UN Security Council Working Methods

Posted 4 February 2016

Annual Report to the General Assembly


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Under Article 24(3) of the UN Charter, the Security Council must submit an annual report to the General Assembly for its consideration. Prior to the end of the Cold War, the annual reports were often published with a considerable delay (of up to a few years) and were relatively short (in some years under 100 pages). With the dramatic increase in the Council’s activity in the early 1990s, the annual report grew to nearly 600 pages by the middle of the decade. The interest of the wider membership in the report—a key source of information about the work of the Council—also grew considerably and led to calls for the Council to make the report more substantive and timely.

In a 1993 note by the president of the Security Council, members agreed to change certain practices concerning the annual report (S/26015). They decided that the draft report should no longer be regarded as a confidential document right up to the point of adoption and instead that it would be made available to interested member states prior to adoption, which would take place in a public meeting. They also decided that the report would be adopted in time for it to be considered by the General Assembly during the main part of its regular session.

These reforms did little to reduce the levels of discontent, and the report continued to be a major focus of criticism by non-Council members in terms of accountability. In response, a 12 June 1997 note by the president of the Security Council announced that “the report of the Council for future years will be changed, taking into account views expressed on the existing format” (S/1997/451). The changes included an earlier deadline for the Secretariat to submit the draft, to ensure its adoption by the Council in time for a discussion during the main session of the General Assembly.

Furthermore, the note laid out the structure of the report. One important innovation was the decision to include as an addendum to the report “brief assessments on the work of the Security Council, which representatives who have completed their functions as President of the Security Council may wish to prepare, under their own responsibility and following consultations with members of the Council for the month during which they presided and which should not be considered as representing the views of the Council”. Since July 1997, all presidents of the Council have indeed submitted such assessments which, in addition to each being issued as a Council document, were appended to the relevant annual report and, since 2002, have been listed with UN document symbols in the annual reports.

Yet the annual report continued to be a major source of member state dissatisfaction. The key recurring complaint was that the report was just a long catalogue of documents and meeting dates, lacking analysis and offering scant insights into the work of the Security Council. In most discussions concerning the report, its introduction—a short, very technical piece that simply described what was contained in each of the sections and listed all earlier documents relevant to the annual report’s format—was at the centre of attention.

In 2002, the Council took up the issue of the annual report again, largely at the initiative of Singapore. The outcome was a note by the president entirely focused on the annual report (S/2002/199). In it, the Council explicitly acknowledged that it had reviewed the format of its annual report “having taken into account the views expressed during the debate on agenda item 11, entitled ‘Report of the Security Council’, at the 56th session of the General Assembly”. The note stipulated that the introduction would become an analytical piece, seeking to capture the most important moments in the year under review, assess the Council’s ability to deal with problems at hand and signal difficulties and areas where improvements could be made. Members decided to take a more active part in the elaboration of the report, stating that as of 2002 the introduction would be drafted by the delegation that held the July presidency (previously, the Secretariat had prepared the draft). Members would then adopt the introduction in a public session to allow for exchanges of views on the text. It was also decided that the body of the report should be significantly shortened and made more informative.

At face value it seemed that the above might result in major substantive changes to the content and the adoption process of the annual report. But whereas in 2002 the introduction was indeed somewhat more analytical than before and quite concise, in the years since it has more than doubled in length while losing its analytical edge. The only public debate by the Council on the adoption of its annual report took place in 2002. Since then, it has been adopted in a short routine session with no debate.

During successive annual General Assembly debates, members have continued to raise concerns about what they see as the inadequacy of the annual report. The bulk of the ongoing complaints focused on the largely descriptive approach and the dearth of analysis. Responding to the numerous calls from the membership at large, starting in 2008, all elected members who have drafted the introduction have made an effort to reach out to the wider membership and have held informal briefings for member states prior to the formal adoption of the draft annual report.

One unanticipated, adverse implication of the current system for the preparation of the annual report also became clear in recent years. The report covers the period from 1 August through 31 July, with the presidency ending this period, the July presidency, being the drafter. Who does the drafting ultimately depends on the alphabetical rotation of the Council presidency. Since 2002, nearly every time a non-permanent member has drafted the report, it has been a delegation in its first year in the Council, (the two exceptions were Colombia in 2012 and Rwanda in 2014). Because the reporting cycle (1 August-31 July) does not match the terms of office of elected members (1 January-31 December), this has meant that the Council member drafting the report had not been on the Council for the first five months of the period it was reporting on.

With the calls for improvements continuing, in note S/2010/507, a few modifications were introduced. Among them, expanding the information on the work of the subsidiary bodies of the Council to include material on the counter-terrorism committees, sanctions committees, working groups and international tribunals established by the Security Council.

A 12 December 2012 note by the President, issued toward the end of the period in which Portugal chaired the Informal Working Group and reflecting a few of the areas of work conducted during the year, expanded on note S/2010/507 in suggesting that “presidencies in charge of preparing the draft introduction to the report may consider organizing, where appropriate, interactive informal exchanges of views with the wider membership” (S/2012/922). It also said that Council members “encourage the Presidents in charge of the presentation of the report to the General Assembly to report back to Council members on relevant suggestions and observations raised during the General Assembly debate on the annual report”. (Neither of these agreed working methods was applied in the immediately subsequent reporting cycle in 2013.)