In Hindsight: The Security Council in 2023
The Security Council has been severely tested by a multilateral environment in turmoil. In 2023, it faced the continuing effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the precipitous escalation of conflict in the Middle East, and pushback against UN peacekeeping in Africa as well as UN sanctions. The shifting global balance of power, the contrasting narratives about global priorities that emerged after the invasion of Ukraine, and the allegations of Western double standards over Israel’s actions in Gaza have severely strained relations and deepened the atmosphere of distrust. The Council continued to come under public attack for its inability to address violations of the UN Charter.
The Ukraine conflict remained a fixture on the programme of work, although there has been less appetite for attempting outcomes, given the difficult Council dynamics. The escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in October became a central preoccupation in the last quarter of the year. Elected members led the way in trying to find agreement on Council action but were often stymied by the entrenched position of the US, a veto-wielding permanent member.
The Council grappled with sudden terminations of key UN peace and security mechanisms in conflict situations. Host governments abruptly dismissed two peace operations, in Mali and Sudan, which were then brought to an end by the Security Council and had to draw down rapidly. The Mali sanctions regime was ended by a Russian veto, while another Russian veto shuttered the cross-border mechanism that was established in 2014 to ensure the delivery of aid into and within Syria.
At the same time, the Council was confronted with multi-dimensional crises in a number of long-standing situations on its agenda, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sudan. It also addressed regular missile launches by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its level of engagement on these situations varied. For example, although the situation in Myanmar deteriorated rapidly over 2023, the Council met rarely: once in a private meeting, as required by the resolution adopted in December 2022, and two other times in consultations and under “any other business”. On the other hand, as the situation in Sudan deteriorated, the Council met an additional seven times, outside the regular four annual meetings.
The women, peace and security (WPS) presidencies initiative, started in 2021, was taken up by most Council members in 2023: Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the UAE, the UK, and the US. Engagement on the commitments was uneven, however. The intimidation of and reprisals against a woman civil society representative who briefed at a January 2023 Council meeting on Mali had a chilling effect on invitations to women civil society briefers during the rest of the year.
Plenty of Talk, Less Action
In 2023, the Council chamber continued to be the battleground for opposing narratives of the global order, as members sought to amplify their own worldviews. The Council held 288 formal meetings and 124 informal consultations compared to 292 and 127, respectively, in 2022. As it had the year before, Ukraine dominated the Council’s agenda, with 39 formal meetings, one meeting in closed consultations and two discussions in consultations under “any other business”. Following the escalation of the conflict in Gaza, the Council held fourteen meetings between October and the end of December on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”, in addition to the regular monthly meetings on the issue.
Overall, the Council is spending more time in meetings. In 2022, meeting time increased by over a hundred hours compared to 2021, to 650 hours, largely due to the Ukraine crisis. In 2023, the Council spent over 690 hours or some six percent longer in meetings than in 2022. Besides the added time spent on urgent crisis situations, members tended to provide longer explanations ahead of and after their votes. Meetings have also been prolonged by procedural disputes at their outset.
In spite of the difficult dynamics in the Council, the number of resolutions remained steady in the years prior to 2023. The Council adopted 54 in 2022 compared to 57 in both 2021 and 2020. The 50 adoptions in 2023 are the second lowest number of resolutions in a decade. A slightly higher percentage of resolutions was adopted unanimously in 2023 (70%) versus 2022 (67%). While the level of unanimity is still low compared to the first two decades of the post-Cold War period, members continued to make significant efforts to strike agreement, albeit not always successfully despite protracted negotiations in which penholders were often open to incorporating suggestions. In some cases, improved relations between the penholder and the host government may also have allowed for less disagreement on resolutions. For example, the resolution initiating the drawdown operations of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was adopted unanimously in December 2023 following improved relations between France and the DRC government.
There was a higher number of vetoes and of resolutions not adopted due to insufficient votes in 2023 compared to the year before, with an especially striking increase in the latter. Six vetoes were cast on five resolutions, three by Russia, two by the US, and one by China. The US also vetoed an amendment by Russia on a draft Gaza resolution. The vetoes were cast on a mix of issues: Syria humanitarian (a draft vetoed by Russia in July), Mali sanctions (a draft vetoed by Russia in August), and the war between Israel and Hamas (three vetoed draft resolutions, one by the US in October, a second by China and Russia in October, and a third by the US in December). On 15 November, the Council managed to adopt a resolution initiated by Malta on humanitarian pauses in Gaza with a particular focus on children. Following intensive negotiations, it adopted a second Gaza resolution initiated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 22 December, which requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator and that the Coordinator establish a UN mechanism for accelerating humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza. (The vetoes on Gaza in October 2023 prompted the resumption of the General Assembly’s tenth Emergency Special Session on the Middle East and two GA resolutions.) On seven occasions, draft resolutions or amendments were not adopted due to insufficient votes. They included Russian drafts on the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline, Syria humanitarian, Mali sanctions, and two on the Gaza situation. Two amendments by Russia on a draft resolution on the Gaza situation were also not adopted due to insufficient votes. The last year when seven or more Council resolutions failed due to insufficient votes was 1961.
The difficulty in obtaining consensus is also illustrated by the low number of presidential statements. The seven presidential statements in 2022, the lowest since the Council began using this format in 1994, were followed by six presidential statements in 2023. These were on transnational crime; hunger and security; Libya; the Middle East, including the Question of Palestine; and two on the DRC. This historically low number reflects the difficulty in achieving consensus, which is required for the adoption of presidential statements.
