The global COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for the Security Council to explore ways to become more transparent, efficient and effective, while also forging closer ties with the broader United Nations membership, experts said during a 15 May videoconference meeting* of the Council dedicated to its working methods.
The open debate — under the theme “Ensuring transparency, efficiency and effectiveness in the work of the Security Council” — was informed by the Council’s landmark 2017 Revised Presidential Note 507 on its working methods (document S/2017/507), as well as a related concept note (document S/2020/374).
Karin Landgren, Executive Director, Security Council Report, said that it is time for the Council to expand and deepen its interactions with the wider United Nations membership. It acts on behalf of all Member States, so therefore it should hear from them — as well as their organizations and citizens — consistently. Also, with the nature of security threats shifting, the Council should consider entering into an active dialogue with those responsible for responding to such new challenges. She added that the Council today has a capacity for interaction like never before. “The global pandemic has forced new tools on all of us [and] this is an opportunity not to return to business as usual.” By retaining the best of those tools, the Council can be more agile and responsive, she said.
From time to time, the Council has hesitated to take up climate, cyber and pandemic threats, or root causes of conflict that lie in structural inequality and other chronic human rights violations, she said. “If this Council does not lead on these issues, then who is to do so?” she asked, suggesting that it strengthen exchanges with those bodies — such as the Economic and Social Council and the Peacebuilding Commission — that deal with such global threats. While COVID-19 has brought a halt to Council fact-finding missions, technology makes it possible for Council members to speak directly with those in the field. “There is potential for a more dynamic engagement with the field than the representative beamed in from a room bare but for the United Nations flag,” she said, referring to possible virtual meetings with Heads of Government, parliamentarians, government ministers, civil society, and representatives of United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, even in hard-to-reach places.
“With the United Nations turning 75, we may forget what a radical and determined act its establishment represented and still represents, and the extraordinary powers that Member States have conferred on the Security Council,” she said. When the Council is at risk of an impasse, proactive members can sometimes find a way forward, as when nine elected members called on the Secretary-General to brief on COVID-19. A sustained and regular interaction between the Council and the Secretary-General on the pandemic would convey to the wider United Nations membership the Council’s resolve to remain engaged on the global ceasefire initiative and on the many security threats that the pandemic might unleash.
Edward C. Luck, Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, United States, said that the Council has been reflecting on its working methods for a quarter-century. This has not always led to better performance on the ground, where its track record is mixed. However, it has bolstered its transparency and efficiency, and gained a reputation as the most agile and adaptable intergovernmental organ in the United Nations system. Reform is a process, not an event, and it should take the form of a layered and extended conversation among the Council’s 15 members. Many say that this approach entails a struggle between the permanent and non-permanent members, and there is something to that, but it is too simplistic.
Looking back, it is remarkable how much common ground the 15 have found on matters that once seemed stubbornly divisive, he said. Given the inherent power imbalances within the Council, how could this be? Either the 10 have more influence than is commonly assumed, or the five are more flexible than they sometimes seem. “At best, perhaps there is a common recognition that in the end they all gain from a Council that functions more smoothly and performs more effectively.”
That leaves the question of how the other 92 per cent of Member States gain a voice in the conversation, he said. Today’s annual debate is one avenue, giving all Member States an opportunity to comment on what has — or has not — been accomplished and to suggest areas for improvement. It is a forum for advising, not deciding, however, and it can only succeed if Council members listen. He based that view on his experience with the “Hitting the Ground Running” workshop, established 18 years ago, where current Council members meet the five incoming ones for a candid talk on working methods and other topics.
Turning to unfinished business, he said that Council members’ agreement in December 2019 on eight notes concerning various issues of importance for the enhancement of its working methods was an impressive accomplishment, but the ultimate test will be how fully and faithfully those measures will be implemented. “Some of the phrasing sounds ambiguous, imprecise, or open to interpretation—in other words, diplomatic.” There is also no consensus on pen-holding, an important yet contentious issue, while a lack of formality and interaction in Council consultations persists, despite many complaints over the years. “The midst of a pandemic may not be an ideal time to make predictions, but it is probably safe to say that current conditions do not appear particularly propitious for quick or sweeping agreements in the immediate future,” he said, adding that there is no doubt that the search for better working methods is here to stay.
