Reforming the Working Methods of the Security Council
By Jakob Silas Lund, 18 November
While the discussion on Security Council reform primarily focuses on expansion of its membership, some countries maintain that reforming the way the Council conducts its work is much more relevant and significant for most member states. This article, based on interviews with a number of key diplomats and experts, explores suggestions made towards such reform in the last decade and analyzes the likely road ahead.
As the Center has often reported over the last few years, the debate surrounding expansion of the Security Council can be extremely divisive. But the debate on the working methods of the Council, an equally important aspect of reform to many member states, has attracted less attention and much less of the emotional outbursts. The key protagonists in the process of reforming the working methods are a group of five small countries, the so-called S5: Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland. The S5’s latest proposal, dated April 7th 2009, lists the following elements as the most pertinent to working methods reform: transparency and access, efficiency and implementation, rule of law, use of the veto, peacekeeping operations, accountability and the Council’s relationship with the GA, and its relationship with regional arrangements and agencies. Most of these aspects are interlinked or overlap with each other. Many of the issues have also been discussed in the debate on the revitalization of the General Assembly (GA), of special concern to the Non-Aligned Movement1.
Below you will find an overview of the most influential proposals made thus far and of how they are regarded by insiders as well as an analysis of their prospects in the immediate future.
A Supposedly Open Relationship: Transparency and Openness
Article 48 of the Security Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure states that, unless otherwise required, the Council’s meetings shall be open. This rule’s implementation-–or lack thereof–has been, is, and will most likely remain, one of the main issues at the center of the discussions on the Council’s working methods. In 1993, as the level of activity within the Council dramatically increased, a decision was made to make information more readily available to member states not sitting on the Council. In the same year, the Council established the Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions, which deals with issues related to working methods within the Council. It was agreed at that time that the President of the Council should regularly provide reports to the GA. To publish the Council’s agenda in what became the most-read daily news update about the UN, the UN Journal was created at this time. These steps were not, however, to satisfy those who wanted to see more transparency from the Council. The pursuit for more openness thus continued.
Most member states were more interested in actually being present at the meetings rather than receiving information about what had been discussed in the Council. As early as 1994, the Council adopted Presidential Statement S/PRST/1994/81 stating that the Council had “heard the views” of those demanding more openness and promised “increased recourse to open meetings.” In 2006, after the S5 proposed their landmark A/60/L.49 resolution, the Council came out with Presidential Statement S/2006/507 reaffirming their earlier promise to “expand consultation and cooperation with regional and subregional organizations, including by inviting relevant organizations to participate in the Council’s public and private meetings.” In the following year, the Council underlined, the importance of transparency and communication with the “broader UN membership.” In 2008, at SC meeting 9436, the Belgian President of the Council at the time stated that the trend of systematically moving away from public meetings in favor of private consultations had been stemmed.
Still not enough
Although the frequency of open meetings has gone up, there is still considerable dissatisfaction with the limited possibility for non-Council members to take part in—or even just have access to—the decision-making process of the Council. The Council has increased the frequency of its so-called Arria Formula meetings2, to which outsiders can be invited. Complaints have been voiced, however, that Arria meetings are not formalized and that it continues to be entirely up the Council whom it wants to invite and when to do so. In other words, Member States have not gained any formal rights from the increased frequency of Arria meetings. This is an issue that exemplifies the dynamic of the Council: the P5 generally averts formalizing anything regarding their working methods.
Furthermore, as the Center reported last year, there seems to be a flipside to this conceived improvement: as more meetings have been opened up to non-members, more decisions have actually been discussed and agreed upon at informal fora prior to being adopted at the official meetings of the Council. Switzerland, at the 2008 SC/9436 meeting, pointedly said that the open meetings at times work as an “alibi exercise,” while essential information continues to be shared behind closed doors, especially among the Permanent members of the Security Council (P5)3. At the same meeting, the prominent UFC4 -member Pakistan said: “the Council remains a closed club, in which decision-making increasingly transpires in smaller and more secretive enclaves than in public meetings.”
