In Hindsight: The Evolving Informal Interactive Dialogue
With the Security Council the master of its own procedures, and periodic challenges to its use of formal discussions, the Council has turned to a range of informal formats to conduct exchanges which members regard as useful or necessary. 2021 saw Council members’ highest-ever use of informal Arria-formula meetings; the waning of COVID-19 brought a return of 2018’s offsite “sofa talks”; and in 2022, a Security Council resolution encourages the use of a bimonthly Informal Interactive Dialogue.
On 12 July, the Security Council adopted resolution 2642, renewing the Syria cross-border aid mechanism for six months, with a further six-month extension subject to a fresh resolution. Coming after difficult negotiations and two draft resolutions which failed due to a Russian veto and insufficient supporting votes respectively, this resolution encourages the Security Council to convene a “Security Council Informal Interactive Dialogue (IID) every two months with participation of donors, interested regional parties and representatives of the international humanitarian agencies operating in Syria.” This provision was included as a compromise, and mirrors language in the failed Russian draft resolution that would have set up a Council working group. Speaking after the vote, Russian Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy stated that the Russian Federation would, “through informal interactive dialogue”, “continue to monitor progress” in the resolution’s implementation “so as to decide on the ultimate fate of the mechanism”. The IIDs, which will include consideration of progress in early-recovery projects, are expected to begin in September.
The formal call—apparently for the first time—in a resolution, for the use of an informal format, marks an interesting evolution in Council approaches. Using informal meeting formats for private discussion with senior officials dates back many decades: these are mentioned in the assessments of Council presidents and the Security Council’s annual report to the General Assembly as “informal meeting”, “special meeting”, “informal event”, “informal private meeting”, “informal private discussion”, “informal dialogue”, “informal interactive discussion”, and its most recent iteration “informal interactive dialogue”, which started in 2009. These informal meetings have even taken place in the most formal of settings, the Council chamber, such as in 2000, when the Chair of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Jesse Helms, met with Council members to discuss the relationship between the UN and the United States.
While the Informal Interactive Dialogue has no official definition, Note 507, which is a compendium of the Council’s working methods, refers to the Council utilising informal dialogues, when appropriate, in order to “seek the views of Member States that are parties to a conflict and/or other interested and affected parties”. Key characteristics of an IID, which also distinguish it from Arria-formula meetings, are that they are presided over by the Council President, are considered proceedings of the Council and are attended by all members. They generally take place in a meeting room other than the Council Chamber or Consultations Room, are not announced in the UN Journal or included in the Council’s monthly programme of work and are reflected in the Council’s annual report or monthly assessments of former Council presidents in an ad hoc manner. Although they are informal meetings, Council members have occasionally issued press statements or press elements after IID meetings.
At the end of June 2022, the Council had met using some version of this informal format almost 100 times between 1996 and December 2021.
One of the most common uses of the IID format is to come to a better understanding of a situation through an exchange of views in a private setting with high-level officials of affected member states. The private meeting format, a closed meeting of the Council, could also serve this purpose, but it is formal: the informal IID format is less politically sensitive and hence a better fit for a discreet discussion or for a situation that is not on the Council’s agenda. (Discussion of a country-specific situation in a formal meeting can place the issue on the Council’s agenda.)
In the case of Sri Lanka, a situation which was not on the Council’s agenda, Council members held four informal dialogue sessions between March and June 2009, when the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was winding down. While there was strong political pressure to discuss the humanitarian crisis caused by the military offensive that had trapped thousands of civilians in a remote area of Sri Lanka, some members were strongly opposed to creating the appearance of Sri Lanka becoming a formal item on the Council’s agenda. This led to the four meetings with UN officials and a representative from the Sri Lankan government, two of which were labelled “informal interactive discussion” and two as “informal interactive dialogue”, marking the first traceable use of this term.
To this day, this format continues to be viewed as a low-key way to discuss politically charged matters. A recent example is the 15 June 2021 IID on the humanitarian situation in Tigray, Ethiopia. At that point, the Council had discussed Tigray five times under “any other business” (AOB), a standing agenda item in closed consultations, and some members were pushing for a public briefing. Member states can attend a public briefing, it is broadcast live on the UN website and has an official record. This was opposed by other members, including the three African members of the Council (the A3).