In the debate that followed, Council members approached the topic from various angles, from multilingualism and the length of oral statements to the utility of closed-door consultations as a tool for hammering out consensus on thorny issues. They also stressed the importance of flexibility, pointing to the manner in which the Council adjusted its work in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The representative of the United Kingdom said that the Council must address the significant implications that COVID-19 has for international peace and security. However, due to a lack of consensus, there have been no formal Council meetings since 12 March, no verbatim transcripts of its informal meetings, no simultaneous translation and no established framework of the provisional rules of procedure. “We all hope that we can return to the chamber soon, but as long as we are confronted with these extraordinary circumstances, we need to continue to pursue opportunities for improving our working methods,” he said. He added that the Council still spends too much time in lengthy meetings that address the conflicts of yesterday. The Council must subject its programme of work to critical analysis and be prepared to take up new issues, he said, emphasizing that its work on prevention is more important than ever.
France’s representative said that the only victim of the Council’s move to meetings via video-teleconference is multilingualism. “The legitimacy and efficiency of the United Nations depend on the respect for this core value,” he said, announcing that France’s Presidency of the Council in June will be conducted in French. He added that while the Council’s work is more transparent and open than ever, more private discussions are needed for it to be efficient and effective in its executive role. Direct exchanges behind closed doors are often more conducive to agreement on tough issues. The Council today is spending more than double its time meeting in public than in private, but it is also adopting fewer resolutions and press statements, he noted. Time spent in public to set out national positions is time that cannot be used to discuss with the Secretariat or to engage one another on texts. He went on to emphasize that the Council must reaffirm the need for a spirit of compromise, adding that recurrent use of the veto threat cannot be a negotiating tactic.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that the Council today “operates rather fine” given the extraordinary circumstances resulting from the pandemic. Going forward, it should stick to the agreed modus operandi, but work on post-lockdown contingency plans must start now. Emphasizing the Russian Federation’s support for a more democratic and transparent Council, he said that it is a pity that other Council members who also champion transparency did not support its proposal for an open video-teleconference meeting on Syria and chemical weapons. He went on to say that the Council should stick to its priorities and focus on major urgent issues that threaten international peace and security. “We once again appeal not to overload and abuse the Security Council’s agenda by consideration of thematic subjects that are on the agenda of the General Assembly, [Economic and Social Council] or other bodies of the United Nations.” Efforts to improve the Council’s working methods can only bear fruit when Council members reject politicized approaches and coordinate their initiatives based on mutual respect for each other’s concerns and priorities, he added.
China’s representative said that Member States expect the Council to be more efficient, effective and transparent. Strengthening communication and cooperation is the basis for the Council to promote the political settlement of hotspot issues. All Council members must take a responsible and constructive attitude, commit to equal-footed consultation and seek common ground to resolve differences. The Council should focus on its priorities, be results-oriented and avoid becoming “a grocery store that tries to offer everything”. On thematic issues that go beyond its purview, the Council should closely coordinate its work with the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council. In adhering to impartiality and transparency, “we should heed the views and recommendations of Member States”, he said, expressing support for the Council to improve its work methods by observing the United Nations Charter and its own provisional rules of procedure.
The representative of the United States said that the Council demonstrated its resilience and flexibility in adapting its working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It has been impressive to see us continue to conduct the Council’s important and life-saving work during such a difficult time, and it is a testament to the commitment and professionalism of every delegation around this virtual table.” She agreed that the Working Group should focus on Note 507 and that the right balance must be struck between transparency, effectiveness and efficiency. Going forward, the Council should remain flexible to respond to changing circumstances, she added.
Also participating in the meeting were the representatives of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (in her capacity as Chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions) and Viet Nam (on behalf of the elected Council members).
[In addition to the participants in the videoconference meeting, non-Council members, observers and other delegations were also invited to provide written statements for the debate (under Rules 37 and 39), to be compiled and circulated as an official document of the Council, in accordance with the letter from its President for May (Estonia) on provisional measures and working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic (document S/2020/372).]
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.