UN Security Council Working Methods

Posted 3 October 2017

Horizon-Scanning Briefings


Download a PDF of the complete table: Horizon-Scanning Briefings

On the 40th anniversary of the UN, then-Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar called attention to the fact that as:

crises have frequently been brought before the Council too late for preventive action, it would seem to follow that the Council might well establish a procedure to keep the world under continuing survey in order to detect nascent causes of tension (S/PV.2608, 26 September 1985).

Decades later, the Council is still struggling to consolidate such a procedure. Article 99 of the UN Charter provides that the “Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. Historically, this mandate has been used very rarely (for example, it was invoked by the Secretary-General in 1960 in response to the crisis in the Congo and in 1979 in response to the occupation of the US embassy in Iran). Nevertheless, successive Secretaries-General have taken at times active, independent roles in identifying concerns or potential threats to international peace and security and raising these informally with Council members in consultations or during the monthly luncheons hosted by the president of the Security Council. Such briefings by the Secretary-General or senior UN staff on ongoing or emerging security issues are therefore clearly grounded in the Charter.

Furthermore, resolution 1625, adopted on 14 September 2005, following a summit-level meeting of the Security Council on conflict prevention, encouraged the Secretary-General to provide information to the Council on developments in regions at risk of armed conflict. The 2008 and 2011 Secretary-General’s reports on preventive diplomacy cited Article 99 as the basis for his preventive mandate. However, in the absence of a routine format for briefings on issues of concern, offering a briefing by the Secretariat or members’ requesting such an unscheduled briefing often occurs on a case-by-case basis and can easily become bogged down with procedural and political concerns.

During its July 2010 presidency, Nigeria organised an open debate on preventive diplomacy and several member states highlighted the need for the Council to be alerted early to potential crises. Japan stated that “in the light of the importance of drawing the attention of the Council to early warning signs, I suggest that we might request the Secretary-General to provide Council members with a regular political and security briefing, focusing on potential risks of conflict erupting or recurring”. Australia (not a Council member at the time) stressed that the “Council needs to open itself up more to receiving briefings from Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and other parts of the Secretariat on unfolding situations, and the broader membership needs to support such Council engagement”.

In line with these sentiments, the UK suggested that “as a practical step, we should minimize the obstacles to action by improving the information flow between … the Secretariat and the Security Council”. The UK went on to elaborate that the “Security Council should hear, as a matter of course, from the Secretary-General and his senior staff when they have visited regions where potential conflict is a concern. … We, the member states of the Council, must be ready to draw on the Secretariat’s early-warning analysis and reporting on emerging conflicts”. The UK also suggested that “the Secretary-General offer regular advice to the Council on potential emerging conflicts—a sort of horizon-scanning exercise” (S/PV.6360 and Resumption 1).

For its next presidency, the UK organised the first “horizon-scanning” briefing by the DPA. On 4 November 2010 it invited Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe to brief Council members in consultations on emerging security issues in a number of countries, regardless of whether they were on the Council’s agenda or not. During that first session, Council members spoke about issues of concern to them and brought up international peace and security concerns in various potential theatres. Holding such an interactive session was also part of an ongoing effort, championed by several presidents of the Council, to encourage greater dialogue in and a more unscripted nature of Council consultations.

In a sense, the 4 November 2010 briefing was a return to an earlier practice that was routine in the Council in the 1990s but was later abandoned. At the time, the Secretariat provided a daily high-level comprehensive situation briefing to Council members in informal consultations, and the discussion was not limited to previously agreed issues. These consultations gave the Council the flexibility to respond to the Secretariat’s daily situation brief and allowed for free and unscripted discussion on a regular basis.

The very trajectory of these “horizon-scanning” briefings reveals how politically sensitive an early warning capacity within the Council can prove to be. Following the first “horizon-scanning” on 4 November 2010, such briefings by DPA were a regular feature of the programmes of work of the Council through March 2012, with every president of the Council scheduling one with a single exception: the US during its December 2010 presidency. The briefings ranged from covering just one issue to more than nine. A number of issues that subsequently needed sustained attention by the Council—such as Gulf of Guinea piracy, Tuareg activity in northern Mali and instability in Guinea-Bissau—had been first raised at these briefings. These sessions were also a useful forum to discuss emerging crises, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. Although these issues featured in other Council meetings, in 2011 all three were regularly part of the “horizon-scanning” briefings, allowing the Council to be updated on fast-changing situations.

Throughout 2011, while the briefings took place every month, some opposition to the format emerged. It was controversial for some members for the situation in countries such as Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives or Mexico to be discussed during the briefings. In these cases the briefings served as a way of alerting Council members to situations that had the potential for instability. However, some members were not comfortable with this, feeling it could give the appearance that these issues were on the Council’s agenda. Focusing on elections in particular regions, such as Africa and Latin America, also generated negative reactions. Raising situations already on the agenda of the Council such as Israel/Palestine and Myanmar made some Council members unhappy. Overtime, objections were raised about some of the issues covered, with certain members attempting to influence the agenda. The desired interactivity of the briefings also gradually diminished. At the start, these sessions were more interactive than the average Council consultations, but they became more formal over time, with Council members reading statements. 

In 2012 some Council members began to question the usefulness of the “horizon-scanning” briefings and whether they needed to be held every month. Although never spelt out, it seems that these members may have been uncomfortable with the lack of control by Council members over the issues covered, as it was DPA that was in the lead. In April 2012, the US circulated an informal discussion paper on guidelines for the briefings. There was also an attempt to include a reference to systematic DPA “horizon-scanning” briefings of the Council as a tool of preventive diplomacy in the first note by the president issued while Portugal chaired the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions in 2012. However, some members disagreed with the text, effectively killing the idea. 

Starting in 2013, “horizon-scanning” briefings have ebbed with DPA becoming increasingly disengaged in terms of advocating or seeking to schedule such briefings; only three were held in 2013 and since. In May 2014, a new informal meeting format, the “DPA briefing”, emerged and it has been considered by some a successor to “horizon scanning”. These briefings are organised at the initiative of the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. They are held toward the middle of the month, in a conference room outside Council premises and are meant to be attended at political coordinator level. So far, they have focused on thematic issues rather than situation-specific items. The period since the last “horizon-scanning” in December 2013, has seen an increased resort to using “any other business” part of consultations for briefings on urgent or emerging issues or on field trips undertaken by high level UN officials. (“Any other business”, referred to as “aob,” is a standing agenda item for each consultations. The initiative to discuss a particular issue needs to come from Council members. In practice, the Secretariat has occasionally approached a member to request a briefing on a specific topic.)

A possible renewed grounding for the use of “horizon-scanning” could be the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative launched by the Secretary-General in December 2013, reflecting a new commitment by the UN Secretariat to early and preventive action to respond to human rights violations and prevent mass atrocities. Under Action 2 of the six-point plan, the Secretariat is mandated to provide member states “with candid information with respect to peoples at risk of, or subject to, serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law”. Other possible avenues are the “Any Other Business” during Council consultations or invoking Article 99 of the Charter.

This table documents all “horizon-scanning” held to-date. Information about the content of each briefing was based on monthly assessments by the presidents of the Council and interviews conducted by SCR staff.