The IID format was finally accepted as a compromise by all members. This allowed for a frank, closed-door discussion of the situation in Tigray, with the benefit of a wider range of actors than would have been the case in consultations, where participation is strictly limited to UN officials and Council members. Thus, Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie, the Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the UN, and Ato Mitiku Kassa, the Commissioner for the National Disaster Risk Management Commission of Ethiopia, were able to participate in the 15 June 2021 meeting.
This format has also been used frequently for informal, private discussions with heads of regional and sub-regional organisations, a practice that may have sprung from uncertainty about the appropriate format for Council members’ interaction with such organisations. An early example of this was the 12 February 2009 informal interactive discussion with a joint delegation from the AU and the League of Arab States (LAS) on the International Criminal Court (ICC) efforts against the President of the Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, less than one month before the ICC issued its first warrant for his arrest.
The Council highlighted its practice in a presidential statement (S/PRST/2010/1) in 2010, where it expressed its intention to hold “in the future informal interactive dialogues with regional and subregional organizations”. Since then, Council members have met regularly in this format with senior officials from the AU and LAS as well as with IGAD and the EU. This informal format was also popular between 2012 and 2014 for dialogue with the Chair of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel and UN officials on Sudan-South Sudan.
An interesting subset of IIDs with regional organisations may be emerging with regard to the Arab Summit Troika (Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) of the LAS, with whom the Council held its first high-level IID on 22 September 2021. This followed the adoption of a presidential statement on 29 January 2021 (S/PRST/2022/1) in which the Council encouraged “whenever possible, an informal meeting between its members and Representatives of the Arab Summit Troika and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, on the margins of the General Assembly high level segment”. IIDs have also facilitated interaction with specialised organisations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). While public briefings by OPCW officials on the use of chemical weapons in Syria are common, it has been more difficult to hold a closed meeting on this issue, as OPCW officials cannot be admitted to consultations. The IID format was used for this purpose in May 2020 when Director-General Fernando Arias and Coordinator of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) Ambassador Santiago Oñate met with Council members to discuss the first report of the OPCW IIT. The closed informal format allowed the briefers to explain the report’s conclusions and how the IIT assessed information from the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria and from States Parties. Similarly, this meeting has allowed for more confidential discussion with the ICC prosecutor over the years.
There has also been an evolution in the use of IIDs for peacebuilding discussions. It has provided a private setting for briefings from chairs of PBC country-specific configurations, been a forum for discussion on the work of the PBC in conjunction with the presentation of the PBC’s annual report to the Council and more recently been used to discuss the peacebuilding needs of specific regions. An example of this more strategic use of IIDs was the meeting Germany organised in March 2019 between the PBC and Council members to consider peacebuilding needs and challenges in the Sahel ahead of a Council visiting mission to Mali and Burkina Faso. In 2018, the Council issued a presidential statement (S/PRST/2018/20) noting the importance of IIDs between the Council and the Peacebuilding Commission “as a useful venue for exercising the advisory role of the Commission, including the dialogues with the Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa”.
IIDs have also come to be used in connection with reauthorisations of EU military operations in the Mediterranean that are designed to deter violations of the arms embargo on Libya. (These include EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA and its successor, EUNAVFOR IRINI). It seems that these meetings were initiated because Russia wanted more information about the effectiveness of these missions prior to Council decisions about their reauthorisation. The IIDs have allowed members to have a dialogue with the commander of the operations and a senior official from the European External Action Service. According to some members, they appear to have helped show that the actions undertaken have had a deterrent effect regarding potential violations of the arms embargo on Libya.
The most significant innovation during the 2016 selection process for the UN Secretary-General was the informal dialogues with the candidates in the General Assembly, which were followed by informal dialogues with the candidates held at one of the Council members’ missions. In 2021, when António Guterres ran unopposed for a second term, he held an informal dialogue with Council members, in keeping with the practice instituted in 2016 (albeit convened in the ECOSOC chamber due to COVID-19 space restrictions).
The IID called for in resolution 2642 on Syria appears to introduce a new subset of this type of meeting: formally “encouraged”, and with a two-monthly schedule. It is still unclear who will be invited to participate in these meetings and how this will be agreed. As Council members work out these details, it may be useful to recall that this format has been effective over the years because it has allowed a genuine exchange of views with the appropriate stakeholders in a private setting. In an issue as divisive as the humanitarian situation in Syria, the hope is that these discussions will help members find common ground ahead of the next renewal rather than engendering greater animosity.
 The details of these IIDs can be found in the Repertoire of the Practice Supplements and the Highlights of Security Council Practice published by the Security Council Affairs Division. For a list of IIDs since 2009, please see SCR’s IID chart.