Updated on 20 April 2020

Chapter 1:   THE CONSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK

Section 5:   Further documentation of procedures

 

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

 

On 17 April 2020, the Security Council members reached agreement to webcast their “Open VTCs” in their entirety during COVID-19.  The first VTC to be fully livestreamed will be on “Protecting civilians from conflict-induced hunger”, scheduled for 21 April.  Up until then, only the remarks of briefers had been webcast, with the statements by Council members being made public only in a written compilation published 48 hours afterwards. 

 

The agreement to broaden livestreaming of the Council’s “Open VTCs” capped several weeks’ effort by many Council members to bring greater transparency to the Council’s proceedings for as long as the pandemic blocked access to its Chamber.  Some Council members wanted to webcast the Council’s deliberations as soon as they moved online, beginning with the VTC on the Democratic Republic of the Congo held on 26 March.[1]  However, there was reluctance on the part of at least one member to do so.  In addition, some technological problems remained to be resolved.

 

Therefore, it took the Council members three stages to reach broader livestreaming.  First, in March, under the Chinese presidency, they agreed to issue written records, within 48 hours, of all statements by briefers and themselves during open VTCs.  Beginning in April, under the Dominican presidency, they agreed to the modality described above whereby the statements of briefers would be webcast.  And then finally, in mid-April they agreed to also livestream their own statements.

 

The first two modalities were set out in respective letters by the March and April Council Presidents. 

 

There was no need for the Council to issue an additional document once it had agreed to full livestreaming, since this eventuality had been covered in the Dominican presidency’s April letter, when it stated that “In consultation with members, open video-teleconferences will be fully webcast as soon as is technically feasible.”[2] 

 

Prior to the agreement on livestreaming, in addition to pressure coming from within the Council itself, its members were also coming under considerable pressure to take this step from the wider UN membership, journalists, and civil society. 

 

Notably, on 30 March, the representative of Switzerland wrote to the Council requesting – on behalf of the 25 members of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group (ACT) – that the Council take certain steps to uphold “high standards of transparency and accountability” in response to the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 for the Council’s day-to-day work.  While accepting the possible need for interim measures, ACT called on the Council to

 

“Continue to improve the videoconferencing network system to allow videoconferencing sessions to be broadcast on the United Nations webcast; as a rule, all virtual meetings of the Council taking place in lieu of discussions in the open chamber should be accessible online to the public.”

 

In parallel, on 17 April, 30 civil society organisations wrote jointly to the President urging the Security Council to take measures to ensure that such organisations were able to continue contributing to the Council’s work.  In this context, they requested that the Council “Find a solution to broadcast Open VTCs live as a matter of urgency.”

 

With the Security Council, it is never clear whether outside pressure will push the Council members forward to take certain actions, or whether it might cause at least one member to further dig into an established position.  In this case, although it took the Council a month to reach the stage of full livestreaming – which seemed to some like an unnecessary delay – outside pressure did not appear to be a hindrance.

 

At his press conference held the first day of the April presidency, and in a parallel podcast interview given to PassBlue, the Dominican representative stressed that he was committed to making his country’s presidency as transparent as possible, and he held out the possibility that further advancements in working methods might be agreed over the course of April. 

One further modality which has been under discussion within the Council is that of designating VTCs convened during the pandemic as official meetings.  Now that all Open VTCs will be fully webcast, the difference between considering them official or unofficial has significantly narrowed.  And there would be several advantages to deeming these VTCs to be official meetings. 

 

First, there would be less of a gap in the UN’s official records between Council meetings held before the UN building's closure and the time when it eventually reopens. 

 

Second, full verbatim records would be available which would include all the proceedings of each open meeting, rather than only the statements prepared by each speaker. 

 

In connection with any decision to consider Open VTCs to be official meetings, the question has arisen as to whether this would require the proceedings to be interpreted into all official languages.  Rule 42 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure states:  “Speeches made in any of the six languages of the Security Council shall be interpreted into the other five languages.” 

 

It remains to be seen whether the UN has the technological capacity to provide full interpretation for online meetings.  In the event it does not, there is precedent for the Council, under unusual circumstances, to explicitly suspend this type of technical rule.  In 2004, when the Council decided to hold several official meetings in Nairobi, it decided to waive the requirement set out in Rule 49 that the verbatim record of each meeting shall be made available on the first working day following the meeting.  Instead, it adopted a resolution suspending the rule and deciding that the verbatim record would instead be issued later in New York.[3]

 

(This update supplements pages 23-24 and 44-51 of the book.)

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[1] See a related article on this website.

[2] See a related article on this website. 

[3] By today’s practice, a decision by the Council to explicitly suspend one of its procedural rules would probably be published in the format of a Note by the President rather than a resolution.