July 2024 Monthly Forecast

The Military Staff Committee: Striving for Relevance in a Changing Era

 

The Military Staff Committee (MSC) is the oldest subsidiary body of the Security Council, with its role explicitly mentioned in the UN Charter. It is to advise and assist the Security Council on all military requirements for maintaining international peace and security. However, for most of its life, the MSC has been dormant and unable to fulfill this responsibility.

Despite being marginalised—and recommended for deletion from the Charter by the 2004 High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change—the MSC continued to meet regularly. Since last year, the MSC has taken several steps to revitalise its work. This article highlights the MSC’s recent efforts, including enhanced visibility, better working methods, and engagement with regional counterparts.

Institutionalising the MSC’s relationship with the Security Council

The MSC is a prime example of an under-utilised aspect of the UN Charter. Under Article 47, the MSC is to “advise and assist the Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament”. Moreover, it “shall be responsible under the Security Council for the strategic direction of any armed forces placed at the disposal of the Security Council”. Finally, with appropriate consultations, it may establish “regional sub-committees”.

Despite its Charter mandate, persistent lack of an institutionalised relationship between the MSC and the Security Council hindered the MSC from discharging an effective advisory role. Consequently, its military advice has been conveyed informally through the members’ permanent missions in New York.

Lately, the MSC has begun exploring steps to formalise its interaction with the Security Council. One such option is to provide an annual briefing to the Security Council at year-end, covering its activities, assessments, and lessons learned, which it has never done. This is akin to the annual briefing to the Council by outgoing chairs of sanctions committees and working groups, initiated in 2002, which has helped to promote transparency in the work of these entities.

Over the years, the MSC has created working groups as needed. It added a new working group in December 2023 to enhance its visibility and promote the Security Council’s recognition of its role. The MSC is also trying to strengthen its engagements with intergovernmental committees of the UN General Assembly, such as the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34) and the Fifth Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Matters. The peacekeeping budget and the effective implementation of mandates are a key focus of discussions in the MSC.

Improving Working Methods

The MSC’s working methods have evolved, always guided by its 1946 provisional Its Working Methods Handbook was first published in 2012. It is similar to the Security Council’s Note 507—a comprehensive compendium of agreed working methods. The most recent edition of the MSC Working Methods Handbook was published in October 2021 (MS/2021/56).

The MSC consists of the Chiefs of Staff of the Security Council’s permanent members, or their representatives, as specified in Article 47(2) of the UN Charter. The Charter makes no provision for the participation of elected members, who have since 2010 attended MSC meetings regularly but always by invitation. Even then, elected members would join only part of the MSC’s meetings. This two-tier system created a clear distinction between the roles of permanent and elected members.

MSC meetings typically began with consultations among the permanent members, after which the elected members were invited to join. Towards the end of the meeting, the elected members would be asked to leave, allowing the permanent members to resume their consultations and conclude the meeting.

This practice had apparently been a source of discomfort for the elected members, leading the MSC—under the French chairmanship in February 2024—to adopt a new practice that allows elected members to participate in all meetings from start to finish. This has been continued by subsequent chairs—which rotate monthly—significantly enhancing elected members’ interaction with the MSC. Technically, elected members still attend by invitation, as a formal amendment to the UN Charter would be required to change the MSC membership. It appears that elected members now have access to the same information provided to permanent members. Additionally, newly elected members are allowed to observe MSC meetings from October before taking their seats in January.

The MSC now encourages not only military attachés but also diplomats to participate in its meetings as observers. This initiative—also new since February 2024—responds to the significant challenge in the MSC-Security Council relationship of limited collaboration between military advisors and diplomats. Not all missions engage their advisors in the substantive work of the Council, nor do all elected members have military advisors, such as Albania, which served on the Council in 2022-2023. While it is too soon to assess impact, this initiative is also projected to help improve some members’ weak capital-level coordination between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence on foreign policy matters.

While the ten elected members (E10) of the Security Council have developed more coherence as a group in recent years, they seem less inclined to present a unified identity within the MSC. Perhaps this is part of an effort of all MSC members, permanent and elected alike, to unite in strengthening the MSC’s advisory role. Nonetheless, the three African members, known as the A3, are apparently enhancing their collaboration within the MSC and occasionally presenting a unified stance in its meetings.

MSC Meetings

According to its Revised Rules of Procedure, MSC meetings are to be held at least once every 14 days. Accordingly, it is expected to meet at least 26 times annually. Last year, the MSC had 33 meetings and discussed 39 topics, according to its annual report submitted to the Security Council (S/2023/1009). These discussions covered current UN peacekeeping operations, Special Political Missions, and a range of thematic topics.

Topics discussed in recent years have included cooperation with host states and the implementation of Status of Forces Agreements, the safety and security of peacekeepers, peacekeeping performance and accountability, mis- and disinformation, the drawdown and exit of UN peace operations, and the implementation of the Strategy for the Digital Transformation of UN Peacekeeping. In the February 2024 meeting, the MSC discussed the disengagement process of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), underscoring the need for UN peace operations to develop contingency plans for accelerated drawdown and liquidation of missions.

