of 2021 may cause the Council to return to virtual meetings.
In terms of outcomes, the Council adopted 57 resolutions, the same number as in 2020. Presidential statements, on the decline for a few years, saw a marked increase from 13 to 24. The increase can be partly explained by the Council using this format to encourage progress in volatile situations such as Libya, Haiti and Sudan. The Council also—unusually—agreed on a presidential statement on Myanmar following the February coup. Presidential statements were also issued following meetings on thematic topics including terrorism, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, preventive diplomacy, COVID-19, maritime security, and the UN and regional organisations.
The number of hours spent in meetings was similar to 2020. Over the last two years, Council members have spent about ten fewer hours in meetings each month than in 2019, the last full year the Council functioned normally. This can largely be attributed to the lack of open debates with the larger membership taking the floor. Such meetings resumed in October, and meeting hours are likely to increase in 2022 as a result, assuming that the Council is not compelled to revert to a virtual platform because of COVID-19.
Arria-formula meetings proliferated, with Council members convening 32 such meetings, the highest in any year and significantly exceeding the 22 Arria-formula meetings held in both 2019 and 2020. Members have expressed concern that Arria-formula meetings may lose their usefulness as an informal forum in which Council members have a private exchange of views with persons or organisations who are not able to participate in consultations. An option is to make more use of closed Arria-formula meetings, as the Council did twice in the final quarter of 2021: on hate speech and cyber activities targeting critical civilian infrastructure.
Of the resolutions adopted by 30 December 2021, nine, or 16%, were not unanimous. Those resolutions were largely related to sanctions renewals, which have become a particularly thorny issue for the Council. One resolution, on Bosnia and Herzegovina, was not adopted due to insufficient votes. Amid signs that 2021 would be the first veto-free year since 2013, Russia used its veto on 13 December 2021 on a draft resolution on climate and security, which also marked the first time a modern thematic resolution was vetoed. (In 1949, the USSR vetoed three resolutions on the regulation and reduction of armaments and armed forces, which might today be regarded as thematic resolutions.)
There were no procedural votes cast this year. While this may partly be due to the Council meeting virtually for almost half a year, it seems that members were able to resolve matters that fall under the procedural category, such as agenda items and briefers, without resorting to this type of vote. (Procedural votes need to be held in a formal meeting and the virtual meetings are not considered official meetings of the Council.) There was also an unusually high number of presidential texts—resolutions that all 15 members have co-sponsored—with six in 2021 compared to one in 2020 and none in 2019.
Looking beyond the numbers, a different picture emerges. It has been a year of routinely complicated negotiations and multiple silence breaks on draft resolutions, often close to the time of adoption. Although there was just one veto, the implicit (or explicit) threat of the veto may have influenced the content of a number of resolutions. Difficulty with mandate renewals or changes on the ground led to technical rollovers of the mandates of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) (twice), AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) (twice), and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Geopolitical divisions and members’ interests have resulted in a constant struggle between holding public and private meetings, and a failure to achieve strong outcomes on issues such as Myanmar and Tigray.
Divisions and dynamics have affected how rapidly and robustly the Council is able to respond to situations. The Council adopted a resolution on recent developments in Afghanistan two weeks after the Taliban took power in mid-August. However, rather than focus on the Taliban takeover, the resolution addressed an attack near Kabul airport and the security situation more broadly due to the objections of China and Russia, who eventually abstained on the resolution. The Council took over a month to express concern over the situation in Myanmar in a presidential statement following the 2 February 2021 military takeover. Two days after a coup in Mali, Council members issued a press statement strongly condemning the arrest of the transitional president of Mali, prime minister and other officials by elements of the military. Three days after the military takeover in Sudan, the declaration of a state of emergency and the detention of the prime minister and members of the transitional government, Council members issued a press statement expressing strong concern about the developments. It did not respond to the coup in Guinea, an issue that is not on the Council’s agenda.
