top of page

Posted on 15 June 2019


Section 11:   'Arria-formula' meetings and 'Somavia-formula' meetings


After several years of drift, is it time to rethink the “Arria-formula” meeting template?


On 12 February 2019, an “Arria-formula” meeting was held on “Children and armed conflict:  Protecting boys and girls in shrinking humanitarian space”, with a particular focus on the Central African Republic (CAR).  The convenors were Belgium, the CAR, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and France.  The meeting, which was webcast, was open to all UN Member States, permanent observers and non-governmental organizations.  This event exemplified the dramatic transformation of the traditional concept of meetings held under the “Arria” name which has occurred since 2012. 


In 2006, in conjunction with the adoption of the first comprehensive presidential note on their working methods, S/2006/507, the Security Council members agreed separately on a “common understanding” with respect to Arria-formula meetings (attached below).  This “common understanding”, reached by consensus in the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), was first presented orally by the representative of Japan, in his capacity as IWG Chair, at a formal Council meeting held on 20 December 2006.[1]


Thereafter, again by consensus, the “common understanding” was included in the 2006 Handbook on the Working Methods of the Security Council.  It was also contained in the updated Handbooks issued following adoption of the 2010 and 2017 “507” presidential notes.[2] 


Among the four points listed in the “common understanding”, it states that:


“The content of the background note on ‘Arria-formula’ meetings, prepared by the Secretariat in 2002, provides a useful description of current and past practice of ‘Arria-formula’ meetings, and the members are encouraged to utilize the background note as a guideline without undermining the flexibility of ‘Arria-formula’ meetings.”


The IWG members concurred that this Secretariat background note (attached below) should also be published in the three successive Handbooks.  The background note states, inter alia, that Arria-formula meetings:


  • Are “very informal, confidential gatherings”;


  • Are “convened at the initiative of a member or members of the Council”; and


  • “[E]nable Security Council members to have a frank and private exchange of views” with persons whom the inviting Council members(s) “believe it would be beneficial to hear and/or to whom they may wish to convey a message.”


As exemplified by the 12 February 2019 event, most or all of these attributes are no longer in evidence in present-day meetings held under the “Arria” name.  The 12 February event was not “very informal”, since most participants delivered prepared statements.  Nor was it held solely “at the initiative of a member or members of the Council”, since the Central African Republic, a non-Council member, was among the convenors.  Moreover, the event did not “enable Council members to have a frank and private exchange of views” (our emphasis), since the meeting was webcast and all members of the wider UN community were invited to attend.[3]  


The book[4] sets out the history of “Arria-formula” meetings beginning with their inception upon the initiative of Venezuela’s Permanent Representative Diego Arria in 1992 with respect to the situation in Bosnia.  Although initially some Council members expressed misgivings about this new informal meeting format, the following year, 1993, seven Arria-formula meetings were held.  Thereafter, for about 20 years, with only three exceptions,[5] Arria-formula meetings remained informal and confidential. 


The trend away from the traditional attributes of Arria meetings began in 2012[6] and occurred so rapidly and completely that many UN Member States today are unaware of how radical the transformation has been.  At present, the norm is for Arria meetings to be open and webcast,[7] and often to be convened not solely by Council members, but rather in conjunction with one or more non-Council Member States.  Thus, in all but name, they have in essence become “Side Events” of the type which are routinely convened by a variety of UN Member States and announced in the UN Journal.[8]


While such an evolution is certainly allowable under the statement in all three comprehensive “507” notes that Arria meetings are intended to be “a flexible and informal forum” (emphasis added), it constitutes a dramatic departure from the original concept.  This raises the question as to whether, as a result of this transformation, Arria meetings have diminished in value. 


