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Updated on 29 March 2020


Section 5:   Further documentation of procedures


Security Council agrees on interim measures for voting and meeting during COVID-19


After the COVID-19 pandemic limited access to UN Headquarters, the Security Council members considered how to assure continuation of the Council’s work.  The first written outcome of their deliberations is a letter dated 27 March from the representative of China, Council President for March, to the other Council members.


The letter sets out “temporary, extraordinary and provisional measures”, agreed by the members, for enabling the Council to discharge its mandate “during the duration of the restrictions on movement in New York due to the COVID-19 pandemic”.  The letter emphasizes that the measures are not to be considered as a precedent, and that they will be assessed at the end of April.[1]


The agreed measures cover two main areas of Security Council practice – adopting resolutions and holding meetings.


1)  With respect to resolutions, the Council members have agreed to a system which, in the interim, will allow the Council to adopt resolutions without convening an official meeting.  This voting system is comprised of the following elements:


  • After Council member(s) presenting a draft resolution request that it be put into blue, the start of voting will be announced, both by a letter to Council members from the President and by notice in the Council’s programme of work. 


  • The draft may not be withdrawn once the voting procedure begins.


  • Voting by each member, within a non-extendable period of 24 hours, is to be effected by a letter from its Permanent Representative or Chargé d’affaires submitted electronically to the Director of the Security Council Affairs Division (SCAD).[2]


  • Members failing to respond within the voting period will be considered absent from the vote.


  • Receipt of each letter will be acknowledged by the SCAD Director.


  • Upon expiry of the voting period, the SCAD Director will inform the Council President of the results, which have been kept confidential until then.


  • Within three hours after the conclusion of the voting period, the President will send to Council members, as well as to Member States concerned, a letter listing every delegation’s vote and the voting outcome.  If the draft is adopted, SCAD will then provide to all these the resolution formatted in the customary way.


  • Council members may explain their vote in writing, either in their initial letter conveying their vote or in a second communication sent within six hours of receiving the President’s letter announcing the voting outcome.  Concerned Member States may, “in line with rule 37” and with the Council’s agreement, also send written statements.  The voting results and all letters will be published on the Council’s website.


  • Within 12 hours after the conclusion of the voting period, the President will convene “a video conference of the Security Council to announce the outcome of the vote.”


Importantly, the 27 March letter affirms that “Resolutions adopted through this written procedure would have the same legal status as those voted in the Chamber.”  The Council members could agree on this point because nothing in the Charter prohibits such voting arrangements.  As stated in our book (page 380),


“While the UN Charter sets out voting procedures and requirements for adopting decisions at formal meetings of the Council, nowhere does the Charter state that a formal meeting is required for the adoption of a Council decision.”


In fact, the Council has an established practice of using electronic communication to adopt substantive decisions when these are drafted in formats other than resolutions, i.e., presidential statements (PRSTs) or certain letters by the Council President.[3]  Even though in present practice formal meetings are convened to read PRSTs, in the past that was not considered necessary for their adoption to be valid.[4]


China’s letter states that if a Council member does not submit its vote by the conclusion of the 24-hour period, it will be considered absent from the voting.  There is ample past practice substantiating that a Council member’s absence from a vote does not invalidate a resolution which has received sufficient votes.  In 1946 and 1950, the Soviet Union’s absence did not invalidate the adoption of nine resolutions.  Moreover, owing to the genocide in Rwanda while that country served on the Council, its absences in 1994 did not invalidate the adoption of four resolutions.[5] 


Already on the day that the interim measures were confirmed by the Chinese letter, voting on four draft resolutions was initiated under the new system.[6]  An announcement for each was posted on the Council’s webpage (under “Daily Programme of Work”) and included in the UN Journal (under “General information”) using the following format:


“A draft resolution (S/2020/216) related to the agenda item ‘Non-proliferation/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is currently with the members of the Security Council for voting procedure.”


No announcement was made, however, on the March calendar posted on the Council’s website.


It is useful that the interim measures provide for official publication of any submitted statements on the vote by Council members and concerned States.  This will allow the Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council to record and assess each adoption, as it does in the case of resolutions adopted at meetings held in the Chamber. 