Since the outbreak of conflict in Tigray in November 2020, the Council has met regularly on this rapidly evolving situation. Originally, differing views from members, including the A3 (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia) plus one (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), about the desirability of Council involvement made it difficult to hold public meetings. As the humanitarian situation deteriorated and conflict in northern Ethiopia intensified, positions shifted. In 2021, the Council discussed this matter ten times: five times under AOB, four times in a public meeting and once in an informal interactive dialogue meeting. It issued two press statements, in April and November 2021, but struggled to agree on any stronger outcome.
In a show of unity on a perennially contentious issue, for the first time since 2016, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution re-authorising the cross-border mechanism to deliver humanitarian assistance into Syria’s northwest. The negotiations were difficult, with divergent positions that appeared unwavering. Agreement was finally reached following a high-level meeting between Russia and the US. This led to a compromise text that was acceptable to all. As a result, the Council was able to avoid the series of drafts that were either vetoed or not adopted due to insufficient votes that had become the norm in recent years.
New threats to peace and security featured in a number of Council meetings. Estonia, during its June 2021 presidency, organised the first formal meeting on cybersecurity. Two Arria-formula meetings considered the impact of emerging technologies on international peace and security (organised by China, Kenya and Mexico) and the consequences of malicious cyber activities targeting critical civilian infrastructure (organised by Estonia and the UK). Kenya and the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect organised a closed Arria-formula meeting on addressing and countering hate speech in relation to preventing discrimination, hostility and violence on social media.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on peace and security continued to feature in the Council’s deliberations in 2021. The UK organised a meeting on vaccine distribution in conflict areas during its February 2021 presidency, following which the Council adopted a resolution on this topic. China initiated a discussion of post-pandemic recovery in Africa during its May 2021 presidency. Council members also had follow-up meetings on the implementation of the 2020 resolution on cessation of hostilities during the pandemic and this year’s resolution on equitable distribution of vaccines.
Climate and security has also featured prominently on the Council’s agenda in 2021. High-level open debates were held during the Irish, Nigerien and UK presidencies. An Arria-formula meeting on rising sea levels was organised by Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, and Viet Nam. Although the draft resolution on climate and security was vetoed by Russia, it had the support of 12 members and 113 co-sponsors. While members may not push for a product in 2022, the 2021 momentum is likely to persist.
Long-standing thematic issues were not neglected in 2020. The Council adopted resolutions on peacekeeping, peacebuilding and protection of civilians, which enhanced the institutional framework already in place. Other notable resolutions were on attacks against civilians and civilian objects and on the protection of education.
While there was no thematic women, peace and security (WPS) resolution in 2021, members found a novel way of signalling its importance. The “presidency trio” initiative from Ireland, Kenya and Mexico during their consecutive presidencies (September, October and November) saw these members committing to a series of actions on WPS. Building on this initiative, in December, Niger, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and Albania issued a statement of shared commitments on WPS for their respective presidencies. This initiative could provide a useful template for other areas where strong outcomes have proved difficult.
In 2021, elected members showed initiative in taking or sharing the pen on several issues. Ireland, working closely with the A3 plus one, drafted outcomes on Tigray. Mexico shared the pen with the US on Haiti and the UK on Colombia. Elected members continued to hold the pen on two key issues: Syria humanitarian and Afghanistan. Norway and Ireland shepherded a draft resolution on the cross-border mechanism in Syria to a successful conclusion. As co-pens, Estonia and Norway rose to the challenge of guiding the negotiations on UNAMA’s mandate renewal in the midst of the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan.
Five new members—Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, and the United Arab Emirates—take their seats on the Council on 1 January. With enough ambition and imagination, they may be able to help find a way forward on the turbulent situations and emerging issues of 2021 that are likely to continue into 2022.
 Statistics from the UN’s monthly “Highlights of the Security Council. https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/monthly-highlights
 Amended following final numbers at the end of 2021.