Of greatest import would seem to be the loss of the “frank and private exchange of views” which originally characterized Arria meetings.  For many civil society briefers, to present their information in a high-profile forum in New York constitutes a risk to them, their organizations, and their families.[9]  It follows that such briefers, especially those who operate in conflict zones, will be more cautious when speaking on record at open Arria meetings than if speaking only with Council members in a confidential setting.  This means that while open Arria meetings give broader dissemination to civil society messages, it is probable that the Council members themselves are receiving less detailed and sensitive information than they would have obtained in private. 


Moreover, the formality of contemporary Arria meetings, convened in large conference rooms with many attendees, has inevitably reduced the spontaneity and interactivity which characterized the original Arrias.  This, in turn, is another factor which limits the depth of the information provided by briefers and the subsequent discussion among Council members during open Arrias.


An explanatory letter from a later representative of Venezuela (S/1999/286) pointed out another benefit of the original Arria meetings.  He wrote that the Arria format “enabled the Council as a whole to obtain direct information and assessments concerning the dominant perceptions at a given moment on the part of those who directly or indirectly influenced the course of a conflict resolution process”, and thus could be useful in “reconciling approaches among its members”.  However, experience has shown that in contrast, open Arria meetings have generally proved more divisive among Council members.  The Russian Federation, in particular, has complained on record about the “partisan” orientation of many open Arrias.  And understandably, it is more difficult for Council members to “reconcile approaches” when under broad public scrutiny in an open Arria than when interacting with civil society in a confidential setting. 


Somewhat surprisingly, although overuse by the Security Council of closed consultations has long been criticized by the wider UN membership, Arria-formula meetings held confidentially under past practice enjoyed broad support among non-Council Member States.  During the open debate on the Council’s working methods in 2011, just prior to the transition to open Arrias, a number of non-Council speakers – including Egypt (on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement), Australia, Slovenia, and several Western European States – commended the usefulness of the Arria meetings of that time.[10]


In general, striking the right balance between inclusiveness of the wider UN community and the benefits gained from small-scale discussions held in a confidential setting is an issue which the Security Council members face across the whole spectrum of their work.  But in the case of Arria-formula meetings, it seems reasonable that Council members might occasionally wish to revert to the original Arria format, depending on the sensitivity of the topic, the relative vulnerability of the briefer(s), the foreseeable usefulness of additional information that might be provided privately, and the desirability of greater interactivity on a particular subject.


(This update supplements pages 74-92 in the book.) 

                                                                                                Common understanding      Sect. Note                   Arrias chart


[1] S/PV.5601.

[2] All three Handbooks were published by the Government of Japan.  In addition, the 2011 Handbook was issued as a UN Sales Publication.

[3] This citing of the 12 February 2019 Arria is by way of example, and in no way implies criticism of the topic, convenors or format.

[4] Pages 74-77 and 91-92.  See also Security Council Report, “In Hindsight:  Arria-Formula Meetings”

[5] In September 2006, the United States convened an open Arria-formula meeting on Darfur which included the participation of Elie Wiesel and the American actor George Clooney.  Subsequently, an open Arria meeting was hosted by Belgium and France in November 2008 on sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Another was convened by Austria in October 2009 on residual issues relating to the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

[6] An Arria meeting convened on 8 March 2012 by Portugal and the United Kingdom on “Women’s role in conflict mediation and resolution” was the first to be officially opened to the attendance by members of permanent missions and permanent observer missions.

[7] Exceptions to this trend have been the five closed Arria meetings held from 2012 to 2019 with the heads of the human rights components of various UN peacekeeping operations. 

[8] One of the few original attributes which has been retained is that Arria meetings normally continue not to be announced in the Journal.

[9] A number of Council members are aware of this type of risk.  When the representative of Libya wrote to the Council President to criticize the briefing by an NGO representative in a formal meeting (S/2019/363), Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Peru, Poland and the United Kingdom wrote a response (S/2019/377) in which they stated that, “Notwithstanding the disagreement of the Government of National Accord with the content of Ms. Miloud’s briefing, we trust that she will be allowed to continue her work unhindered” (emphasis added).

[10] S/PV.6672.



bottom of page