2)  In light of the inadvisability of holding meetings or consultations within the UN building during COVID-19,[7] China’s letter provided for the interim use of video conferencing.  This system was comprised of the following elements:


  • The Council members would hold video conferences which will be announced to the public and Member States 24 hours in advance.


  • Some, but not all, of these video conferences would be announced as “closed video conferences”.


  • For those video conferences not announced as closed, unless a Council member objected, Member States whose interests are “specially affected” would be invited to participate.


  • To “ensure transparency” of those VTCs not announced as closed, within the following 48 hours the Council President would circulate, as an official document, a compilation containing the interventions of briefers, as well as of Council members which sent their statements to the President for inclusion “in timely manner”. 


On 26 March, the day before China’s letter was sent, the Council members engaged in a trial run of this type of “closed” video conference, including with briefers, on the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The following day, the members held a second such video conference on Libya.  Judging by the tweets of many Council members and one briefer, both VTCs were seen as productive.


It is noteworthy that the interim measures provide the opportunity for non-Council Member States whose interests are "specially affected" to participate in VTCs which are not closed, unless a Council member objects.  This in effect applies to the video conferences the provisions of Rule 37, which are considered highly important by affected States wishing to hear directly the views of Council members and to set out their own positions.  And it will also be advantageous for Council members to continue to be able hear directly the views of affected States.  


As in the case of the statements concerning votes that will be published as official documents, it will be useful that the Council also plans to publish a document containing statements, made at VTCs not announced as closed, by both briefers and Council members wishing to be included.  This will allow the Repertoire to record and assess the context of these video conferences, although certain procedural formalities will be lacking.


One foreseeable difficulty in having each member provide a copy of its own statement is that a number of Council representatives do not limit themselves to reading out statements, but rather speak extemporaneously for at least some of their remarks.  Given the 48-hour deadline for publishing the compiled statements at VTCs as an official document, requiring translation into all official languages, there will be serious time pressure on delegations which need to record and transcribe their representative’s unscripted remarks.


While these new March arrangements for VTCs were welcomed by non-Council Member States and journalists, criticism continued that no provision had been made for webcasting video conferences which were not announced as closed.  Although China’s letter noted that the published compilation documents for such meetings was intended to “ensure transparency”, the fact that they would not become available until 48 hours following a video conference was seen as limiting their usefulness. 


That being the case, after almost all VTCs, Council Presidents have delivered press elements, as was the case after the video conferences held on 26 and 27 March.  In addition, individual Council members are likely to continue summarizing points of interest via social media and other means. 

And in April, under the Council presidency of the Dominican Republic, the Council members continued to upgrade their interim working methods, as is detailed in two related articles on this website:


"Under Dominican Republic’s April presidency, Council expands its interim measures"

"Council members reach agreement to livestream their Open VTCs during COVID-19"


(This update supplements Chapters 2 and 7 of the book.)


[1] For background on the negotiations on the new measures, see “New Security Council Working Methods in the midst of COVID-19”,  What's in Blue, Security Council Report, 27 March 2020.

[2] The 24-hour period will be counted over working days only.  For example, a voting period commencing on a Friday would conclude the following Monday.  This in fact has been the timing with respect to the first four draft resolutions put to a vote under the new interim measures.

[3] In this connection, with reference to the Security Council, the Charter does not speak of “resolutions”, but rather “decisions” more generally. 

[4] On page 400, our book notes that “For about twenty-five years after [1967], presidential statements were variously read out in the course of a formal meeting or adopted only in written form, as decided by the Council on a case-by-case basis.  No difference in the weight of a presidential statement was attributed to the use of either method.”

[5] In addition, in 2000, through a miscommunication, Jamaica was absent from a vote on Abkhazia; in 2002, Syria was absent from a vote on the Middle East; and in 2003, Syria was absent from a vote on Iraq.  In each of these cases, the relevant resolution was considered adopted.

[6] The resolutions (on renewing the mandate of the DPRK sanctions panel of experts, the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, the mandate of the African Union-UN hybrid operation in Darfur, and the safety of UN peacekeepers) were all confirmed as unanimously adopted on 30 March.

[7] Had the Council attempted to meet in the Chamber at this time, it would have placed at risk not only the Council members themselves, but also the several dozen Secretariat staff necessary for in-person meetings.



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