Updated on 15 April 2020
Chapter 2: PLACE AND FORMAT OF COUNCIL PROCEEDINGS
Section 2: Formal public (open) meetings
Council members agree on a VTC alternative for ‘Open debate’ meetings during COVID-19
On 14 April 2020, the Dominican Republic, as Security Council President for April, sent to all UN Member States and Permanent Observers a note verbale informing them of how two meetings would be handled this month. The topics of the meetings are ‘The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question’ and ‘Youth, peace and security’, scheduled for 23 and 27 April, respectively.
In advance planning for the April presidency, prior to the pandemic, it was intended that the two meetings would be held as ‘Open debates’. According to the comprehensive presidential note S/2017/507 on the Council’s regular working methods, there are no restrictions as to how many non-Council Member States may participate in an Open debate, provided each submits a written request pursuant to Rule 37. Normally, the number of non-members participating is such that Open debates take at least two sessions to complete.
After the pandemic precluded using the Council Chamber, the Security Council members have been agreeing, in successive stages, on interim working methods for conducting their discussions and adopting decisions.
To date, the members have not been able to reach consensus for holding official meetings via video-teleconferene (VTC). As an alternative, they have put into place a system of informal VTCs. For those VTCs deemed ‘Open’, it has been agreed that briefings will be webcast, but not remarks by Council members. However, if Council members so wish, they may have their statements included in a compilation published as an official Council document within 48 hours. ‘Specially affected’ non-Council representatives who speak during Open VTCs may also have their remarks included in the document.
Since these modalities were agreed, they have been used for VTCs held on agenda items for which the normal meeting formats would involve little outside participation. However, it was not decided until mid-April how the Council would handle meetings which had been planned as Open debates. In March, with little time to organize an alternative, the Open debate originally planned by the Chinese presidency on ‘Upholding multilateralism and promoting the political settlement of disputes’ was simply cancelled.
For April, the Dominican Republic consulted with the other Council members to devise a way forward. This was particularly advisable with respect to ‘The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question’. Under a gentleman’s agreement negotiated by Qatar during its 2006-2007 Council term, it had been agreed that the Council would conduct an Open debate on Israel-Palestine issues on a quarterly basis, and the previous Open debate on this issue had been held in January 2020. In addition, the Dominican Council presidency was very committed to holding a meeting on ‘Youth, peace and security’ in a format which would permit wider participation.
As a compromise, the 14 April note verbale announces that these two April meetings will be conducted as Open VTCs. And for the first time, non-Council Member States in addition to those which qualify as ‘specially affected’ may submit requests to participate ‘within the principles of Rule 37’. However, this participation will be, 'until further notice', only in the form of written statements. These statements, if afterwards submitted by Member States in a timely manner, will be included in the compilation of statements published within 48 hours. These arrangements apply to Permanent Observers as well.
As noted in related articles on this website, there has been considerable dissatisfaction among Member States, and the press, that no agreement has yet been reached to webcast the statements made by Council members at Open VTCs. It can be anticipated that there will be similar dissatisfaction that the remarks of non-Council Member States and Observers also will not be webcast, but only received by the Council in writing.
The Dominican note verbale appears to acknowledge that the transparency of the present interim working methods is insufficient, and needs to be further addressed, when it states
‘The President of the Security Council will continue to hold discussions in ensuring the work of the Security Council is more transparent and inclusive. Therefore if improvements are made to these guidelines at any point before Open VTCs take place, we will inform all Permanent Member and Observers accordingly.’ (our emphasis)
If the Council members remain unable to reach agreement on webcasting all speakers during the Open VTCs on 23 and 27 April, both sessions will be over rather quickly, taking much less time than would regular Open debates. This may be seen as a positive by some Council members who have asserted that Open debates have been consuming time which could be better employed for considering country- and region-specific issues on the Council’s agenda.
It has long been observed that because Open debates last so long, the representatives of many non-members arrive in the Chamber just prior to the time they are to deliver their statements and leave soon thereafter, thus minimizing the usefulness of these meetings as a forum of exchange. Similarly, permanent representatives of Council members tend to yield their seats to more junior colleagues as Open debates progress.
Accordingly, for Open debates most permanent representatives (and foreign ministries) rely on summaries of high points prepared by their delegations, rather than what is heard directly in the Chamber. In April, these summaries will have to be prepared not from statements as delivered, but instead from the compilation later published as an official document. The fact that the compilations will be issued with a delay of 48 hours may somewhat diminish the usefulness and timeliness of the summaries prepared by missions, especially if high points of certain statements have already been carried in the media.
Moreover, the April compromise arrangements may literally lead to a ‘dialogue de sourds’ or ‘dialogue of the deaf’, since non-members will not be able to address points made in statements by Council members because they simply will not hear them. Nor will non-members be able to comment on issues raised by other non-members unless they have seen their statements in advance or can reasonably guess the contents of the statements of certain other participants.
Most Council members are aware of these shortcomings and, as suggested in the Dominican presidency’s note verbale, efforts will continue to try to address them. Nonetheless, however insufficient the present interim working methods may be, given the diverging positions among the Council members, it should not be overlooked that incremental improvements are gradually being made to what was initially agreed in March.
(This update supplements pages 23-24 and 44-51 of the book.)
 See related article on this website.
 This wording reflects the fact that procedural measures set out in the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure apply only to the Council’s formal meetings, not to its informal proceedings.
 It would be labour-intensive, but websites or Twitter accounts of participants could be checked to see if statements are posted there.