Not Just Guns for Hire
The number of blue helmet troops deployed in peacekeeping missions has gone up drastically over the last two decades. One of the issues that is often stressed by developing nations is that Troop Contributing Countries (TCC) should be included in the decisions that pertain to the work of those troops—most of whom originate from their countries. Article 31 of the UN Charter states that: “Any Member of the United Nations which is not a member of the Security Council may participate (…) in the discussion of any question brought before the Security Council whenever the latter considers that the interests of that Member are specially affected.” In 2001, the Council adopted Res. 1353, which gave the TCCs an exclusive right to sit in on meetings relating to the extension of the mandate of peacekeeping missions in which the countries’ peacekeepers are deployed. The Council further: “emphasize[d] the importance of meeting with troop-contributing countries.”
When President Obama visited the UN for the first time in his capacity as Commander in Chief for the US, he convened a meeting with the Heads of States of the TCCs with the explicit aim of improving the relationship between them and the Council. This gesture did not pass unnoted among the TCCs, who commended the initiative. One TCC diplomat interviewed by the Center pointed out that Turkey, while holding the Presidency of the Council this year, invited TCCs for a thematic debate on the relationship between the TCCs and the Council. This diplomat also commended France and the UK for the openness that prevailed during their presidencies. More than any other country, Japan’s leadership of the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations was highlighted by those we interviewed as being very constructive for the relationship between the TCCs and the Council, particularly with regards to openness vis-à-vis the TCCs. Finally, there seems to be satisfaction with the time the Council has allowed between its consultations with the TCCs and the point at which final policy decisions are made, making it more likely that input from the TCCs is being taken into serious consideration.
Although it appears that the TCCs generally agree that overall interaction with the Council has improved over the last couple of years, additional improvements are still needed. As one TCC diplomat indicated, continuing the positive momentum started over the last few years, they are hoping for more open debates on peacekeeping operations and further improvements in the relationship between the TCCs and Council. Furthermore, there is a feeling among the TCCs that the Council only listens to their remarks on military aspects, while ignoring their contributions regarding political issues. The diplomat suggested that the Council, in cooperation with the TCCs, should construct a “lessons learned scheme” to build on successes while avoiding the repetition of certain missteps.
The veto arguably is the most contentious part of working methods reform. Some diplomats contend it should not even be part of the working methods reform package but rather an issue to be dealt with separately. The A/60/L.49 proposal from 2006 made two suggestions to limit the use of the veto: 1) any P5 member that casts a veto has to qualify its use—that is, explain why the veto was cast; and 2) vetoes should not be used in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and serious crimes against international humanitarian law.
With regards to the first point, one P5 diplomat says that permanent members already qualify the use of vetoes they cast virtually every time they use one and as such he deems the suggestion redundant. With regards to the second point, while limiting the use of a veto in case of genocide seems self-evident to many, there is opposition. For instance, one P5 representative commented to the Center that the pitfalls of such a proposal are the definitions of “genocide,” “crimes against humanity” and “serious crimes against international humanitarian law.” As the recent commotion over the Goldstone report so clearly shows, definitions of what constitutes serious violations of human rights law are indeed divergent. One could easily imagine a permanent member of the Council finding itself in a very tight spot if the GA determined that a conflict where a permanent member has vested interests to be a “serious violation of international humanitarian law” and brought it to the Council. This possibility would vanish with the banning of the veto in abovementioned instances. Furthermore, the P5 reportedly fear that accepting a curtailment of their right of veto could open the door to a series of additional demands from the GA to limit their rights. Finally, one P5 diplomat raised the question of operationalization: how do you bind a country to not use a right, which that country has been granted by the UN Charter. According to one S5 diplomat, this could simply be done by having countries promise in public that they would abstain from vetoing any resolution pertaining to issues mentioned above.
