UN Security Council Working Methods

Posted 16 September 2020

Security Council Annual Report to the General Assembly


Download a PDF of the table since 1993: Annual Report

Under Article 24(3) of the UN Charter, the Security Council must submit an annual report to the General Assembly for its consideration. The submission of the annual report is the only clear obligation the Council has vis-a-vis the General Assembly under the Charter. During the Cold War, the annual reports were often published with considerable delay (of up to a few years) and ran to around 100 pages. With the dramatic increase in the Council’s activity in the early 1990s, the annual report, prepared by the Secretariat, grew to nearly 600 pages by the middle of the decade. At the time, the report had been largely a compendium of Council documents, communications received and meetings held. It contained no analysis. A short introduction, also written by the Secretariat, described the structure of the report and provided some guidance as to how the document could be used. The interest of the wider membership in the report—at the time a key source of information about the work of the Council—grew considerably in the first post-Cold War years and led to calls for the Council to make the report more substantive and timely.

In a June 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: instead, 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 and stipulated that the Secretariat should submit the draft by 30 September. The public session at which the report was adopted lasted just a few minutes, and was usually held in October or November, depending on when the draft was submitted. It was chaired by the president of the Council and the only speaker was a representative of the Security Council Affairs Division who provided an explanation of the report’s structure.

Despite these modifications, the report continued to be criticised by non-Council members in terms of the Council’s lack of accountability and transparency. 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–30 August–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 a revised structure for 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, presidents of the Council have indeed submitted such assessments which, in addition to being issued as a Council document, were appended to the relevant annual report and, since 2002, listed with corresponding UN document symbols in the annual reports.

Yet the annual report continued to dissatisfy member states, who mainly complained that it remained a catalogue of documents and meeting dates, still lacking analysis and offering scant insight into the work of the Security Council. In most discussions concerning the report, its introduction—which continued to be a technical piece that 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 again 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 that sought 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. For the first time, members of the Council would take an active part in the elaboration of the report. The note further stipulated that as of 2002 the introduction would be drafted by the delegation that held the July presidency. The body of the report would continue to be compiled by the Secretariat. 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.

The new process for the elaboration of the annual report seemed to promise substantive changes to its content and adoption process. In 2002, the introduction was indeed analytical and quite concise. In the years since then, however, 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 also took place in 2002. Since then, it has been adopted in a short routine session with no discussion.

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

Since 1947, the Security Council annual report to the General Assembly covered a period of 12 months ending relatively close to the start of the General Assembly session at which it would be presented during the main part of its regular session. Thus, the period covered was spread over two calendar years. Until 1972, the period was 16 July-15 July, then 16 June-15 June until 2002, when the reporting period became 1 August-31 July. One unanticipated problem with the new system for the report’s preparation was that where the drafter was an elected member in the first year of its Council term, that delegation had not been on the Council for the first five months of the period it was reporting on.

With the calls for improvements continuing, the Council’s subsidiary body responsible for much of its working methods work, the Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions (IWG) continued to discuss aspects of the annual report and introduced some further modifications. In 2010, it expanded coverage of 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.

In 2015, on the joint initiative of Lithuania and Russia, the IWG again revised the process for the elaboration of the annual report. The resulting note by the president, S/2015/944 of 10 December 2015, changed the reporting cycle for the report to cover a calendar year starting with 2017. It also moved the presentation of the report from the main part of the General Assembly’s regular session to the spring session that followed the reporting year.

The note further stipulated that the introduction should be concise, not to exceed 10,000 words, and would continue to be prepared under the coordination of the July presidency. If the member holding the July presidency were to leave the Council at the end of the year and thus no longer be among its members during the drafting, the note stipulated that “the task of coordinating the introduction of the report shall then devolve on the member of the Council next in English alphabetical order and who will not be leaving the Security Council that calendar year”. The introduction, however, should, according to the note, “be approved by all members of the Council who served on the Council during the reporting period” and the report should “continue to be adopted at a public meeting of the Security Council, at which members of the Council who wish to do so may comment on the work of the Council for the period covered by the report”.

The most recent version of the comprehensive compendium of Security Council working method, the so-called Note 507, updated in 2017 and issued as document S/2017/507, incorporated the 2015 document on the annual report, adding a few new elements, notably a detailed list of the elements of the body of the report (paragraph 131). It also added that the member drafting the introduction “may, when necessary, seek advice from other members of the Council. It may also consider organizing, where appropriate, interactive informal exchanges of views with the wider membership”.

Because of the transition to the new reporting period, in 2016 there was no annual report to the General Assembly. The first report prepared under the new procedure (exceptionally covering 17 rather than 12 months) was adopted on 9 August 2017 and discussed by the General Assembly during the final weeks of its 71st session.

The experience of the first two years after the move to a calendar year cycle and the report’s General Assembly presentation to late in the session has been of much shorter, but also less focused, discussion in the General Assembly. Both in 2017 and 2018, the drafts were finalised considerably later than stipulated by the relevant notes, and adopted by the Council in August, pushing the General Assembly discussion to near the end of its session, with most delegations already gearing up for the opening of the next session.

In 2019, the adoption of the report was again delayed into late summer. On 19 July 2019, writing to the president of the Security Council on behalf of 25 members of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group, Switzerland signalled members’ concern that the 2018 report had not yet been submitted to the General Assembly and urged the Council to expedite the process. The report was adopted by the Council on 20 August and it was presented to the General Assembly on 10 September. The General Assembly’s discussion on 10 and 12 September had 27 speakers, including 14 permanent representatives.

The report covering 2019 was produced under the temporary measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its adoption on 14 July 2020 was the first in-person Council meeting since 12 March that year.  The General Assembly held a virtual informal meeting on 31 August to discuss the report. The considerable amount of time between the adoption and the General Assembly discussion afforded interested member states a better opportunity for preparation. Thirty-seven member states, most of them permanent representatives, participated.

At the end of 2019, the IWG adopted a note by the president of the Security Council with provisions tightening the timeline for the annual report elaboration cycle (S/2019/997). Among other things, starting with the report for 2020, the Council is supposed to adopt the report by 30 May, “in time for its consideration by the General Assembly immediately thereafter”.  Once the Council succeeds in meeting its own aspirations, and, as intended, the General Assembly discussion is held before the summer, it will be easier to provide a better assessment of the impact of the revised process.