Updated on 30 November 2019
Chapter 2: PLACE AND FORMAT OF COUNCIL PROCEEDINGS
Section 13: Other informal formats
Unscripted “Sofa Talks”, proposed by United Kingdom and launched by Indonesia, gain traction as informal way to foster collegial dialogue among Council representatives
During the Security Council retreat with the Secretary-General in early May 2019, discussion reportedly turned to the tensions among Council members which, it was widely agreed, were interfering with the Council’s work. It was noted that personally, the permanent representatives got along well with each other, and it was wondered how these good personal connections could be built upon to achieve greater substantive progress.
In this context, Ambassador Karen Pierce of the United Kingdom proposed that the permanent representatives get together very informally for unscripted chats, and she offered to host such gatherings. Another United Kingdom representative referred to the idea behind this new format during the open debate on working methods the following month. He stated:
“Too often, we have seen members of the Council block or attempt to block discussions of situations that may endanger the maintenance of international peace and security. In that context, the United Kingdom recently initiated a monthly, informal discussion at the level of permanent representatives to encourage a frank exchange among ambassadors on developing threats to peace and security.”
The proposal to hold unscripted chats among the Council’s permanent representatives was implemented almost immediately. Later, during the same month of the retreat, Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia, Council President for May, hosted just such an informal gathering. Indonesia named this conversation a “Sofa Talk”, because the permanent representatives actually sat casually on sofas, rather than around one of the Council’s usual meeting tables. As noted in an article by International Crisis Group on divisive trends within the Council, the talks are also referred to as “Pierce formula” meetings, in light of Ambassador Pierce having made the initial proposal.
Indonesia was keen to put the proposal for informal talks into practice because, from the beginning of its 2019-20 Council term, it had expressed concern over the very evident disunity and distrust among Council members. In parallel, it had underscored the need for the Council to transition from “megaphone diplomacy” to a more productive, consensus-building orientation. According to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s Multilateral Cooperation Director General, Febrian Ruddyard, the idea of “Sofa Talks” among the Council’s permanent representatives is concordant with the ASEAN Retreat meeting platform. This platform has been used by Indonesia and its fellow Association members for decades, as part of their high-level consultative process.
At the inaugural “Sofa Talks”, some general guidelines were accepted based on the initial United Kingdom proposal as well as ideas put forward by Indonesia. In terms of their conduct, it has been seen as important that during “Sofa Talks”, the representatives’ comments should be frank, but also aimed at thrashing out differences in a collegial manner and at finding commonality. In addition, the talks have as a goal identifying some specific issues on which the members could thereafter proceed with a more united, problem-solving orientation.
In order to avoid the rigidity which has limited the effectiveness of the Council’s other formal and informal meeting formats, an important component of “Sofa Talks” is that there is no set agenda. Rather, representatives can spontaneously raise any topic. Should a particular subject prove too contentious, the representatives simply “agree to disagree” and move on. And if there is no real interest in an issue, the members similarly discontinue discussing it.
For topics which do gain traction, in addition to elaborating their own viewpoints, representatives are encouraged to offer solutions. In such cases, the other members are urged to comment on any proposals put forward.
Another aspect of the “Sofa Talks” aimed at fostering honest, spontaneous discussion is the absence of any meeting records or informal summaries circulated afterwards. This contrasts to the recording of statements at formal meetings, and detailed leaks from closed consultations, which can inhibit free discussion. Moreover, in order to enhance collegiality among the permanent representatives themselves, it is understood that if one is unable to attend, another member of the same delegation does not take his/her place.
After the inaugural “Sofa Talks” in May 2019, the format caught on quickly. Beginning with Kuwait, the Council President for June 2019, a number of subsequent presidencies have also hosted these informal conversations. In addition, some Council members have held “Sofa Talks” at times when they were not serving as President. And, some have been planned for outside of New York, in the Dominican Republic over the summer, and a second in Kentucky, hosted by the United States during its Council presidency in December.
The fact that the Council has been managing to fit “Sofa Talks” into its heavily-scheduled monthly work programmes is evidence that permanent representatives are, in actuality, finding them useful. It also suggests that “Sofa Talks” provide an appreciated opportunity for free-flowing discussion that is not otherwise commonly available to them.
The divisions among Council members on certain key issues are real, and deep, and do not lend themselves to easy solutions. With respect to such issues, the Indonesian Director General recognizes that “Sofa Talks”, owing to their casual nature, are not likely to produce the “strong outcomes expected by the international community”. And the United Kingdom representative, at the working methods debate referred to above, acknowledged that while these informal talks are “a positive development,” they are “no substitute for proper Council consideration”.
Nonetheless, it is hoped that if “Sofa Talks” can foster enhanced personal relations and communication among the Council’s permanent representatives, compromises may develop through these conversations that will ultimately translate into concrete forward steps on specific agenda items.
(This update supplements pages 94-97 of the book.)
 See, for example, the Indonesian statement during a formal meeting on Venezuela held in February 2019 (S/PV.8476). As detailed in another article on this website, sharp cleavages on a number of issues have emerged among Council members during this decade. This has been apparent in divisive voting patterns, as well as sharp exchanges between some Council members, both in the Council Chamber and also in more private settings.