UN Security Council Working Methods

Posted 6 August 2019

Penholders and Chairs


Download a PDF of the complete table of Security Council Subsidiary Body Chairs

Download a PDF of the complete table of Security Council Penholders

For a more in-depth analysis please see SCR’s research report on The Penholder System.

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the dramatic increase in its activity, the Council has experimented with different ways to address its internal division of labour. Drafting resolutions and chairing the subsequent negotiations has been one of the key chores of serving on the Council. In the early 1990s and through late 2000s, the drafting of an outcome would often be undertaken by whichever member took the initiative to produce the text. Specific, recurring topics did not “belong” to a particular Council member. Sometimes, members with an interest in a given situation would join forces or, on some occasions, compete to produce a draft first in order to then chair the negotiations. Both permanent and non-permanent members routinely undertook the drafting.

As the number of active items on the agenda of the Council increased, a more structured division of labour seemed necessary, and a system of Groups of Friends emerged within the Council. Members with stakes in, or a particular commitment to, an issue would come together to jointly draft resolutions on that issue, with both non-permanent and permanent members playing a leadership role (for example, Canada on Haiti or Norway on the Horn of Africa). These groups, moreover, often included non-Council members that had particular expertise on, specific commitments to or stakes in, the situations (such as Spain on Western Sahara, Germany on Georgia and Iran or Australia and New Zealand on East Timor) or had maintained their involvement beyond their term on the Council (for example, Canada with respect to Haiti).

While generally efficient, the Groups of Friends garnered increasing criticism within the Council from both permanent and non-permanent members, although for different reasons. Some Groups of Friends still exist (including on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, Kosovo and Western Sahara), but in mid-2000 the Council began organising its work on particular situations around a lead country. Initially, those arrangements were fairly temporary and changeable and lead nations could be both permanent or non-permanent members (for example, Belgium led on Ethiopia-Eritrea in 2007 and 2008; Panama and Costa Rica co-led on Haiti in 2008; and Costa Rica led on Haiti in 2009).

One new approach in that period emerged during the lengthy negotiations in 2006 of resolutions against nuclear proliferation in DPRK and Iran. The P3 (France, the UK and the US) would take the lead in drafting a text and then negotiate it with the other two permanent members, China and Russia. Only after the P5 were in agreement, would the text be shared with the elected members, often quite close to the scheduled adoption.

By 2010, however, this approach extended to other issues. The P3 divided most situation-specific agenda items among themselves, assuming in each case the role of “pen-holder”. These arrangements have been informal and unwritten but, given these members’ permanent status on the Security Council, this leadership essentially remains unchanged.

Although this working method may seem logical in terms of efficiency, a side-effect of the pen-holder system was a deepening negotiation and consultation gap between the permanent and non-permanent members. After the P3 agreed on a given draft among themselves and then negotiated it with China and Russia, the elected members received the draft but were often discouraged from making meaningful amendments because this might disturb the sometimes painstakingly negotiated wording agreed to among the P5.

Furthermore, although the penholder system improves Council efficiency in some cases, it may at the same time have had a negative impact on its effectiveness. To the degree that all members, permanent and non-permanent, see the penholder as the lead on an issue, they are in effect validating a default situation in which other Council members defer to the penholder. If a crisis arises and the penholder is either unwilling or unable to take the initiative (for example, because it is already managing other crises on the agenda), the Council may be delayed or paralysed from taking action.

As for the many subsidiary bodies established by the Security Council, with the exception of the Military Staff Committee and the Peacebuilding Commission, they are composed of all Council members. Although this has not always been the case, at present, all subsidiary bodies are chaired by non-permanent members.

There have been exceptions with permanent members serving as initial chairs upon establishment of a new subsidiary body: the UK chaired the 1267 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee in 1999 and the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee from 2001 to 2003; France chaired the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict from 2005 to 2008; and the US served as co-chair with Slovakia in 2006 of the Ad Hoc Committee on Mandate Review to conduct the review of Security Council mandates called for by the 2005 World Summit Outcome document. Furthermore, several subsidiary bodies currently have permanent members serving as vice-chairs, including Russia on the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee since 2007 and the 1988 Taliban Sanctions Committee since 2011; the UK on the 1540 Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee since 2005; and both France and Russia on the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee since 2008 and the 1566 Working Group since 2013. The UK has been the vice-chair of the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations since 2013.

Within the many subsidiary bodies, some sanctions committees and the 1373 Counter-Terrorism and 1540 WMD Committees tend to be particularly active and demand significant investment of time and resources by the chair. Yet there is scant correlation between the penholders for the relevant agenda item and the chairs of the accompanying subsidiary body. As the penholders take the lead in drafting Council decisions, they normally “trump” chairs, notwithstanding the formal title and mandate of the latter. The chairs may not be consulted during the early stages of the drafting process of a resolution on the same country-specific situation and, in the case of some sanctions committees, even when the draft resolution concerns sanctions.

The chairs of the subsidiary bodies were for years appointed by the P5, following informal, usually bilateral consultations with the non-permanent members, with different P5 rotating as coordinators of the process. Individual preferences of incoming Council members were in some cases taken into account, though sometimes with an unintended result (eagerness to take on a particular subsidiary body could result in a different subsidiary body being assigned). In 2010 and 2014, an incoming Council member decided to forgo chairing a subsidiary body because of this member’s deep unhappiness with the way the matter had been handled by the P5.