Being the new kid is always difficult, and being a newly elected member of the Security Council is no different. Many non-permanent members have complained that the provisional rules of procedure, always subject to potential change, are almost impossible for newcomers to comprehend and that along with many other factors make it difficult to maneuver in the Council. Egypt suggested in 2008 that permanent rules of procedure replace the set of current provisional rules “that have been in effect for more than 60 years.” This issue was addressed by the Council in the 507 Presidential Note with the following language: “[the Council] invites the newly elected members of the Council to attend all meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies and the informal consultations of the whole, for a period of six weeks immediately preceding their term of membership.” While this reportedly has made the transition for new countries easier, there are still considerable difficulties associated with starting the two-year non-permanent membership to the Council. Furthermore, according to one former non-permanent member of the Council, it seems at times as if the introduction is made deliberately more difficult by the Secretariat. This diplomat contended that the Secretariat is giving the P5 special treatment in meetings, field trips, and other logistical matters, reinforcing the sense that the P5 holds special rights.
Qui Custos Custodi?
Having sanctions imposed on you by the Council—either as a private person or as a country—can be even more aggravating than one might suspect. The process is described as Byzantine and Kafkaesque by some who add that if anyone really has comprehension of what it takes to remove an individual or a country from the list, they are certainly not quick to share that knowledge. Austria has commented that there is evidence that sanctions are not always applied rigorously. The 2005 Summit Outcome Document underlines that while are an important tool for maintaining international peace and security, they must be applied with clear mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation. After September 11th 2001, the conditions became even more complex and difficult. It therefore appears derisory to some countries that the Council, in Presidential note 507 “encourages subsidiary bodies (such as the Sanctions Committee) of the Council to seek the views of Member States with strong interest in their areas of work” and further underlines the importance of the Council talking to the countries that are “particularly affected” by sanctions. Following this, Iceland suggested in 2008 that an independent advisory body provide input to the work of the Sanctions Committee, with special focus on requests for de-listing. Diplomats close to the process comment that this is an area that is of particular concern to the S5 but very little has happened to improve the conditions.
Reporting to the GA
Articles 15 and 24 of the Charter spell out that the Council must submit an annual report to the GA. But for years the report has been criticized of merely being a long summary of the year rather than providing analytical deliberations of the complexities and intricacies involved in the decision-making process. This issue arises annually in the joint debate on the report of the Security Council to the GA. As reported by the Center in 2008, a spin-off of the debate surrounding the revitalization of the General Assembly was a suggestion that NGOs or think-tanks come up with an “illustrative example of a more ideal annual report.” In 2006, resolution 60/286 had invited the Council to submit special subject-oriented reports to the GA, an invitation the Council has yet to accept.
Singapore, in the 2008 SC/9436 meeting, said that an analytical layer of the annual report, aspired to by many in the GA, has: “seldom been achieved because it is difficult to square the viewpoints of 15 Council members.” Australia further suggested that if an analytical report was not possible, perhaps a more “free-flowing debate” on the Council’s role in the preceding year could be considered. One S5 diplomat commented in our interview that while it may be difficult to make the report sufficiently analytical because no one wants to be too critical of any one Member State, a debate either leading up to or following immediately after the release of the report would be useful.
An expert close to the process of working methods reform commented to the Center that more than anything else the debate surrounding the annual report is about how the Council reaches its decisions. According to this expert, since none of the member states are generally interested in giving much detail about the horse-trading that constitutes most negotiations, it should be clear to everyone that the Council would never publicize this information. This is further illustrated by the fact that some countries are against this measure for two years while on the Council, and then for it again once they rejoin their peer non-members.
While debate on the working methods of the Council does not stir up the same resistance and even outrage as the discussion on expansion seems to do, the methods do certainly have their critics. In a number of interviews, several diplomats indicated that some Member States believe it may be difficult for the working methods reform to even remain on the agenda. One expert commented that while there was a considerable discontent with the working methods of the Council around the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that fury seems to have calmed down since and the tone today is, in his words, “not as promising.”
