Members of the Security Council grappled with the efficacy of maintaining international peace and security through meetings held via video-teleconference, and with other new technologies, as the 15-member organ held an open debate today to consider the working methods that have defined its deliberations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Focusing on the theme “Agility and innovation: Lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic”, speakers weighed the benefits and drawbacks of the innovations adopted over the past extraordinary 15 months, since the Council first began working remotely in March 2020. Among other things, they reflected on the use of informal virtual sessions and the temporary written voting procedure first outlined in a letter from the representative of China in his capacity as Council President for that month (document S/2020/253).
The debate featured three briefers. Loraine Sievers, co-author of the fourth edition of The Procedure of the UN Security Council, pointed out that the most pressing issue facing the Council in 2020 was how to adopt resolutions that could withstand legal scrutiny as the spread of COVID-19 rendered in-person meetings impossible. While the written voting procedure adopted by the Council in March of that year has been “perhaps unduly time-consuming and convoluted”, she said it has met the necessary requirements of legality and verifiability.
Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), speaking in her capacity as Chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions, said that, over one year into the COVID-19 crisis, the Council’s adapted working methods have allowed it to continue to convene, adopt resolutions and renew mission and sanctions mandates. As ordinary functioning returns, the Council will consider what it has learned about conducting business via video-teleconference. She emphasized, however, that “modern technology can never replace interactive communication and the quality of engagement among Council members in person”.
Karin Landgren, Executive Director of the not-for-profit organization Security Council Report, also underscored the value of face-to-face negotiations, which allow members to explore possible ways forward, deepen personal relationships and develop trust. However, she said digital platforms — which have now been tested for 15 months — can save time and facilitate greater participation. Noting that hybrid working methods that balance the remote with the proximate may be the best way forward, she emphasized that Council members should seriously consider ways to enable procedural votes and field visits in a virtual setting, observing: “The active use of existing tools, and the ready development of new ones, need not end as COVID-19 recedes.”
In the ensuing debate, Council members highlighted both the organ’s ability to maintain business continuity during the pandemic and the need to reflect on that experience to prepare for future challenges. Some said the benefits of holding meetings virtually — including increased participation, inclusion and visibility — should incentivize the organ to treat such meetings as “official”, in order to sidestep procedural issues that have inhibited the organ’s ability to act in recent months. Others objected to this proposal, instead highlighting the necessity of in-person decision-making for prompt, effective crisis response.
The representative of Kenya, also speaking for the other elected members of the Council, stressed the need to “agree on working methods which can withstand pandemics”. The Council should initially agree that meetings conducted via video-teleconference be considered “formal” meetings to which the Provisional Rules of Procedure apply, and conduct field visits virtually when travel is not possible. Spotlighting the Council’s non-representative composition and the chilling effect of the veto power, he called for that power to be used with restraint, especially on actions aimed to prevent or end mass atrocities.
To that end, France’s representative said that his country has proposed the voluntarily suspension of veto use in cases of mass atrocities, in an effort to improve the Council’s efficacy. Warning that convening too many public meetings undermines the Council’s ability to adequately respond to crises, he stressed: “We spend too long presenting our positions, and too little time working on compromises and joint action.” He stated that the Council’s adapted working methods came at a price — deviating from the Rules of Procedure and undermining multilingualism — and that the time has come to stop holding virtual meetings.
The representative of the Russian Federation — whose delegation has been advocating for a return to in-person meetings since July 2020, when health conditions in New York began improving considerably — underscored that virtual meetings cannot be considered “official”. There is no need to institutionalize those temporary measures or adopt hybrid formats, he stressed, as the use of poorly developed initiatives can undermine the Council’s work, which demands rapidity and consensus.
Also speaking were representatives of China, the United Kingdom and the United States.
