May 2023 Monthly Forecast

In Hindsight: Security Council Working Methods in Hard Times 

In the space of about three years, the Council has grappled with two major crises—the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine—that could have threatened its ability to function. Yet, except for a brief moment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council continued to operate, adapting its working methods to new realities. These twin crises have both changed and challenged how the Council exercises its role, illuminating the role of working methods as the Council’s foundation for functioning in hard times.  

While the Council has shown its ability to adapt and innovate when necessary, there has been a cost in efficiency and transparency. Not only practicalities but geopolitical tensions have shaped the Council’s use of its working methods in these years. Relations among the permanent members were fraught before the pandemic, and the two crises deepened divisions and escalated tensions. Not surprisingly, negotiations on Council outcomes became harder and yielded a high number of non-unanimous decisions.  

Security Council Report’s report of 2 May, Security Council Working Methods in Hard Times, analyses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis on the Council’s working methods and on its transparency, effectiveness, and accountability. These events affected many aspects of life in the Council: how it meets, how it votes, whom it invites to participate in its meetings, and whom it hears from. They presented elected Council members with challenges but also opportunities to make a difference in the work of the Council. The report also covers the work of key groupings that helped shape the Council’s working methods during this period, including the Security Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG) and the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT).  

The Crises 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought drastic changes in the Council’s working methods, almost all of which were rolled back as the pandemic receded. With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020 and New York City becoming an epicentre, the Secretary-General decided to close the UN Headquarters on 16 March to all but essential personnel. The Security Council was faced with having to fulfil Article 28 of the UN Charter, namely that it “shall be so organized as to function continuously”.  

After a two-week period of seeming paralysis in mid-March, the Council steadily put in place the working methods that would allow it to operate, relying on the provisional rules of procedure, the UN Charter, and Council practice to carry out its work. By the end of June 2020, VTCs had replicated almost all the regular Council formats. But members could not agree to consider virtual discussions held by the Security Council as formal meetings. This meant that while its virtual discussions were guided by the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, these meetings could not have official verbatim records; if a new item was discussed, it could not be added to the Council’s formal agenda; and no procedural votes could be taken. 

It was not business as usual, in other words—but the basic business of the Council continued. The concept of agility was added to transparency, effectiveness, and accountability as a key component of working methods.  

By early 2022, with the world continuing to emerge from the global pandemic and the Council having reverted to its habitual working methods, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought to the fore a fresh set of challenges—including issues around Council working methods.  

The Council’s failure to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted it to use “Uniting for Peace” for the first time in forty years when it referred the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly. The General Assembly’s activation arguably left it more open to adopting the veto initiative a mere two months later. This mix of Council paralysis and General Assembly activism has also brought heightened attention to questions of Security Council reform, including of its membership, the use of the veto, and the relationship between the Council and other UN organs. As well, the invasion of Ukraine has led to further divisions within an already divided Council.  


COVID-19 had detrimental effects on the Council’s work. Meetings rarely deepened constructively beyond the reading of statements, face-to-face negotiations were no longer the norm, and Council visiting missions all but disappeared. Almost all decisions had to be made by consensus under the COVID-19 pandemic working methods. This appeared to become, and remains, the default mode of operating for most Council members.  

Because COVID-19 pandemic protocols restricted the application of some rules of procedure, a degree of inconsistency in their use appears to have set in. In a departure from the letter of the Charter and the provisional rules of procedure, the Council presidency has been given greater leeway to determine which member states participate in, and who briefs, at Council meetings, decisions which—left increasingly to the monthly presidency—also appear to have become more politicised with the heightened geopolitical tensions. In recent years—and especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—meeting formats have increasingly been used to further political positions, notably so in the case of Arria-formula meetings, where members have amplified and promoted specific agendas, obscuring the original purpose of informative enquiry. Similarly, proliferating public meetings have showcased members’ positions and at times become an arena for procedural battles. This may cause the pendulum to swing back towards more use of informal consultations, but until dynamics among the P5 improve, is unlikely to lead to interactive exchanges and consensus building. Alternatives may be greater use of private meetings and informal interactive dialogues to allow for more confidential briefings.  

Almost every Council outcome is hard fought. There are few easy negotiations and compromises are needed to secure agreement on any kind of outcome. This is unlikely to change in the coming years; high numbers of non-unanimous decisions, now the norm on sanctions and some peace operations renewals, are also likely to continue. Even issues on which members had been united, such as nuclear non-proliferation, have seen vetoes, reflecting a hardening of positions on many issues, including climate and security and human rights. Members in the last few years have had to protect the agenda items that they care about and prevent their degradation, rather than seeking to move them forward.  

As a result, the focus on implementation of thematic issues is likely to continue. Several members have made commitments to advance the Council’s working methods and to integrate the women, peace and security agenda more systematically across the Council’s work. A similar attempt on climate and security has been launched: it remains to be seen whether a proliferation of commitments will be useful if members struggle to implement them.  

Elected members who began their term during the COVID-19 pandemic did not experience the normal functioning of the Council, while the Ukraine crisis raised existential questions about the Council. But in these difficulties, elected members also found opportunities: the chairs of the IWG brought the critical working methods challenges into the heart of the IWG’s work. Elected members have often driven the necessary changes as the Council moved to a virtual work environment. And at a time when the permanent members’ relationships are strained, elected members have found a way to work together on thorny issues, finding strength in cross-regional partnerships. The Ukraine crisis created new penholding needs, and the P3 were rather unusually ready to share the pen with elected members on these.[1] Penholder allocation, increasingly contested, will continue to be hotly discussed.

The influence of the African members, already significant, strengthened during these years. In 2020, the A3 plus 1 (South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) formed a strong partnership that allowed them to work closely together despite having to operate virtually. In 2022, the Ukraine crisis and the divisions between the European members and the US, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, gave fresh leverage to the African and some other elected members.  

The perception that other vital issues are receiving less attention than Ukraine may lead to a growing divide between the European elected members and those from the Global South, unless a concerted effort is made to address some long-standing intractable issues on the Council’s agenda, such as CAR, Haiti, Mali, and South Sudan. How much attention the Council pays to increasingly volatile issues such as Afghanistan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Sudan will also affect the overall dynamics among Council members. In 2023, the African members will be looking for support on one of their priority issues, the financing of AU Peace Support Operations. 

The role of the General Assembly is likely to remain significant, as the Council grapples with a conflict that it appears to have little ability to affect. The Council’s use of Uniting for Peace, which gave the General Assembly a larger role in addressing the Ukraine situation, and the recent veto initiative, have added momentum to the discussion of Security Council reform, and to the better use of some working methods. The wider membership, having been cut off from interacting with the Council for a year and a half during COVID-19, may be looking for ways to exert greater influence. The role of the ACT Group and other like-minded members that have been advocating greater transparency and accountability in the Council is expected to continue to remind the Council of its responsibilities.  

Council members need to guard against the weaponisation of working methods which, in divisive times, can be used to distract from more substantive issues and to create further divisions among members. On the other hand, the agile, flexible, and creative application of its working methods has helped the Security Council weather a very turbulent three years. Some of the lessons learnt from these years may help members navigate these difficult times.  

[1] In 2020, Albania and the US were penholders on the political aspects, and France and Mexico on the humanitarian aspects, of the Ukraine war. Mexico also was co-penholder with the US on Haiti and the UK on Colombia and served as co-penholder with France on the resolution renewing the Mali sanctions regime in August 2022.