UN Security Council Debate: Working Methods

Ministry Statements & Speeches:

Statement delivered by Gerard van Bohemen Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations, 11 February 2016.

Thank you Mr President.

New Zealand welcomes the opportunity today to discuss an important and often overlooked aspect of the Council’s work. I thank the Permanent Representative of Sweden and Deputy Permanent Representative of Chile for their very useful briefings.

There are 25 subsidiary organs of the Security Council and more than half of these are sanctions committees. Sanctions are one of the few tools we have, short of force, to deal with situations that threaten international peace and security.  They can and do have a useful impact, whether that is constraining the flow of arms into a conflict, incentivising individuals to refrain from activities that jeopardise prospects for peace, or signalling to a belligerent state that its actions will not be tolerated. In the areas of counter-terrorism and non-proliferation, UN sanctions form a central element of the international community’s efforts to reduce the capacity of relevant parties to do harm.

Mr President.

The implementation and overall effectiveness of these measures rely on the effective functioning of the sanctions committees. By that, I mean timely and informed decision-making; clear strategic direction and flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. It also means transparency through engagement with key stakeholders to understand any unintended consequences of the sanctions measures. While in our view, there is little evidence to suggest unintended consequences are prevalent, we need to be prepared to respond to any in a flexible manner.

Mr President.

For 10 of us around this table, chairing these bodies is part of our Council responsibilities. There are three times as many committees now as when New Zealand was last on the Council in 1994, but there is no forum to discuss them in any comprehensive way. For that reason, New Zealand has welcomed the initiative of Venezuela in organising this meeting. 

In our view, there are several questions we need to ask: Are the frameworks that administer these organs working as effectively as they could? Are they sufficiently integrated into the Council’s wider work? And are we satisfied that their measures are being implemented properly, and if not, what should we do about it?

I wish to make three main points.

First, these committees have allowed formal process to get in the way of outcomes.  Decisions that 20 years ago would have been within a chair’s ambit, are now expected to be agreed by all committee members by consensus.  As Chair of two sanctions committees, I am prevented from doing the simplest of tasks. I cannot invite someone to a committee meeting, send a letter or do due diligence on allegations of non-compliance without the agreement of all 15 members.  Being unable to agree on the simplest of follow-up actions on allegations of non-compliance, is, quite frankly, ridiculous. It is absurd that my predecessor, Sir Jim McLay, was told he could not convene an open briefing of the then-Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee without the Committee’s agreement, even though there was a Chapter VII resolution requesting him to hold such a briefing. 

This prescription of process and the archaic formalism of the committees frustrate efficiency and strangle innovation. It also needlessly takes up valuable time of ambassadors and experts.  Process is important we agree, but we should not allow it to obstruct our primary goal as a Council for maintaining international peace and security.

We should remember that sanctions committees operate entirely in informal mode.  There are no rules of procedure, no records. They operate under ‘guidelines’ that have no formal status.  Yet somehow we have allowed them to become so constrained by their working methods that they are in effect subject to 15 vetoes.  This is nonsense. Second, there needs to be greater coherence between the work of the subsidiary bodies and related discussions in the Council’s broader work. Sanctions are not imposed in isolation; but, save for a few formulaic briefings if we are lucky, we discuss them as if they were. This needs to change. We need to include sanctions in our conversations on country-specific situations. If not, we lose sight of their purpose. 

Most of the committees have expert bodies which produce excellent reports. Too often though, those reports are buried in the Committee and the valuable information they contain never reaches the decision makers.  We need to find processes that enable those experts to present their information to the wider Council, and which will allow for the Chair to provide honest assessments of the effectiveness and continuing purpose of the committees that they chair.  Let’s be frank, this does require the Permanent Members to change their approach and stop trying to vet and censor everything a Chair says or does.

Third, we need to help elected members better prepare for their participation in subsidiary bodies.  In my experience, it is the permanent members who participate most actively in these committees, while it is the elected members who are saddled with the administrative tasks and frustrations of chairing them. Elected members do not campaign to be on the Council simply to make up the numbers.

We see two key ways to address this.  For one, we believe the Council should appoint committee chairs, including perhaps by spreading the burden to permanent members, through a more transparent process, well before the term commences.   This would be fairer, more inclusive and would promote a more positive atmosphere in the Council. The change to the election of new members in June provides an opportunity for this to be done.  Early appointment would also allow incoming members to prepare better for their new responsibilities. 

We also support convening regular informal meetings for experts who are supporting the committee chairs, in order to discuss crosscutting issues and to assist with the passing on of expertise to incoming members. This would help address the lack of institutional knowledge for elected members and afford a smoother transition between chairs.  It would also provide a forum for achieving greater coherence between the subsidiary bodies and promote the use of best practice.

Ultimately, as with all broader working methods in this Council, these issues are unlikely to be resolved overnight, or via resolution or Presidential Statement. Much of the practice of these bodies is unwritten.  The main reform we want to see is a change to the current culture of formality and exclusivity. This is a simple matter of behaviour, which can and must change.


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