UN Security Council Working Methods

Posted 20 September 2023

Security Council Visiting Missions


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A visiting mission has been a tool the Council has used—since it first travelled to Cambodia and Viet Nam from 26 June to 14 ­July 1964—for a number of purposes, including preventive diplomacy, gathering first-hand information, supporting peace processes and mediation. Until the end of the Cold War, the Council undertook fewer than a dozen missions; in the period since, a visiting mission has become a more frequent working method.

There is little guidance regarding Council travelling missions in the UN Charter or the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council. Missions have been deployed under the broad powers granted by Article 29 of the UN Charter, according to which the Council “may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions”. An examination of the Some 70 visiting missions by the Security Council since 1992 reveals a rich body of practices and working methods to pursue a wide range of goals and purposes.

Following elections in civil war-ravaged Angola, the Council decided through a 6 October 1992 presidential statement “to send to Angola, as quickly as possible, an ad hoc commission, composed of members of the Council, to support the implementation of the peace agreements” and indeed sent a delegation from 11 to 14 October. Few details of this mission are known as it left no written report, besides the fact that that it was composed of Council members Cape Verde, Morocco, Russia and the US and that it reported to Council members in consultations on 20 October.

By the time the Council sent its next mission, this time to the war-torn former Yugoslavia, the approach was less ad hoc. On 16 April 1993, the Council adopted resolution 819, in which it expressed its deep alarm over the deteriorating situation in and near Srebrenica and indicated its decision to send a mission as soon as possible to ascertain the situation and report back to the Council. Ambassador Diego Arria (Venezuela) led the 22-27 April 1993 visiting mission, which also included France, Hungary, Pakistan and Russia. The mission visited several locations, including Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The broad mandate of the mission, set out in resolution 819, was fact-finding and reporting back to the Council, while the terms of reference for the visit were left to the delegation itself. The process was remarkably fast: resolution 819 was adopted on 16 April, the visiting mission took place from 22 to 27 April and its 19-page mission report was issued on 30 April.

The next six missions, undertaken in rather quick succession in 1994 and 1995, were all to Africa. They were led, with one exception, by African Council members and included between four and nine Council members. The intention to undertake the 7-12 August 1994 trip to Mozambique in support of the implementation of a peace agreement was first signalled in a presidential statement and subsequently agreed in consultations. While the delegation was already travelling in Africa, the Council, during consultations, decided to deploy four of the members of the travelling mission to Burundi, in light of the serious crisis following the assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, whose plane had been shot down over Kigali, Rwanda, on 6 April 1994. The Council followed up with an additional visiting mission on 10-13 February 1995 to Burundi and Rwanda, with Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari (Nigeria) in the lead. Among the purposes of the mission was to convey support for the governments and for the processes of national reconciliation and to signal rejection of all attempts to destabilise the region. In Rwanda, the mission focused also on the problem of refugees and on issues of justice and accountability. The Council next deployed a 26-27 October 1994 visiting mission to Somalia to address the future of the UN presence there and a 3-9 June 1995 mission to Western Sahara to accelerate the implementation of the settlement plan.

After a four-year hiatus, the 8-12 September 1999 visiting mission to Indonesia and East Timor shows the Council acting quickly and effectively. In light of the widespread violence following the results of the Council-authorised referendum in which East Timor overwhelmingly opted for independence from Indonesia, a five-member Council delegation was dispatched to stress to Indonesia that the outcome of the referendum must be respected and that the international community looked forward to working with the government of Indonesia in bringing East Timor to independence. The delegation visited the devastated and still-not-entirely calm capital of East Timor, Dili, and while in Jakarta also met with Xanana Gusmão, the resistance leader and future president of Timor-Leste, who at the time was serving a 20-year prison sentence. The Council dispatched a second visiting mission to Timor-Leste on 9-17 November 2000 to review progress and emphasise its ongoing engagement.

The US became the first permanent member to lead a visiting mission with the 4-8 May 2000 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea and Ethiopia. The UK followed suit with the 7-14 October 2000 visiting mission to Sierra Leone, while France did so with the 15-26 May 2001 mission to the DRC and Burundi. The 16-18 June 2001 trip to Kosovo led by Bangladesh was the first in which all 15 Council members participated, a practice that has since become the norm with some exceptions, such as when the Council has dispatched so-called mini-missions of which the most recent examples are the 24–30 November 2007 and 3–6 November 2012 visits to Timor Leste in which five Council members participated. On a few occasions, for a variety of reasons, one member would not join the mission (Russia did not participate in the 20-29 June 2004 mission to West Africa; China did not join the 13–16 February 2012 mission to Haiti; Lithuania did not participate in the 10-13 March 2015 mission to CAR, Burundi and AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa; and Côte d’Ivoire was not part of the 28 April-2 May 2018 visiting mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar). On one occasion, the chairman of the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations, Ambassador Kenzo Oshima (Japan), was dispatched alone to Ethiopia and Eritrea on 6-9 November 2005 in an effort to salvage the UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia. There have also been two joint missions undertaken with representatives of the Economic and Social Council, the 27-28 June 2003 mission to Guinea-Bissau and the 13-16 April 2005 mission to Haiti. Some missions involved multiple destinations with different leads for different segments, following the example set during the 26 June to 5 July 2003 trip to West Africa co-led by the UK and Mexico.

For several years the Council made a point of visiting situations of high concern repeatedly. Such was the case with Burundi (1994, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2015, 2016), Rwanda (1995, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2013), East Timor/Timor-Leste (1999, 2000, 2007, 2012), Kosovo (2000, 2001, 2002, 2007), Liberia (2003, 2004, 2009, 2012), Haiti (2005, 2009, 20012, 2015), Sierra Leone (2000, 2003, 2004, 2012), and Mali (2014, 2016, 2017, 2019). The situation with the most Council visits is the DRC. Between 2000 and 2010, the Council visited the DRC every year. After an intermission of more than three years, the Council returned to the DRC on its 3-9 October 2013 visiting mission and then in 2016 (11-14 November), and in 2018 (5-7 October).

Several patterns have emerged recently in the way the Council uses travelling missions. One has to do with timing: in the first several years it seems that the decision to undertake the mission, the actual visit and the subsequent publication of the relevant report happened in quick succession. The reports, in particular, were literally written on the flight back and were published just days after the Council delegation returned to New York. More recently, the whole process has tended to be much slower and less efficient. It usually takes several weeks and sometimes months for Council members to agree on the destination, duration and the timing of a visiting mission, with some mission reports coming out two years or more after the visit takes place.

For several years, because of the significant lapses of time separating the first suggestion for a visiting mission and the actual deployment of the mission, Council missions seemed to have lost much of their preventive or even reactive edge and mostly have become information-gathering exercises. This trend appeared to be reversed in 2016 and 2017 when five missions were undertaken during each year relatively quickly. In 2018 the pace of deciding to travel and conducting the visit dipped, with three missions undertaken in the course of a year. In 2019, however, this pace picked up again with five visiting missions occurring throughout the year.

Overall, however, the variety and changeability of the visiting missions over the years suggest that this remains a very flexible tool for the Council, and that it is up to the ingenuity of Council members in general, and the missions’ lead(s) in particular, as to how to add the most value to the missions themselves to favourably impact the situations on the agenda of the Council.