At the close of the meeting, the representative of Estonia, in his capacity as Council President for June, read a list of those Member States that had submitted written statements for inclusion in the debate. Those were Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, El Salvador, Iran, Italy, Japan, Kuwait and Singapore.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 11:30 a.m.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), speaking in her capacity as Chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions, gave an overview of the Council’s adapted working methods in response to the “acute disruption” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over one year into the crisis, the Council continues to convene, negotiate and adopt resolutions, ensure the timely renewal of mandates, maintain its engagement with other United Nations entities and wider membership and incorporate multilingualism into its open video-teleconferences. The extraordinary circumstances under which the Council has been operating demonstrate a need for it to “remain agile and responsive to all situations that may disrupt its functioning”, she said, adding that the Informal Working Group — which meets approximately every five weeks — remains critical to that end. Meanwhile, a standing agenda item gives presidencies the opportunity to reflect on the Council’s working methods during their respective months, assessing best practices, challenges and areas for further movement.
Detailing the Council’s gradual return to the Chamber, she said that today’s open debate is timely as ordinary functioning is returning. It will allow members to listen to the wider United Nations membership’s comments about the Council’s achievements and suggestions for its working methods. “The unforeseen COVID-19 challenges and constraints have given us much to consider for future extraordinary circumstances,” she observed, drawing particular attention to the status of video-teleconferences and how to facilitate the participation of the wider membership therein. Other issues to consider include how to secure multilingualism, produce comprehensive records and undertake procedural votes. She emphasized, however, that “modern technology can never replace interactive communication and the quality of engagement among Council members in person”.
LORAINE SIEVERS, co-author of the fourth edition of The Procedure of the UN Security Council, pointed out that the most pressing issue for the Council in 2020 was how to adopt resolutions following the cessation of in-person meetings after 12 March. As Council resolutions — depending on their wording — are binding decisions, any alternative to in-person voting would have to survive rigorous legal scrutiny. While the written voting procedure to which the Council agreed in March 2020 has been “perhaps unduly time-consuming and convoluted”, it has met the necessary requirements of legality and verifiability. Noting that there are currently 16 presidential letters on the Council’s pandemic working methods, she detailed several options for how the organ may consolidate them for future reference.
She also highlighted that the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure apply to all official meetings, allowing for the resolution of procedural disagreements through procedural votes. In contrast, meetings not deemed official — including pandemic video-teleconferences — require consensus for procedural decisions, which has created occasional delays or even blockages. Detailing the misunderstanding and subsequent damage to the Council’s reputation that arises due to the assumption that the Rules’ “provisional” nature equates to loose guidelines that can be casually discarded, she noted that the Rules were in fact adopted at the Council’s first meeting in 1946. The word “provisional” remained as a political signal that the Council intended to revisit outstanding voting issues stemming from Cold War tensions. She confirmed, however, that the Rules can be applied as currently written.
KARIN LANDGREN, Executive Director of Security Council Report, said the not-for-profit organization she heads aims to contribute, in an informed and impartial manner, to the Council’s effectiveness, transparency and accountability. The Council’s rapid agreement on new ways to work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was historic. Noting that its ground-breaking arrangements have now been tested for 15 months, she said members have found that videoconference meetings can save considerable time. More senior ministers and heads of Government join and chair the Council’s open debates, and subsidiary body meetings are never constrained by a lack of meeting rooms. Daily agendas and draft resolutions are now circulated electronically, in a fine example of environmental awareness. Digital platforms have truly shown their value to the Council.
At the same time, she noted, COVID-19 restrictions struck at the heart of international diplomacy, leaving Council members without face-to-face negotiations and the myriad informal opportunities to explore possible ways forward, where personal relationships deepen, and trust can develop. The new best practice for the Council may be found in hybrid working methods that balance the remote with the proximate, she said, adding that while numerous technical difficulties have gradually been resolved, some fundamental procedural challenges had arisen. Key among those is the question of whether videoconferences would be considered “official” meetings. In that regard, she asked: Were they not official, how would the Council perform certain essential tasks, such as adopting resolutions to renew mandates that would otherwise expire?
