A Year in the Life of an Elected Member: Lessons Learned on the Security Council

Event Video: 

On July 23rd, IPI held an information-sharing discussion on the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful body in the UN system, among 15 ambassadors of countries who are current or recent members of the Council or primed­­ to join it next year, and a select group of experts.

The event was prompted by the English language release of the book With an Orange Tie: A Year on the Security Council by Karel van Oosterom, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN. Ambassador van Oosterom served on the Council in 2018, as part of an historic compromise under which the Netherlands shared the 2017-2018 term with Italy.

The moderator of the event was IPI Vice President Adam Lupel, who began the discussion with a tantalizing preview of the book: “It mixes political insight about relations between the elected members and the veto-wielding P5, accessible explanations of procedural arcana, and chronicles of debates about top issues like Syria and Yemen with personal anecdotes and intimate insider details such as which are the most comfortable seats around the Security Council table or when you are allowed -or not-a snack during deliberations.” Pointing out that elections to the Council had now been advanced from October to June, affording new members more preparation time, Dr. Lupel noted that the book “shares useful knowledge and experience for incoming members, to be better prepared and make the Council more effective, which is in everybody’s interest.”

Ambassador van Oosterom said his book was particularly focused on enhancing the experience of the ten elected members of the 15-member council, known as the E10, who serve two-year terms alongside the five veto-bearing permanent members, known as the P5. “The purpose of this English translation is to make the E10 stronger,” he said. “P5 members have their own archives of experiences, but for the E10, a term on the Council is a once in a lifetime event. We can all benefit from each other’s stories. Incoming members should look to current members for guidance.”

He said the E10 were too often intimidated by the P5 and shouldn’t be. “There are around 30 subsidiary organs, and in recent years, the permanent members have largely been the ones to take up the pen, and the heaviest workload of chairing the subsidiary organs has fallen to the E10. We tried to change that, but didn’t succeed.” In a comment aimed at incoming members of the Council, he counseled, “Make sure the P5 get some of this workload as they have the time to do it, and deputies are allowed to do it. This is an unfair division of labor, which leaves less time for your priorities. Don’t accept being framed as non- permanent by the P5. You’re the elected ones. Say, ‘If I’m non-permanent, then you’re non-elected.’”

Ambassador van Oosterom warned that “if a P5 member is close to an issue on the agenda, the chances of reaching an agreement are slim. There is a big difference between what they talk about and what our products are. In 2018, the Council spoke the most about Syria, but Syria figures very little in press statements. Results on the Palestine question are similarly absent.” In that connection, he added, “My biggest frustration was not being able to refer the killing of more than 500,000 people in Syria to the ICC [International Criminal Court] or a special tribunal.”

Accompanied by a slide whimsically entitled “The Hamster Syndrome,” he said the workload for Council members had tripled from 1990 to 2018, with many more meetings, resolutions, presidential and press statements, formal visits, peacekeeping operations, and subsidiary organs. “Delegations need to be sufficiently staffed; claim enough diplomats from your capitals. The agenda is overloaded—formally 69 items.” Consequently, “if you don’t have established priorities, you get lost.”

With demands this great, he said, even personal fitness becomes an issue. “Stories of working day and night and on the weekends intimidate colleagues. Be aware, plan ahead for the health and well-being of your colleagues and team.” He recalled that the Council had been traumatized by the death in April 2018 of a Council colleague, Bernard Tanoh–Boutchoue, the Permanent Representative of Côte d’Ivoire.

Ambassador van Oosterom emphasized the importance of learning the ropes ahead of time. “Procedural challenges are one of the most difficult parts of the Council, and make sure your team knows them inside and out.” If one arises and you have any doubts about it, he advised, suspend the meeting, move to a consultation room and solve it there with the assistance of an expert.

He talked light-heartedly about some of the “bizarre” unwritten rules of the Council chamber and several instances in 2018 when they had been broken. The entry of Nikki Haley, the American Permanent Representative, was blocked when she tried to enter with a cup of coffee, and a meeting was stopped because Peter Wilson, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, was eating a breakfast sandwich. Other rules of the consultation rooms, like keeping the curtains closed or not shedding your jacket on warm days are moments to declare independence, he said. “You have to break these rules to own the room and let the P5 know that you are truly part of the Council. It gets very hot; take off your jacket!”

