The Role of Non-Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council

(Disponible en français : Le rôle des membres non permanents du Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU)

In June 2020, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly will elect 5 non-permanent members to the UN Security Council for the 2021-2022 two-year term. Canada is a candidate in these elections, along with Ireland and Norway, for the two seats available to the Western European and Others Group. Canada has been elected to the council six times, most recently in 1999-2000.

A previous HillNote looked at the process by which these elections are held. This HillNote considers the role played by non-permanent members (NPMs) in the Security Council’s work.

Entrusted with maintaining international peace and security by the UN Charter, membership in the UN Security Council brings significant responsibility and the opportunity for global influence. The council is called upon to tackle crises around the world and has the power to impose legally binding measures on UN members, including measures related to the use of force. The council is also responsible for overseeing the complex and dangerous work of the UN’s more than two dozen peacekeeping and political missions.

Many see the council as dominated by its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), who, in addition to their veto power, can leverage their tenure, institutional memory and greater resources to determine council outcomes.

Despite this perception, the council’s 10 non-permanent members, collectively and individually, can, and do, make tangible contributions to the council and have the ability to influence its decisions. Current and past NPMs have emphasized that being an effective NPM requires seizing the opportunities provided by the council’s procedures, as well as the informal methods by which much of its work is undertaken.

1. Council Procedure

Council procedures offer NPMs a number of opportunities to make tangible contributions to the council’s work. The most prominent role is the rotating council presidency, though opportunities such as chairing subsidiary bodies also offer occasions to influence specific issues.

1.1 Council Presidency

The council presidency rotates on a monthly basis among all 15 members, meaning NPMs will assume the presidency for one or two months during their terms. The president plays an important role in guiding the work of the council, with the power to influence the monthly programme of work and the conduct of meetings. This includes the opportunity for presidents to organize one or several council events around a topic of particular interest. The president is also a critical facilitator of council negotiations, and acts as the council’s representative in interactions with other UN members and entities, outside stakeholders and the public.

1.2 Subsidiary Bodies

Chairing the council’s subsidiary bodies is generally reserved for NPMs and rotates on an annual basis. With more than 20 active subsidiary bodies, NPMs can chair several concurrently. Most subsidiary bodies consist of either committees established to oversee economic sanctions regimes enacted by council resolutions or working groups focused on thematic issues relevant to the council’s work.

Past NPMs suggest that chairing subsidiary bodies provides NPMs with the opportunity to show leadership and contribute to the real-world outcomes of the council’s decisions.

2. Council Decision-Making

The council’s procedures foresee its work happening in formal meetings, where resolutions and other decisions are presented, amended and voted upon.  However, much of the council’s deliberations occurs through informal negotiations.

The council operates largely on the basis of consensus, the vast majority of resolutions, as well as all other forms of official documents, are adopted by consensus. Mechanisms such as “informal consultations of the whole”, where council members meet in private without official records being kept, allow for outcomes to be negotiated among members outside of the more structured, and usually public, formal meetings.

2.1 Penholder System

The council’s informal working methods have evolved over time. An arrangement where one or several members (known as “penholders”) lead negotiations and draft texts on recurring agenda items is an example. Developed informally in the 2000s, the penholder system has since coalesced into accepted council practice.

The system continues to evolve and has been criticized for encouraging greater intra-permanent member negotiation, to the exclusion of NPMs. Calls for a broader sharing of responsibility for “holding the pen” with NPMs has led to commitments to do so, though permanent members continue to dominate penholder positions.

2.2 Informal Meetings

Like the penholder system, council practice has evolved to include several forms of informal meetings, most notably informal interactive dialogues and Arria-formula meetings. These meetings allow the council to consider issues or meet with other entities, including other UN bodies and civil society organizations, in situations where there is no consensus on holding a formal meeting.

Both informal interactive dialogues and Arria-formula meetings may be called at the initiative of any council member or group of members. Past NPMs have found these meetings a useful means of hearing from a wider range of perspectives on a given topic while allowing the council to be more interactive and transparent with the broader UN community. Regularly initiated by NPMs, informal meetings are also an opportunity for NPMs to advance their priority issues.

3. Canada as a Non-Permanent Member

While its five permanent members undoubtedly play an outsized role in the work of the UN Security Council, NPMs participate fully in the council and are capable of influencing outcomes. Countries that enter the council well-prepared, with a good understanding of council working methods and a clear and reasonable set of priorities can make meaningful contributions on a range of issues while advancing the topics of greatest importance to them.

3.1 Council Workload

Past NPMs note, however, that being well-prepared is not without challenges. While understanding the history and context of recurring issues is invaluable to making meaningful contributions, the quantity and range of issues considered by the council can be overwhelming for even the largest national delegations.

Titled “Work of the UN Security Council: Snapshot 2018,” the infographic is a calendar showing various meetings held and decisions taken by the council in 2018. During the year, the council considered 49 agenda items, 28 of which were country-specific or regional and 21 which were thematic or other. It held 423 meetings, 275 of which were public meetings, 13 which were private meetings and 135 which were consultations. The council took 117 decisions, including passing 54 resolutions.

Source: United Nations, “Part II: Provisional rules of procedure and related procedural developments,” Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council: 21st Supplement 2018; United Nations, Report of the Security Council for 2018, A/73/2.

At any given time, the council is managing long-term security situations, which may include a significant UN presence; pursuing complex thematic agendas, like Women Peace and Security (WPS) or Children and Armed Conflict; while also considering action on immediate crises as they appear, for example the security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to participate effectively in council deliberations, NPMs must remain well-informed of the dozens of complex situations and issues that the council will consider during an NPM term, while also seizing opportunities to advance their priority issues.

3.2 Priority Issues

Membership on the Security Council provides NPMs with the opportunity to advance issues important to them. In its NPM candidacy literature, the Government of Canada commits, if it wins a seat, to linking the work of the council more closely to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The government lists five priorities it would pursue on the council, each linked to a specific SDG:

  • sustaining peace (SDG 16);
  • addressing climate change (SDG 13);
  • promoting economic security (SDG 8);
  • advancing gender equality (SDG 5); and
  • strengthening multilateralism (SDG 17).

Canada can advance these priorities during its term as an NPM by taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the council’s procedures as well as participating effectively in the council’s informal decision-making processes.

Additional Resources

United Nations Security Council, “Hitting the ground running”: seventeenth annual workshop for newly elected members of the Security Council, held on 7 and 8 November 2019 at the Greentree Foundation in Manhasset, New York, S/2020/116.

Johan Verbeke, “What Is It Like to Be a Non-Permanent Member of the UN Security Council?”, Security Policy Brief, Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations.

Security Council Report, About the UN Security Council.

Author: Scott McTaggart, Library of Parliament

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