Against the backdrop of its new methods, she said, the Council quickly found ways to perform its most essential tasks. It renewed mission and sanctions mandates — even establishing a new peace operation — while holding briefings and debates on its agenda items. Videoconference meetings made all that possible and, at times, easier. Though technical malfunctions have become fewer and users more proficient, the level of security risk perceived in the organ’s digital platforms may be ripe for re-assessment. Noting that the decision to make videoconference meetings “informal” may have brought some unintended constraints, she said voting on resolutions — a feature of formal meetings — has been encumbered by a written procedure. The accompanying oral explanations of vote, a boon to the Council’s transparency, have been eliminated. Meanwhile, no procedural votes, which require a formal meeting, have been held during videoconferences.
Emphasizing that Council members may wish to give serious consideration to ways of enabling procedural votes and treating videoconference meetings as “official” going forward, she said live engagement with peace operations and other situations on the organ’s agenda will be crucial as in-person meetings and travel resume. It has been 20 months since the Council’s last visiting mission. Some elected members are about to begin the final quarter of their Council tenures without ever having benefited from a field trip. Stressing that such missions can strengthen Council members’ sense of ground realities and the effect of their decisions, she proposed that they consider consolidating their own travel schedule and those of the heads of sanctions committees and other subsidiary bodies, for greater coherence and effectiveness. The Council could deploy “mini-missions”, rather than full-scale ones, with members who remain in New York having the option to join virtually. “The active use of existing tools, and the ready development of new ones, need not end as COVID-19 recedes,” she said, concluding that the organ can retain existing good practices, resurrect worthwhile older ones “and continue to break new ground”.
GENG SHUANG (China), noting the interim working methods adopted by the Council to maintain business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the organ must reflect on its experiences and identify best practices and shortcomings in order to face future challenges. To that end, he offered several lessons informed by China’s Presidencies in March 2020 and May 2021, including the need to uphold true multilateralism by addressing international affairs through consultation aimed at consensus. Stressing that unity among members demonstrates the Council’s power and strength and remains the source of its authority, he called on members to accommodate each other’s concerns and avoid resorting to a vote whenever a difference arises. “It is untenable for the Council to be everything to everyone,” he said, underscoring that instead the organ must focus on addressing urgent issues relating to international peace and security and exercise prudence when introducing new topics for consideration.
MARTIN KIMANI (Kenya), also speaking on behalf of the other elected members of the Council (Estonia, India, Ireland, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Viet Nam), stressed the need to “agree on working methods which can withstand pandemics”. Proposing the initial step of agreeing that meetings conducted via video teleconference be considered as “formal” Council meetings to which the Provisional Rules of Procedure apply, he said those include participation by non-members and real-time voting on procedural and substantive matters. Written contributions by non-Council Member States are a poor substitution for their participation in open debates, he said, calling for a progressive approach to that issue in which meetings would combine both in-person and virtual participation.
He suggested that Council field visits — important for understanding the physical settings of conflicts — can also be conducted virtually, but only when travel is not possible. Highlighting the need for the Council to “strike a healthy balance” between public and private meetings to increase transparency and interactivity, he urged that interpretation be provided for both open and closed meetings. He also called for the provision of capacity-building to incoming Council members immediately upon their election, in order to ensure a smoother rollover of elected membership by, inter alia, “demystifying” penholdership arrangements. Further, the informal process of consultations with incoming members should begin as early as possible, and the views and expertise of such members must be taken into account when selecting the Chairs for subsidiary bodies. Emphasizing that the Council remains the only United Nations organ that lacks a truly representative composition, he said the veto power or threat thereof continues to prevent it from acting on vital matters. He therefore called for restraint in the veto’s use, especially on actions aimed to prevent and end mass atrocities, which constitute “the very heart of this Council’s mandate”.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) highlighted two positive developments resulting from the Council’s use of virtual working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic, namely: Increased inclusion of diverse voices from the field, such as those of civil society members, women peacebuilders and youth; and greater visibility and weight given to issues of international concern, such as the impact of climate change on security. There have been downsides, however. She pointed out that “agility doesn’t just mean being able to convene”; rather, it is about the Council’s responsiveness to emerging issues of concern, which the current working methods have inhibited. She noted that objections from a single Council member have prevented formal meetings from being held via video teleconference since March 2020 and, without the procedural mechanisms necessary to resolve disagreements, the Council’s ability to discuss new or existing agenda items substantively, or bring visibility to issues when needed, has suffered. Going forward, she called on members to address the risks of conflict before they escalate and to explain its deliberations where possible through press elements.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said the Council’s adapted working methods came at a price, forcing the organ to deviate from the established Rules of Procedure and undermining multilingualism, which is a fundamental value of the Organization. Welcoming the return to the chamber, he said the time has come to stop holding virtual meetings. While the return to normal must be gradual, he voiced regret that the in-person participation of all Member States in open debates is not yet possible. To improve the Council’s effectiveness, France, alongside Mexico, is proposing to voluntarily suspend the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities. Noting that the five Council members elected for the term of 2022-2023 all support that initiative, he added that the liberty of any member to table a text at any time, on any subject, should be preserved. Noting his delegation’s openness to a regular rotation allowing elected members to head up subsidiary bodies, he said interactive dialogues and Arria formula meetings should not come at the expense of the time needed for responding to crises. Convening too many public meetings undermines decision-making, he stressed, declaring: “We spend too long presenting our positions, and too little time working on compromises and joint action.”
