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5 July 2023


Section 11:   Arria-formula meetings and Somavía-formula meetings


What determines whether or not an Arria-formula meeting will be webcast?


On 26 June 2023, Malta held an Arria-formula meeting on “Enhancing the capacities of Member States to ensure a gender responsive approach to counter-terrorism”. Fellow Security Council members Mozambique and the United States joined in convening the Arria, as did Costa Rica, Jordan, Mexico, New Zealand and Spain. The Permanent Mission of Malta, after the conclusion of the Arria, tweeted that “A recording of the meeting will be shared on Wednesday.” Evidently the move to make a recording of the Arria available independently was in response to the fact that the session was not webcast by UNTV, reportedly owing to an objection from the Russian Federation. The Arria therefore could not be viewed via the UN website in real time, nor could it be accessed afterwards via the UN website.


Similar objections by other Security Council members have blocked the webcasting of prior Arrias. Among these was an Arria on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) convened on 17 March 2023 by Council members Albania and the United States, in cooperation with another Council member, Japan, as well as the Republic of Korea. This Arria was not webcast by UNTV because of an objection by China. In another case, the United Kingdom and the United States joined in blocking UN webcasting of a 5 April 2023 Arria convened by the Russian Federation on “Children and Armed Conflict: Ukrainian Crisis. Evacuating Children From Conflict Zone”.


The question arises as to the basis for the practice by which one or more Security Council members can block the webcasting of an Arria convened by other Council members.


Arria-formula meetings, since their inception in 1992, have been based on understandings which have continued to evolve. In 2006, after considerable negotiation, the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG) authorized the Working Group’s Chair to present at the Council’s 5601st meeting a “Common Understanding” on Arrias, thereafter considered to have been agreed by the Council as a whole. This “Common Understanding” was then printed in the successive hard copy working method handbooks issued by the Government of Japan with the permission of IWG members.


The Common Understanding affirms that a 2002 background note on Arrias prepared by the Security Council Affairs Division “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”. This background note states, inter alia, that Arrias are “very informal, confidential gatherings”. While they are described as “an opportunity to engage in a direct dialogue . . . on matters . . . which fall within the purview of responsibility of the Security Council”, the background note makes clear that Arrias “do not constitute an activity of the Council.” The note states, moreover, that Arrias “are convened at the initiative of a member or members of the Council.” This means that if an Arria happens to be convened at the initiative of the Council President for that month, he or she does so in their national capacity rather than under their presidential authority.

                                                                            Common Understanding and SCAD Background Note


Because Arrias were originally conceived of as being “confidential” gatherings, for the many years during which they were held completely in private, webcasting was never considered to be an option. However, the chart below indicates that the practice of Arrias being closed and confidential began to fray in 2012. Within a few years, the majority of Arrias were being held openly, with all interested UN Member States able to attend. Then, beginning with two Arrias in 2016 and one in 2017, UN webcasting of Arrias was introduced and quickly became the norm, such that 16 out of the 21 Arrias convened in 2018 were webcast, as were 18 out of the 22 Arrias convened in 2019.[1]


                                                                                                  Chart of open and closed Arrias since 1992


Because holding Arrias in any setting other than a private one had not been foreseen at the time of adopting the Common Understanding, that document understandably contains no guidelines on webcasting. And so Council members found themselves on new territory when some members began to state their opposition to webcasting a particular Arria and, in some cases, succeeded in persuading the convener that consequently a webcast could not go forward.


It will be recalled, however, that from the outset, it was definitively established that Arrias “do not constitute an activity of the Council”. This being the case, all aspects of convening these informal “gatherings” are within the prerogative only of the convening members. It is clear that no Security Council member has any special entitlement, based on its Council membership, to constrain another Council member from decisions taken in its national capacity with respect to a non-Council activity.[2] To think otherwise would, for example, mean that one Council member could prevent another Council member from making a statement in their national capacity at the Security Council stakeout, or prevent there being a UN webcast of such a statement, which is well-established not to be the case.


In this connection, after the United Kingdom blocked webcasting of the Russian Arria of 5 April 2023, as mentioned above, the Russian Federation’s Deputy Permanent Representative tweeted:


“ . . . as a mirror move Russia will from now on block UN webcasts of all similar meetings citing ‘UK censorship clause’.”


Although of course this statement was in the form of a tweet and not a legal brief, it is nonetheless worth noting that he did not base the right to block UN webcasting of Arrias on any substantive legal grounds, but rather only justified such future actions by stating that his delegation would be “citing ‘UK censorship clause’”, in other words, would be relying on the fact that another Council member had blocked UN webcasting of an Arria.