The Politicisation of Working Methods
The pronounced procedural wrangling that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued into 2023. For the first time since February 2019, Council members were unable to reach agreement on the provisional programme of work for the months of August and September during the US and Albanian presidencies. Russia blocked these adoptions because Ukraine featured in the programmes. (Ukraine meetings generally are requested during the month by members rather than included in the programme of work at the start of the month.) Instead, a daily plan of work was circulated and published on the presidency’s website.
Invitations extended to briefers and member states were also affected by this dynamic, with three procedural votes held to determine briefers or member state participation in meetings. In March 2023, a procedural vote was held on inviting Daria Morozova, Commissioner of Human Rights of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, whom Russia had proposed under Rule 39 as a briefer for a meeting on Ukraine. The Council voted against Morozova’s participation in the meeting. In July 2023, a procedural vote was held after Russia objected to Ukraine’s participation in a meeting on Iran and non-proliferation. The Council voted to allow Ukraine’s participation at that meeting. Also in July, a procedural vote was held to determine if a civil society briefer suggested by Russia would be able to brief; in this case, he was not allowed to brief because of insufficient votes. Another procedural battleground in 2023 was the webcasting of Arria-formula meetings on the official UN channel. Eight Arria-formula meetings between March and July were not broadcast due to objections from Council members. Although this is an informal format, it has become established practice that the webcasting of Arria-formula meetings can be blocked if a single Council member objects.
The topics chosen for Arria-formula meetings reflected the impact of the Ukraine conflict on the Council’s activities. Of the year’s 22 Arria-formula meetings, eight were related to Ukraine, including all six convened by Russia. Members used these meetings to promote competing narratives on various aspects of the Ukraine conflict, including on accountability, the freedom of religion, and the situation of children. For instance, following Russia’s 5 April 2023 Arria-formula meeting on “Children and Armed Conflict: Ukrainian Crisis. Evacuating Children from Conflict Zone”, Albania, France, and the US, together with non-Council member Ukraine, convened an Arria-formula meeting on 28 April 2023 on the abduction and deportation of children during armed conflict, which mainly focused on Ukraine. Other issues covered in Arria-formula meetings in 2023 included women, peace and security; protection of civilians; and climate and security. The only two country-specific situations covered were the human rights situation in the DPRK and Myanmar.
In a positive development, the P3 penholders continued to be more open to sharing the “pen” with elected members. In 2023, Ecuador was the co-pen with the US on Haiti, and with France on Ukraine humanitarian issues; Albania continued to be the co-pen on Ukraine political issues with the US, and the UAE briefly assumed the co-pen role with France on Mali sanctions prior to the dissolution of the sanctions regime. Elected member co-penholderships were maintained, with Japan and the UAE leading on Afghanistan, Switzerland and Brazil on the Syria humanitarian file, and Ghana and Switzerland on the UN Office in West Africa and the Sahel.
A presidential note on penholders was agreed in December 2023, and sets out general guidelines for penholding.
The Pushback Against the Use of Robust Tools
In 2023, UN peace operations came under great stress. MINUSMA, the peacekeeping mission in Mali, was terminated, and the drawdown of MONUSCO in the DRC was set in motion. The special political mission in Sudan, UNITAMS, was closed as well. The Secretary-General appointed a Personal Envoy on Sudan, and the Council will hear periodic reporting on the country; expanded coverage of Mali can be expected via UNOWAS reports.
These developments may prompt members to reflect seriously on the future of peace operations ahead of the Summit of the Future in September 2024. In the New Agenda for Peace, the Secretary-General suggested that members need to consider alternative mission models that are more “nimble, adaptable and effective”.
In this context, the role of regional organisations in addressing conflict situations in their area is expected to be a greater focus in 2024. The resolution on the financing of AU-led peace support operations authored by the A3 and adopted in December 2023 may emerge as a way forward for future peace support partnerships between regional organisations and the UN.
The end of the Mali sanctions regime in August capped a growing unease among some members with UN sanctions, or sanctions mechanisms, notably the panels of experts and their independent, detailed reporting. 2023 highlighted the stark differences among members over the effectiveness of sanctions and when conditions on the ground merit their easing. In March 2023, the Council introduced a potential “sunset clause” for the future of the Darfur sanctions regime, on which it would decide within 18 months, by September 2024. Renewing the South Sudan sanctions regime in May, the Council decided that the South Sudanese authorities no longer needed to notify the sanctions committee of the supply, sale, or transfer of non-lethal military equipment in support of the implementation of the peace agreement. And in July, when it extended the CAR sanctions regime, the Council lifted the arms embargo on the CAR security forces.
In 2023, panels of experts came under greater scrutiny and criticism. CAR Sanctions Committee appointments were put under a six-month hold by Russia in August 2023, not allowing it to function. The Russian veto on the extension of Mali sanctions appears to have been connected to Russia’s unhappiness with reporting by its panel of experts.
The Year Ahead
Incoming members Algeria, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, and the Republic of Korea have joined the Council at a critical time. The two major international crisis situations of 2023 have continued into 2024. If peaceful solutions are found, there may be opportunities for greater UN engagement, including by the Security Council. Robust discussions around the future of peacekeeping and the role of regional organisations are urgently needed. As missions draw down in the DRC and Sudan, and following the closure of the Mali mission, Council members will be keeping a watchful eye on the transition processes. Elections in fragile settings such as South Sudan also bear watching, as do continuing humanitarian crises in many situations on the Council’s agenda. Complicated negotiations on sanctions are likely and may lead to further adjustments to current sanctions regimes, including in CAR and Darfur.
The Council has failed fully to utilise the tools at its disposal in dealing with the interlocking threats facing the world today. In order to remain relevant in the emerging global order, the Council will need to take more determined steps to reach out to other member state bodies, while reflecting on its own unwillingness, or incapacity, to draw on a range of possibilities for action found within the UN Charter, most notably its tools under Chapter VII for responding to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.