One P5 diplomat stressed to the Center that the ownership of the process must lie with the Council and referred to the UN Charter, which specifies that the GA and the Council are equal bodies. This seems to be the crux of the problem facing those who wish to see real reform of the working methods: the P5 is extremely reluctant to accept what they perceive to be impositions from the GA. Diplomats from the P5 have said that they may agree with the suggestions made but that as a matter of principle the GA cannot decide on matters within the Council. Of course the GA can make recommendations, P5 diplomats note. As one P5 diplomat put it: many P5 members are open to constructive proposals. Proposals, however, are very different from actual resolutions. In interviews with diplomats, references have been made to an abundantly clear statement used by one P5 diplomat: “if they [the GA] want to waste their time, they can do so.” Another diplomat close to the process says that Russia, the US and China openly express what France and Britain are merely thinking: the Council is the only body that can decide for the Council. There seems to be a general understanding that Russia is the P5 country most fervently opposed to outside interference with the workings of the Council, possibly followed by China. France and the UK have been the most receptive to proposed changes, while the position of the US is still not entirely clear.
It is important to note here that the P5, and most other member states, see the Council—and the entire UN for that matter—as a political body where no one wants to limit their own powers and ability to maneuver. Those who have certain privileges seldom wish to let go of these and those who do not have them will continuously advocate for limiting them. One expert on the process says that the divides over the Council’s working methods should be seen in the larger picture of the north/south divide. Many countries that have little or no power in the Council see the GA as their only avenue for influencing the UN. Diplomats from the west-–particularly those who are part of the P5—see the whole discussion as an attempt on behalf of the south to curb the power of the Council. According to one Western diplomat: “the Council is the only organ of the UN that the G77 has not succeeded in ruining.”
It appears that the big question with regard to reforming the Council’s working methods is whether the issue can be pushed in the GA or whether it would be more effective to work within the Council. Either way, the only thing that can make the P5 move on the issue, it seems, is if enough pressure is mobilized to make it sufficiently difficult for the P5 to ignore. Currently, this push seems unlikely to come from the place one would expect it to come from: the GA. Reportedly, the P5 countries were initially preparing to engage with those calling for working methods reform but have since realized that they may not even have to, as those who wish to bring about reform have not been able to create a unified bloc with a clear message.
Neither the G4 5 nor the UFC are opposed to the S5 proposal, but neither one of them are prepared to make it a priority either. The G4 countries are firm in their conviction that the focus of Security Council reform should be on expansion. An expert on UN reform interviewed by the Center observed that those who are hoping to gain a permanent seat on the Council could wield considerable power in this process, but choose to remain silent instead because they want to “cozy up to” the P5. Furthermore, those same countries are reportedly weary about pushing for any sort of restrictions imposed on Council members that may end up affecting themselves if they should become permanent members. The UFC, on the other hand, insists that comprehensive reform in all five key areas is needed. Finally, as one diplomat close to the process noted, many member states feel they have more important battles to wage. For instance, if a given country needs the vote of a P5 member on an unrelated matter, and that matter is more important to the given member state, it might be ill-advised to mobilize considerable pressure for working methods reform. One S5 diplomat said that other countries express appreciation for what the S5 does, but say they cannot do the same. This being said, both UFC and G4 are in a constant battle to get undecided countries on board for their reform proposals and in doing so they cannot ignore the wishes of these countries.
Christian Wenaweser, Permanent Representative from Liechtenstein and founding member of the S5, in an interview with the Center, proposes that rather than focusing solely on a push from the GA or on changing the Council from within, parallel tracks should be pursued. He added that the S5 has no immediate plans to table another resolution in the GA. According to him, if the Council implemented all the measures it spelled out in the Presidential note 507 it would address important aspects of the reform of the working methods called for by the S-5. The S-5 countries are therefore looking for ways to work with the Council instead of a confrontation in the General Assembly.