It could be argued that in the same way Arrias drifted from being closed to open, Arrias, similarly by practice, may have transitioned from being a non-Council activity to being a Council activity. However, there is an important distinction: In order to be considered an “activity of the Council”, proceedings must be convened and presided over by the Council President. This is true obviously with respect to formal meetings – public or private – as well as Informal Interactive Dialogues.[3]


Therefore, until and unless the Security Council decides that Arrias are now to be considered Council activities convened and presided over by the Council President, they will continue to have the status of a non-Council activity. Consequently, objections to any aspects of their organization carry no decisive weight, but are merely expressions of disapproval. In other words, to affirm that it is the “practice of the Council” that webcasting Arrias requires the consensus of all members does not make this a binding condition. Instead, for a convener to forgo webcasting an Arria because of another Council member’s objection constitutes a voluntary decision on the convener’s part, rather than being procedurally required.


It is probable that in at least some cases, a convener acceded to an objection to webcasting simply because they believed they were obligated to. In other cases, however, the fact that conveners have stood back from insisting on UN webcasting of an Arria after strong objection has been made suggests that as a practical matter, the convening members may feel that to yield to such an objection is a “best practice”. A convener might do so in order that its Arria stay clear of controversy, so as not to undercut the substance of the session’s briefings and discussion. A convener might also simply decide that it is not worth engaging in a divisive argument over this issue, especially as there is the option of using social media channels to broadcast the proceedings.[4]


Alternatively, a convener may believe that honouring an objection to webcasting its Arria may, in turn, reinforce that convener’s own prerogative to block webcasting of another member’s Arria when it feels this is advisable. While not definitively expressed, the American representative spoke somewhat along these lines on 5 April 2023. At the Council stakeout, she explained that generally her delegation did not oppose UN webcasting of Arrias, and that in fact it had been “disturbed” when China had blocked the Albania-US Arria on human rights in the DPRK. However, she then stated that “we do not support [the Russian Arria on evacuating children in the Ukraine conflict zone] being used by an individual to brief that we know has committed war crimes”. Consequently, the United States had joined the United Kingdom in blocking UN webcasting of the Arria to prevent the UN website “from being used to allow her to have an international podium to spread disinformation and to try to defend her horrible actions that are taking place in Ukraine.”


The willingness to accede to another Security Council member’s objection to webcasting an Arria has a parallel in the belief held by some Council members that they must gain full consensus before issuing their presidency assessment. These members take the decision to honour consensus even though presidential note S/1997/451, which initiated the assessments, states definitively that Council presidencies prepare them “under their own responsibility” and that assessments “should not be considered as representing the views of the Council.” This suggests that once a belief about procedure takes hold in the minds of some or all Council members, it is not easily changed, even when not in accord with the procedural framework or governing documents earlier established by the Council itself.[5]


Other than taking a decision that Arrias are to be considered a Council activity, the only other way that the Security Council could definitively regulate the issue of Arria webcasting would be by adopting a presidential note specifically addressing this subject. However, in prior years, attempts in the IWG to agree on new Arria guidelines have never gained sufficient traction. Accordingly, if past experience is indicative, the Council is not likely to be able to adopt a presidential note governing Arria webcasting anytime soon. Thus, although the decision to request UN webcasting of an Arria procedurally falls fully within a Council’s member’s national capacity, for the foreseeable future this issue is likely to continue to reside politically in a grey area where some members do manage to deter a convener’s plans.

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


[1] For a list of Arria-formula meetings which indicates, through active links, which Arrias have been webcast, see this Security Council Report table.

[2] The only requirements connecting Arrias to the Security Council, according to the Background Note, are 1) that Arrias should be convened by one or more Council members, and 2) that Arrias should relate to matters “which fall within the purview of responsibility of the Security Council”.

[3] A mission by Council members to the field might seem to diverge from this principle, but in fact for its duration such a mission legally constitutes a “subsidiary organ” of the Council, rather than being the parent body – the Security Council itself – carrying out an official activity. Therefore, if a mission is led by the Council member holding that month’s presidency, they do so in the capacity of chair of this short-term subsidiary body, not in their presidential capacity.

[4] When Arrias have not been webcast by UNTV owing to objections by one or more Council members, in some instances the convenors have livestreamed the proceedings via social media such as YouTube or Telegram.

[5] Of course, gaining consensus on an assessment could also represent a conscious choice by a Council member which is aware that this is not a requirement. They may do for reasons similar to those for which a Council member might accede to an objection to webcasting an Arria: They may not wish to undercut the substance of their assessment; they may feel it is not worth engaging in a divisive argument over objections to particular content; and/or by honouring an objection to their assessment they may reinforce their own prerogative to object to the contents of another member’s assessment.




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