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Updated on 30 April 2020


Section 11:   'Arria-formula' meetings


For its May Council presidency, Estonia plans first-ever ministerial-level Arria meeting


On 8 May 2020, Estonia, Security Council President for that month, plans to convene a groundbreaking Arria-formula meeting on “75 years from the end of the Second World War on European soil – Lessons learned for preventing future atrocities, responsibility of the Security Council”. 


In a note verbale sent on 27 April to all UN Permanent Missions and Observers, Estonia explained it had initially planned to convene this discussion in the format of an Open Debate.  This would have been a formal meeting held in the Security Council Chamber, but then convening in the Chamber became impossible owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Estonia wished nonetheless to hold the discussion in such a way as “to resemble an open debate as much as possible, to accommodate the need for transparency and to enable open and high-level participation”.  Because livestreaming a large number of non-Council speakers had not yet been agreed by the Security Council members, Estonia decided to convene the meeting in an Arria format.  Given that Arrias are not official activities of the Council, this gives Estonia the freedom to organize the discussion however it chooses.


The Arria will be chaired by Estonia’s Foreign Minister.  Originally, it was hoped that the Secretary-General would give the opening briefing at the Arria, as he has frequently done at formal Open Debates.  However, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs is now listed as the first briefer.  This is possibly because, to date, no sitting Secretary-General has ever participated in an Arria.[1]  The other two briefers listed are the European Commission President, tentatively, and a history professor from Yale University.


As has often been the case for Open Debates, Estonia has extended an invitation to the Foreign Ministers of all UN Member States to participate in the Arria.  Previously, ministers have only rarely participated in Arria-formula meetings.  For example, the Foreign Ministers of France and Germany both participated in an Arria on 1 April 2019.[2]  Accordingly, what will make the 8 May 2020 Arria unique is the large number of ministers who are expected to participate.


Ironically, this is because the necessity of delivering statements via video-teleconferencing (VTC) during COVID-19 means that ministers can participate without the inconvenience of travelling to and from New York.  In order to speak at regular ministerial-level Open Debates in the Council Chamber, ministers must weigh whether it is worth the time and expense of appearing in person, only to make a statement within the Council’s very tight time limits.


Therefore, it is likely that not only will the number of foreign ministers participating be absolutely unprecedented for an Arria-formula meeting, but also possibly for any discussion of the Security Council. 


Exactly how many will participate may depend on how each Member State interprets the topic.  The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II coincides with the 75th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations.  And the Estonia concept note for the Arria makes this connection when it states, “This debate offers an opportunity to discuss the merits of the post-war order.”


Since the Arria will provide an occasion for focusing on the founding of the UN, it is likely to draw many ministers interested in speaking on this topic, all the more so because the pandemic may limit the number of 75th anniversary events that can be held around the time of the opening of the General Assembly in the fall. 


However, the Estonian concept note also raises issues of a narrower focus when it states that the Arria will provide “a forum to evaluate current security threats posed by conflicts in Europe and beyond.”  In this connection, the concept note remarks that while peace and prosperity have generally endured in Europe since the end of the war,


“traditional security challenges have not disappeared in Europe.  We are still witnessing the violation of the most important norm of the UN Charter – the prohibition of the use of force.”


At present, five agenda items relating to specific country situations in Europe remain on the “active list”[3] contained in the Council’s Summary statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized:   


  • The situation in Cyprus;


  • The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina;


  • International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (given its connection to the former Yugoslavia);


  • Security Council resolutions 1160 (1998), 1199 (1998), 1203 (1998), 1239 (1999) and 1244 (1999) (which relates to Kosovo); and


  • The two 2014 letters from Ukraine and the Russian Federation, respectively, regarding Ukraine and Crimea.


The latter three agenda items have been divisive within the Council involving, in particular, disagreements between the Russian Federation and the other European members of the Council, together with the United States.[4]  Estonia itself has been notably outspoken on issues relating to Ukraine. 


It is thus possible that some Member States may decide not to be represented at ministerial level owing to the potential for clashes over these specific European matters.


Nonetheless, participation by ministers is anticipated to be quite high, and possibly even record-breaking.


This being the case, the technical challenges of organizing the Arria are considerable.  Possibly because some glitches have occurred since the Security Council began meeting via the UN’s VTC platform at the end of March, the platform to be used for the 8 May Arria will be based on a virtual event solution developed by an Estonian company called Hybridity.  This platform, according to technical guidelines circulated by Estonia, will provide “two-way interaction between participants and speakers, while being secure.”


In order to iron out any technical difficulties, Estonia will be carrying out advance test calls.  It has also provided to Member States specifics on the technical requirements necessary for joining the VTC, as well as detailed recommendations for how to optimize video and audio quality. 


Estonia has emphasized that the speaking order for the Arria will be determined on a first come, first served basis, and that this order will be strictly respected.  And since there have been some failures to mute during previous Security Council VTCs, Estonia has wisely decided that microphones of anyone other than the speaker will be automatically muted.


As has been the case with the Council’s VTCs to date, no interpretation will be available, so all statements will need to be made in English.  With a tight time limit of only three minutes for non-Council members, this places at a disadvantage those speakers who normally do not use English and who may read at a more deliberate pace, and it remains to be seen how strictly Estonia will enforce the time limit in such cases.


Up until now, other than briefers or directly affected States, only the statements of Council members have been livestreamed during Security Council Open VTCs, with the statements of other States only being subsequently published in written form.  If the 8 May Arria goes smoothly, there may be increased pressure on the Council thereafter to livestream statements by non-Council Member States in Open VTCs.  It is also possible that once the Council eventually returns to holding meetings in its Chamber, it may receive requests to allow certain high-level government officials – of both member and non-member States – to participate via VTC in formal Council meetings.


(This update supplements pages 74-77 and 91-92 of the book.)


[1] Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a briefing at a 2017 Arria in his capacity as Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

[2] The topic was “Human rights in peace operations”.

[3] A sixth European agenda item, the situation in Georgia, is on the Summary statement’s “inactive list”.

[4] See, for example, a related article on this website about the Council’s consideration of the Kosovo issue. 



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