Increasingly, Council members were suggesting establishing a more inclusive, transparent and efficient method for the annual appointment of the chairs as well as a more inclusive system of penholders. In mid-2012, Portugal, as chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), started a drafting process for notes by the Council president to address the two issues.

On the chairmanship of subsidiary bodies, initial drafts called for an inclusive and transparent process to unfold during the last six weeks of the year that would involve all 15 Council members as well as the five incoming Council members, with the November and December presidents of the Council playing a coordinating role. At that early stage, there were also suggestions that all Council members should chair subsidiary bodies. Regarding penholders, Portugal also circulated a draft note by the president outlining a system under which all Council members would have an opportunity to be penholders or co-penholders.

After nearly six months of negotiations, on 17 December 2012 the Council issued a concise note by its president (S/2012/937) regarding the chairmanship of subsidiary bodies, stating that “in an effort to enhance the efficiency and transparency of the Council’s work, as well as interaction and dialogue among Council members”, members of the Council “support an informal process with the participation of all Council members as regards appointing the chairpersons of the subsidiary organs from among Council members in a balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way, which facilitates an exchange of information related to the work of the subsidiary organs involved”. It furthermore said that Council members “should also consult informally with newly elected members soon after their election on the appointment of the chairpersons of the subsidiary organs for the following year”. On penholders, no consensus was reached in 2012 and the proposal was abandoned.

Argentina chaired the IWG in 2013 and 2014. After months of meticulous work, two documents, addressing, respectively, the issues of penholders and chairs of subsidiary bodies of the Council were agreed by IWG.

On penholders, a note by the president (S/2014/268) of 14 April 2014 proclaimed that members of the Council agreed to support “where appropriate, the informal arrangement whereby one or more Council members (as ‘penholder(s)’) initiate and chair the informal drafting process” of documents, including resolutions, presidential statements and press statements of the Council. The note specified that any member of the Council can be a penholder. The document also emphasised Council members’ commitment to enhance the participation of all members of the Council in the drafting process, including through early and timely exchanges and consultations, while continuing to seek informal consultation with non-Council members.

Regarding chairmanships of Council subsidiary bodies, a note by the president of the Council was issued on 5 June 2014 (S/2014/393). It re-stated members’ support for a process involving all Council members, as articulated in the 2012 note, and said that members of the Council should start “the informal process of consultations … as early as possible after each election of members of the Security Council”. The note also encouraged holding informal meetings between the outgoing and incoming chairs.

Despite the issuance of the different notes, the practice remained largely unchanged for the next few years.

In 2016, with the election of the new five Council members being conducted for the first time in June (instead of October), Japan as chair of the IWG decided to focus the attention of the IWG on how the newly elected members can best take advantage of the extended pre-Council period to prepare themselves for the demands of their two-year term. A new note (S/2016/619) was issued. Among other things, the note called on Council members “to make every effort to agree provisionally on the appointment of the chairs of the subsidiary organs for the following year no later than 1 October”. The note also reiterated that consultations on the appointment should begin as soon as possible after the elections and be conducted in a “balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way” by two members of the Council “working in full cooperation”, with the understanding that the two members in question would be the IWG chair and one permanent member.

That new process was first applied in 2016 and then in 2017 and in both years was finalised before the end of October, thus being close to but not quite meeting the desired deadline of 1 October, nevertheless allowing for a much longer preparatory period for new chairs. In 2017, the new arrangements were included in the newest version of the comprehensive Council working methods compendium, known as Note 507 (S/2017/507) issued on 31 August.

The process of appointing chairs of Council subsidiary bodies took considerably longer than expected in 2018 and generated a new dynamic among the ten elected members and the five member states joining the Council in January 2019. The permanent representatives of the 15 countries—Belgium, Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Germany, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden and South Africa—co-signed a letter to the president of the Security Council. The 13 November letter, signed by those 15 permanent representatives, emphasised “the need for fair burden sharing and an equal distribution of work amongst all members of the Security Council, including its permanent members.” The letter also proposed making better use within the Council of its members’ expertise by making the chairs of the sanctions committees co-penholders on the relevant files. It said:

“… the Security Council should make better use of the expertise that the Chairs of sanctions committees develop on the situations discussed in their respective committees and should consider promoting their role as penholders and the automaticity of their role as co-penholders on the related dossiers” (S/2018/1024).

In an effort to achieve better burden-sharing, Germany, which chairs the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee, joined the UK as co-penholder on issues concerning Libya sanctions in early 2019. In addition, Germany decided that its deputy permanent representative, rather than its permanent representative, will serve as chair of the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee. Historically, permanent representatives have held the position of chairs of subsidiary bodies; however, this has been Council practice rather than the result of Council decisions. Having deputy permanent representatives chair subsidiary bodies may lead to a better burden-sharing within individual missions thus enhancing their effectiveness while on the Council.

Some changes in the penholder system occurred in 2019. Early in the year, Germany joined the UK as co-penholder on Sudan. And mid-year, Belgium joined Côte d’Ivoire as co-penholder on West Africa and the Sahel.