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Security Council Working Methods: Provisional Progress


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After over a year of intense work, the Security Council reached agreement on 30 August 2017 on the most complete compendium to date of its working methods, its Note by the President of the Security Council S/2017/507. This is thus an appropriate moment to undertake an analysis of the dynamics and processes that built the Council’s body of working methods. While examining particularly closely the most recent developments within the Security Council and its Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions, this report also takes a longer-term look at the role of the non-permanent—or elected—Council members in shaping and codifying Security Council working methods.

Elected members bring to the process of developing working methods an approach that complements that of the permanent members by providing a perspective from outside the Council. They can appreciate what is particularly important to the membership at large, and many undertake to focus on particular aspects of working methods while they serve on the Council. In some cases, they have taken the initiative to work on particular aspects of working methods in fulfilment of commitments made while running for the Council.

It is no accident that two aspects of working methods, in whose development the elected members took a particularly clear lead, are those in which the interest from the general membership is particularly high: sanctions and the relationship with troop- and police-contributing countries. For the wider membership, which bears the brunt of the burden in implementing Council decisions regarding these two areas, there has been a natural demand from capitals for better advance notice of likely decisions and better opportunities for input. In the early post-Cold War era, when the resort to sanctions and peacekeeping increased dramatically, many non-members of the Council expressed concerns about being passive recipients of Council decisions after the event. Knowing what issues the Council was likely to discuss, and why and when they were to be discussed, were among the most basic hurdles encountered by non-Council members hoping to have any kind of impact on the Council. Naturally, they expected their elected colleagues to help them address these difficulties. Working methods related to sanctions and the relationship with the troop- and police-contributing countries are two areas that this report will discuss in separate case studies.

The Security Council’s working methods derive from the UN Charter and the Provisional Rules of Procedure, but their development over the years has largely been based in practice rather than grounded in specific documents. During the Council’s first 45 years, how things were done was something of an oral tradition, passed on from one diplomatic generation to another. The pace and the volume of outcomes were for the most part low, and precedents, on which many working methods were built, were relatively easy to trace when need arose. Because of their countries’ continuous presence on the Council, this institutional memory resided largely with the permanent members.

Starting in the early 1990s, the activity of the Security Council increased dramatically because of shifts in the political dynamics following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Council embarked on numerous activities for the first time, creating new working methods as it went along. During that early post-Cold War period, several of the elected members were as active in taking the initiative as the permanent ones. There was also an increased need and demand for capturing the emerging new practices in written documents to provide guidance on new working methods and consistency in their application.

In this first period after the end of the Cold War, there was also a much greater interest than ever before from the outside in the Council’s work overall and its working methods in particular. That interest was particularly acute because many of the decisions adopted during that period, especially those concerning what became the Council’s most frequently used tools—peacekeeping and sanctions—could only be implemented with the active cooperation of the broad UN membership.

Over the years, member states have repeatedly called on the Council to update the Rules of Procedure to reflect the Council’s changing work reality and to terminate the rules’ “provisional” status. Indeed, the Rules of Procedure, which were adopted in 1946 as “provisional”, are still considered provisional to this day, more than 70 years later. Yet they constitute the only official set of rules guiding the working methods of the Council. They have been revised seven times, but all of the revisions were minor. Moreover, none were made in the post-Cold War era, when the most dramatic changes occurred in Council practice. (The last time the rules were amended was in 1982, to add Arabic as one of the official working languages.)

Some diplomats and observers have pointed out that there are pragmatic reasons to keep the rules in their provisional form: it gives the Council more flexibility and allows it to adapt better and faster to the changing international environment. Others have noted that the lack of formally binding procedures creates doubt, leaving everyone other than the permanent members (P5) of the Council on an uncertain footing. Yet it could be argued that throughout its post-Cold War history, the Council has continued to be the most adaptable international body, at times capable of modifying its working methods literally on the spot.

However, this tension between the desire to avoid the constraint of a formal decision and the demands for clarity and transparency was probably what led the Council to develop a practice, starting in the early 1990s, of capturing most of its new or modified working methods in separate documents, mainly in Notes by the President of the Security Council. These are formal Council documents, but they are not decisions. They are used for a number of purposes (for example, the transmittal of a report by another body or a letter from a member state), but since 1993, almost all understandings and agreements among Council members regarding working methods have been articulated through this format. Also in 1993, the Council established an informal subsidiary body, its Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (the IWG), which has served as the venue for some of the key working methods discussions.

This report will examine the activities of the IWG and its transformation from a sometimes ephemeral entity with a chairmanship rotating monthly to an active and firmly established subsidiary body, after its chairmanship began to be held by a single elected member throughout the year (or two years), starting in 2006.

We will also analyse the elaboration in 2006 and subsequent modifications of the key compendium produced by the IWG of nearly all agreed working methods (with the exception of most working methods concerning sanctions and the relationship with troop- and police-contributing countries), commonly referred to as “Note 507”. (The first Note by the President of the Security Council containing agreed working methods in a single volume was issued as UN document S/2006/507 and resulted from several months of sustained work by the IWG under the leadership of Japan. The two subsequent versions, in 2010 and 2017, were also elaborated under the Japanese chairmanship of the IWG and were issued with the same number, 507, to make it easier for those interested to find the document.)

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