Another possibility is that a movement of civil society organizations mobilizes in a fashion similar to the one formed to advocate for the ICC and for such issues as banning landmines and cluster munitions. However, one leading expert from the NGO field commented that such a push would require a level of resources that is not currently available to interested NGOs. Furthermore, only a small number of NGOs have a mandate and interest in such governance issues. Reforming the working methods of the Security Council does not have the same broad appeal among the general public and among human rights and humanitarian organizations as banning landmines did, although the expert argues that the potential impact of such reforms could be far greater.
Look for the One Who Benefits
Making the Council—and particularly the P5—live up to the promises from Presidential note 507 would likely require the aforementioned “push.” As discussed above, this is unlikely to materialize within the GA any time soon. Should there be a sufficient mobilization for such a push, however, the question is still how to best make it effective. Ambassador Wenaweser rhetorically asks “do we really want to create division between the GA and the Council by calling for a vote?” A vote, it should be noted, that the Council would not be legally obliged to follow.
Member states’ self-interests seem to be the one constant feature at the UN. Appealing to the P5s self-interest, therefore, is most likely the strategy that would go the longest way in pushing for reform of the working methods. If the P5 members can be convinced that thoroughly reforming the working methods could help avert the crisis of legitimacy that some perceive to surround the Council, they might be more open to doing so.
Although the permanent members of the Council deny speculations about such a crisis, diplomats close to the reform process say the P5 is well aware that many member states question the legitimacy of a Council perceived to be operating in near obscurity. In the SC/9436 meeting, Costa Rica said that: “what is necessary, more than a change in the Council’s norms, is a change in the Council’s attitude. Of all the Council’s cultural norms, the most detrimental is the excluding attitude.” Similarly, Australia commented that: “In many capitals worldwide, the 15-member body is regarded as cosseted, a closed club (…) regularly and jealously guarding privileges and specific interests.” Canada did not hold back in its criticism either, stating that: “the Council’s quick and unnecessary resort to the threat or use of sanctions is another disturbing factor that has undermined the legitimacy of its decisions.” Commenting on these comments, an expert interviewed by the Center commented that: “interestingly these countries are still members of the UN.” The expert further said that many western countries are actually wary of any aspect of Security Council reform because it would give more power to countries from the south.
Taking It Elsewhere
Another omen for those who believe the Council lacks legitimacy presented itself with the G20 expanding their scope of work to include political questions. When Messrs Obama, Sarkozy and Brown addressed the issue of nuclear proliferation on October 24th this year, they not only attempted to put an end to Iran developing nuclear weapons, but also signaled that the Security Council is not the only forum that can address international peace and security. In the G20 no one has the right of veto. If more decisions pertaining to international peace and security do indeed shift—even partly—to the G20, this would mean a loss of relative power for the P5. While the decisions of the G20 are not binding in any way, as those of the Council are, a possible shift would put countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, and Germany on an equal footing with the P5 countries in a decision-making process that would include issues also on the Council’s agenda. One must assume that the P5 would be wary of such a development and accommodating some of the calls for reform of the Council might be a good way to curb it.
Modest Steps Ahead
One S5 diplomat said that the group’s main current focus is on the improvement of Council’s annual report, which came out on November 12th. While this may seem like a modest step compared to banning the veto, it is a step nonetheless. It will serve as a litmus test for the Council’s willingness to accommodate the calls for transparency, and accordingly it may either calm the voices calling for change or provide them with renewed impetus. Knowing that the issue of working methods reform in and of itself is a difficult issue to grapple with for many countries, and considering the fact that the negotiations become part of a large-scale struggle of interests and power at the UN, modest steps are perhaps the best that can be hoped for at this time.
Unless attributed to a specific source, all expressions of opinion in this analysis are those of the author. The Center for UN Reform Education does not endorse any particular reform proposals.