The MSC sent a 28 February letter to the President of the Security Council offering its advice on peacekeeping transitions, pointing out that “the United Nations Secretariat and its subordinate entities both in New York and in the field should be fully engaged in prioritized, in-depth, integrated, and continuous contingency planning across the United Nations’ 11 peacekeeping operations, focused on the potential requirement for accelerated drawdown and liquidation, but to also consider other foreseeable and high-risk scenarios”.[1] The MSC’s advice aligns with the recommendations of SCR’s December 2023 research report, titled UN Transitions in a Fractured Multilateral Environment.

Field Missions

The MSC has conducted field missions since 2014, starting with Haiti. There were no such trips between 2018 and 2021, due primarily to host country visa issues complicating Russia’s participation and, later, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although that complication remains, the field missions have resumed, with MSC members visiting UN peacekeeping operations in Abyei, Cyprus, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, and South Sudan in the past two years.[2] The MSC produces a report on each such visit, but because of the need for concurrence by all Council members it has not formally released these reports since 2018—Russia has withheld support as it did not take part in these visits. (The last official report released by the MSC was on its field mission to UNMOGIP, the UN Military Observer Group to India and Pakistan, in 2018.)

In the past, only the permanent members participated in the field missions, but this too has changed since 2018 with the MSC inviting the elected members to join. According to Clause 69 of the MSC Handbook, a limited number of elected members are so invited, subject to an unwritten rule that the elected members participating not outnumber the permanent members. This seems intended to minimise the logistical footprint of deploying the MSC delegation to remote areas.

The MSC conducted a field mission to the DRC and Uganda in April 2024. Notably, this marked the first involvement in an MSC visiting mission of members of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) Military Staff Committee, established under Article 13 (8) of the 2002 AUPSC Protocol. This committee, consisting of senior military officers from AUPSC member states, provides advice and support to the AUPSC on military and security matters to promote and maintain peace and security in Africa.

Informal contacts between some MSC and AUPSC MSC members paved the way for two AUPSC MSC members to join this trip. It appears that the MSC shared the draft mission report with them for comments. Discussions seem to be underway to conduct another MSC field mission in Africa with the involvement of AUPSC counterparts towards the end of the year.

This cooperation between the two committees is particularly noteworthy, given that the Security Council proper and the AUPSC have yet to organise joint field missions, despite an agreement in principle. In the past, invitations were extended to the Chair of the AUPSC to join Security Council field missions in Africa, but this did not materialise, partly as both Councils must agree on the modalities for joint missions.

Partnership with Other Regional Counterparts

During meetings, the MSC receives briefings from relevant UN Secretariat departments. Its annual briefing on the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) is provided by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. Seeking more information about the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), the MSC officially requested a briefing from the AU last year, setting in motion the MSC’s engagement with its AUPSC counterparts. A virtual joint meeting of the two committees in April 2023 offered an opportunity to discuss the role of ATMIS, with a briefing by Zinurine Alghali, then-Acting Head of the AU Peace Support Operations Division.[3]

This initial engagement was followed by the first in-person informal meeting between the two committees, in Addis Ababa in October 2023, after the annual consultation between the Security Council and the AUPSC. These meetings enabled the committees to develop a mutual understanding of their respective mandates and identify priority areas for potential cooperation. They decided to hold informal interactions twice a year to align their work programs and to conduct joint field missions. In this context, the MSC invited a delegation from the AUPSC MSC to participate in its April field mission to the DRC and Uganda.[4]

Deepened UN-AU partnership is also the context for the informal engagement of the two committees, notably the signing on 19 April 2017 of the Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security. Resolution 2719 of 21 December 2023 on the financing of AU-led peace support operations from UN assessed contributions has given renewed impetus to this partnership, and its implementation is likely to shape the two organisations’ engagements, particularly in the area of peacekeeping. Both committees now have an opening to offer military advice to their respective Councils on the implementation of the resolution, and the MSC devoted one of its sessions in February to discussing the implementation of resolution 2719. The MSC has had follow-up engagements on this issue with UN departments and AUPSC counterparts in June.

Way Ahead

MSC members recognise the difficulties in reactivating their role as envisioned in the UN Charter, aware that pushing boundaries may face resistance. Nonetheless, they remain committed to maintaining the MSC’s relevance in this changing era through incremental steps. Amid current challenges to UN peacekeeping and the growing need for collaboration with regional organisations like the AU, MSC members see a crucial role in supporting the Security Council with professional military advice on the planning and deployment of UN peace operations—as well as on their drawdown, reconfiguration, and exit. They also believe they can contribute to implementing resolution 2719, including discussing potential test cases for the Security Council and providing input on mission concepts for future AUPSOs. Additionally, they are eager to enhance their engagement with AUPSC counterparts, sharing their experiences on UN peacekeeping standards and practices in light of the future role of AUPSOs under resolution 2719. All in all, current developments seem set to prime the MSC for greater influence on the Council’s work.


[1] Military Staff Committee, “Letter from the Chair of the UN Military Staff Committee addressed to the President of the Security Council” (28 February 2024).

[2] Military Staff Committee, “Letter from the Chair of the UN Military Staff Committee addressed to the President of the Security Council” (19 December 2023). Military Staff Committee, “Letter from the Chair of the UN Military Staff Committee addressed to the President of the Security Council” (16 January 2023).

[3] Military Staff Committee, “Letter from the Chair of the UN Military Staff Committee addressed to the President of the Security Council” (19 December 2023).

[4] Military Staff Committee. “Letter from the Chair of the UN Military Staff Committee addressed to the President of the Security Council” (8 November 2023).

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