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), noting that the debate on working methods was chaired by Estonia for two years in a row, described the topic as “sensitive”. Any changes must increase the Council’s effectiveness and promptness in discharging its mandate, he said, warning that the use of poorly developed initiatives can undermine the organ’s work. There should be no haste and decisions must be taken by consensus. Recalling that his delegation advocated for a prompt return to in-person meetings in July 2020, as the situation evolved in New York, he said COVID-19 provided a chance to evaluate the importance of face-to-face interactions, which remain indispensable. Videoconference meetings worked on a temporary basis, but they cannot be considered “official”, he insisted, stressing that there is no need to institutionalize those temporary measures or adopt hybrid formats. He also cautioned against the trend in recent years for the Council to discuss thematic issues outside its prerogative, violating the established division of labour with the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and other organs. Also questioning the effectiveness of the “penholder” system, he rejected attempts by some Council members to intentionally delay the submission of draft resolutions or make changes just before a vote.
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS (United States) said the Council has persevered and adapted during the pandemic to fulfil its mandate, renewing the mandates of peace operations and carrying out vital work. As the Council convened virtually via videoconference, the world could see the organ continue its work. However, virtual meetings have not enjoyed the status of official meetings and, as such, the Rules of Procedure do not apply. Due to the opposition of one member, the Council was not able to act on procedural matters. Emphasizing that such a state of affairs is not acceptable, he said the Council should establish a sound legal and procedural footing in working methods, recalling that the General Assembly adopted a measure allowing it to vote electronically. Similarly, the Council should be able to establish virtual formats as “official” meetings to which the Rules of Procedure would apply.
Ms. KING, taking the floor again to respond to the foregoing discussion, thanked her colleagues for their observations and underscored that the open debate provides the Council with the opportunity to engage with the wider United Nations membership. While COVID-19 has challenged the quality of that engagement, the Council’s resilience did not falter as it creatively adapted its working methods in response. Noting that the open debate was not convened in its usual format, she expressed her hope that the next one will allow for the joint assembly of the Council and Member States. Until then, the organ will consider the written statements submitted with the aim of strengthening its working methods.
Ms. SIEVERS, spotlighting the unusual conditions that prevailed in 2020 and the many changes brought about by COVID-19, said the Council is unlikely to return to “business as usual”. Among other things, she pointed out the critical role of the presidency during the pandemic and welcomed suggestions to further strengthen it, both individually and in cooperation with other presidencies.
Ms. LANDGREN said that it was encouraging to hear a discussion cognizant of the need to constantly optimize the Council’s working methods to better engage with the wider United Nations membership. She also welcomed discussions aimed at keeping the membership, along with the public, informed about the Council’s deliberations. Recalling that the organ also has the option to meet outside of New York — and that it has done so in the past, but not since 2004 — she suggested adding this option to the list of future working methods under consideration.