Inga Rhonda King, Permanent Representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said she wanted to “debunk the many criticisms that the Council has been unable to do its work, that we have been slow to get started [during the pandemic].” She countered that in June the Council had 50 virtual meetings compared to 44 meetings the year before, that it had held 170 virtual meetings since March 24th and that the number of resolutions adopted was almost identical for the same period of time.

Kairat Umarov, Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan, conceded that the work of the Council had suffered from “polarization. The Security Council is very divided. We need to improve and overcome this through dialogue and trust. And it’s not only about building trust between the E10 and the P5, but also between the P5 themselves.”

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union delegation to the UN and former Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN, acknowledged the divisions on the Council and the damage they cause and said the solution should come from the E10. “That’s where building alliances is important. We are the elected members, we have a completely different view of the need to deliver during our short terms on the Council. That makes us think differently than the big countries, who can afford to have a show or use their veto to block something whereas we should always try to find solutions. The E10 need to stick together. You need to come together especially when the P5 aren’t able to deliver because they are lost in blockages. “

Geraldine Byrne Nason, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN, expressed appreciation for the book as her country prepares to join the Council. “It’s 20 years since Ireland was on the Council. There isn’t much of a folk memory for the procedural arcana or what works and what doesn’t. We’re thinking about the relationship between the E10 and the P5. We’re asked whether we can hope to do anything, given the P5 veto. My answer is always, ‘Yes. We’re an elected member with the legitimacy of the General Assembly behind us.’”

Odd Inge Kvalheim, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway, another incoming country, said, “ This sharing of experiences is extremely important for us as an incoming member. We are all ears to the experiences of others. In terms of carrying the torch, there’s been a development over time in how elected members can make a difference.”

Juan Ramon de la Fuente Ramirez, Permanent Representative of Mexico, another incoming country, said he too was concerned about the “increased polarization” on the Council. ”We have the impression that existing differences seem to be more evident. The fact that it took almost 4 months to agree to the Secretary-General’s resolution to call for a global ceasefire is testimony of this.”

India is also coming onto the Council, and its Permanent Representative, T.S. Tirumurti, commented, “I got an excellent picture of the increase in the workload and how the discussions don’t correlate to the outcomes.”

Francisco Duarte Lopes, Permanent Representative of Portugal, said he wondered to what extent interventions and advice from civil society were listened to and taken into account.

Karin Landgren, Executive Director of Security Council Report, said she hoped there could be a way to cultivate stronger links between the Council and other principal UN organs like the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Loraine Sievers, co-author of The Procedure of the UN Security Council said, “One thing that becomes clear is how long it takes for the Council to evolve. There are few revolutions. Change is incremental. Sometimes elected members don’t see the seed that they planted bear fruit until long after they’ve left.”

Mansour Ayyad Sh. Al-Otaibi, Permanent Representative of Kuwait, said he had noticed “great movement” in recent years towards empowering the E10. “The E10 should be united, not against the P5, but to carry on the mandate of the Council and to make the Council more efficient and transparent.”

Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, wondered if there were times when Ambassador van Oosterom had felt tensions between his EU identity and his E10 identity.

Ameirah Alhefeitii, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates, asked if the role of the E10 could be “enhanced” given the diversity of the group.

Taye Atske Selassie Amde, the Permanent Representative of Ethiopia, said it was important that “New York and your capital should be on the same page and speak with one voice. Otherwise, you will be a Spanish piñata, especially for the P5.”

Both Besiana Kadare, the Permanent Representative of Albania, and Vanessa Frazier, the Permanent Representative of Malta, asked Ambassador van Oosterom if, despite all his preparation, he had been caught by surprise by anything, and he said, “I did not realize that the seats rotate after one month.”

The event concluded with reflections by Ambassador van Oosterom, who stated that the conversation had proven it was useful to share experiences that help incoming members prepare, and to do so publicly to show the world how the Council works in practice.