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Security Council Working Methods: A Tale of Two Councils?

This is Security Council Report’s third Special Research Report on the working methods of the Security Council, following Security Council Transparency, Legitimacy and Effectiveness: Efforts to Reform Council Working Methods 1993-2007 (18 October 2007) and Security Council Working Methods: A Work in Progress? (30 March 2010). The full report can be downloaded in PDF.

Summary and Conclusions

Our recent research—examining almost exactly four years of developments within the Security Council, its Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions and its other subsidiary bodies and comparing them to earlier findings—shows that several of the same issues continue to be the key topics in discussions about Council working methods. These include transparency, participation, accountability and efficiency. In the years since the end of the Cold War— when the Council began significantly modifying its working methods in response to the increased range and number of issues it was called upon to address—up until the beginning of the current decade, there were essentially two approaches to and two perspectives on working methods: from inside and from outside the Council. In the past four or five years, an emerging new feature observed in these discussions seems to be an important set of concerns coming from within the Council, regarding its internal transparency and participation, and the perception of a growing gap between the permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council.

Our recent research also suggests that progress on working methods is not linear and sometimes it is outright circular, such that:

  • some working methods, despite calls by nearly all Council members for their reform, never change;
  • some past working methods, initially welcomed and embraced, are abandoned or discontinued by the Security Council;
  • some working methods seem to be abandoned only to be rediscovered and revived years later; and
  • some working methods, while continuing to be used, become less nimble and usually take considerably more time to be applied.

Yet, the Council has continued to be the most adaptable international body, at times capable of modifying its methods of work literally on the spot.

Since the publication of our 2010 Special Research Report on working methods, several working methods concerns have been constructively addressed, either by the Council itself or by the Secretariat. Among the recent new practices undertaken by the Council particularly worth highlighting are:

  • annual open debates on working methods;
  • greater transparency of some subsidiary bodies;
  • substantive changes in the listing and delisting working methods of Council sanctions committees;
  • the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsperson for the 1267/1989 Al- Qaida Sanctions Committee; and
  • the development of more productive working relationships with regional organisations.

In parallel with the efforts undertaken by the Council to address some of the concerns coming from inside and outside the Council, the Security Council Affairs Division of the Secretariat undertook a major overhaul of the content and the design of the Security Council website. Some key new features include:

  • the improved overall user-friendliness of the website;
  • the development of new periodic, publicly available documents, such as the annual “Highlights of the Security Council Practice” published since 2011 and the “Reporting and Mandate Cycles” published monthly since November 2012; and
  • the inclusion on the website of past monthly programmes of work of the Council and of past monthly Council “Tentative Forecasts of Work” prepared by the Secretariat (going back to January 2011).

In undertaking the preparation of this report, SCR felt that a broader look at the evolution of working methods seemed warranted at this point. While concentrating on and analysing the current state of play and most recent working methods developments, this Special Research Report also seeks to create a historical record of certain working methods and to provide an overview of their evolution since the end of the Cold War in particular, through thirteen case studies.

In the four years since the publication of our last Special Research Report on Working Methods, a feature that has probably been among the most visible aspects of Council dynamics in the context of working methods has been the increasing gap between permanent and non-permanent members. Non-permanent members have increasingly raised serious concerns about internal transparency and the fact that in practice the Council often operates in two subgroups, with non-permanent members becoming privy to many issues considerably later than the P5.

Interestingly, despite the continuing and growing perception that the Security Council operates in two subgroups, the non-permanent members have lately not shown much desire to use the leverage they at times had in the past when they banded together as the E10. In forgoing coordination as E10, they surrender the considerable leverage their numbers would afford them. While it is true that they may have very different positions on the various agenda items before the Council, this is no less true of the P5, who nonetheless coordinate as appropriate, especially on working methods.

The divide between the permanent and non-permanent members has also increased with the quiet emergence and subsequent consolidation of the penholder system, whereby nearly all situation-specific decisions are drafted by the P3 and then negotiated with China and Russia before circulation to the non-permanent members. Since 2010, non-permanent members have not shown a true desire to use the pen, thereby ensuring themselves of an early start in the drafting and negotiating process. What was a common practice in the past has become an exception.

There appear to be several lessons to be drawn from the last four years of developments in the evolution of Council working methods. The ongoing tension regarding working methods between the P5 and the rest of the UN membership—with the former pointing to Article 30 of the UN Charter and the latter invoking Article 10—will most likely continue into the future unless there is a shared understanding as to the merits and benefits of improved working methods. Finding a common agreement as to the appropriate balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and the privacy and flexibility required by the Security Council to appropriately exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security on the other hand, will be difficult, but not impossible.

None of the P5 has maintained that Council working methods are perfect. To the contrary, most P5 are on record as stating that there is considerable room for improvement in the area of Council working methods. Beyond the P5, it may be useful to keep in mind that 188 UN member states, whether or not they aspire to a permanent seat on the Security Council, would undoubtedly benefit from improved Council working methods. In fact, of all the issues under discussion in the on-going debates on Security Council reform, the one issue that would equally benefit all 188 member states (if not all 193), is improved working methods. Yet working methods, which do not require amending the UN Charter, remain inexplicably linked to the more sensitive and divisive debate on the enlargement of the Security Council. In tying the fate of improved working methods to a debate that many member states see as a zero-sum game, which must in addition overcome the improbable hurdle set by Article 108 of the UN Charter, low-hanging gains that would accrue in equal measure to all member states are forgone for uncertain gains for some.

The recently created group of like-minded states interested in Council working methods, ACT, whose membership numbered 23 as of late March 2014, and included member states from all regions, could play a significant role in improving the working methods of the Security Council. With its combined resources, ACT is capable of providing ongoing tracking of working methods developments and a focused, consistent advocacy on these issues. It also offers a promise of establishing a distinct track and identity for Council working methods issues that would be separate from the deeply politicised debate on wider Security Council reform.

Finally, it is also worth to point out that on some aspects of working methods reform the momentum within the Council often hinges less on the issues themselves and more on the political courage shown by Council members, first and foremost, and the ingenuity, personality and audacity of individual permanent representatives. As Charles Dickens argued in A Tale of Two Cities, and this Special Research Report has demonstrated with regards to working methods, it is simply not true “that things in general were settled for ever”, whether in “the best of times” or “the worst of times”. It is therefore no surprise that those with an interest in and commitment to a particular working method, regardless of whether they are a permanent or non-permanent member, have usually enjoyed some degree of success. This bodes well for future advocates for working methods reform.

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