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Updated on 5 November 2019


Section 3:   Formal private (closed) meetings


Formal private meeting with OPCW Director-General taps underused Security Council format


On 5 November 2019, under the Security Council presidency of the United Kingdom, the Council held a formal private meeting to hear a briefing by the Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  Convened under the agenda item “The situation in the Middle East”,[1] this meeting fulfilled the requirement of a monthly review pursuant to resolution 2118 (2013), by which the Council decided that Syria “shall not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons”. 


The 5 November proceedings marks the first time since 2014, when the Security Council held a formal private meeting to take up a letter from Ukraine, that the Council has used this format to take up a country-specific issue.  Earlier in this decade, the Council convened formal private meetings more frequently to consider such situations.  In 2010, for example, eight formal private meetings were held on agenda items including the Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, and the Korean peninsula.[2]  


The 5 November 2019 meeting marks the first time, since the adoption of resolution 2118 in 2013, that the Council has convened a formal private meeting to receive the OPCW monthly briefing.  Rather, the default format for these briefings has been closed consultations.  Exceptionally, during the Netherlands Council presidency of March 2018, the briefing was held as an informal interactive dialogue (IID).  Nonetheless, although representing a departure from past practice, reportedly consensus among Council members was easily reached on the UK presidency’s proposal that the briefing for November be convened as a formal private meeting. 


The three main private meeting formats – formal private meetings, informal interactive dialogues, and closed consultations – are all held without the presence of journalists, without webcasts, without publication of a verbatim record,[3] and without issuance of a press release summarizing statements made.[4]


What distinguishes closed consultations from the other two private formats is that in accordance with Council practice, consultations are not attended by the affected State (Syria in this case) and any briefers should be from within the UN system.  Since the OPCW is an independent organization, this practice has precluded its Director-General from participating in consultations.  Thus, briefings in consultations on the Syria chemical weapons issue have commonly been given by a UN disarmament official. 

In contrast, both formal private meetings and IIDs allow for the participation of the affected State(s), if invited by the Council.  In this connection, in her press conference on 1 November 2019, the first day of the United Kingdom Council presidency, the UK representative confirmed that for the OPCW private meeting, Syria’s request to speak had been accepted by the Council members.  Moreover, in both formal private meetings and informal interactive dialogues, there are no restrictions as to the affiliation of any briefers.


At least in some cases, formal private meetings are regarded as more conducive to interactivity and substantiality than public meetings.  In this connection, in the same press conference, the UK representative observed that the issue of chemical weapons in Syria


“is a sensitive and interesting subject on which there will be a great deal to say.  We wanted to strike a balance between being able to have a meaningful and serious discussion among Security Council members and transparency.  If we had it all in the open Chamber, I think there’d be a lot of ‘playing to the gallery’ on the part of some members, and I don’t think we’d get very illuminating answers from the Director-General.  So we tried to strike a balance.”


In subsequent informal remarks at the Security Council stakeout, the UK representative affirmed that the private meeting format “hopefully enables a more detailed discussion and an airing of more issues than would be the case if we were in the rather static but very transparent open format.”


The United Kingdom has, on other occasions during the Council’s history, supported use of formal private meetings to take up country-specific agenda items under certain circumstances.  A UK representative suggested that in 1975 the Council had decided to meet on the Western Sahara using that format because “private meetings would best assist such exploratory discussion designed to clarify ideas and identify possible ways forward” (S/PV.2976).  In 1991, a UK representative supported holding a private meeting on the situation between Iraq and Kuwait on the grounds that “This occasion calls for serious and careful consideration of all developments away from the glare of immediate publicity” (S/PV.2977).


In terms of transparency, if the Council so decides, non-Council Member States may observe formal private meetings upon submission of Rule 37 requests, whereas the wider UN membership cannot attend informal interactive dialogues or consultations.  In her press conference and stakeout remarks, the UK representative confirmed that for the OPCW private meeting, all non-Council Member States which submitted Rule 37 requests would be able to be present in the Chamber.[5]


With respect to inclusivity, the issue of chemical weapons in Syria is of keen interest to the wider UN membership.  In that light, to open the briefing by the OPCW Director-General to the observation of non-Council Member States shows respect by Security Council members for that interest.  In addition, using the format can be seen as a step toward meeting criticism sometimes leveled against the Council that it unfairly excludes an affected State from giving its point of view whenever briefings are received in closed consultations. 


Another attribute of formal private meetings, when open to non-Council Member States to observe, is that they tend to reduce the risk of the kind of misquotes which sometimes occur when those who attend closed consultations or an IID afterwards attempt to convey to others what transpired.  Also with respect to accuracy, although a verbatim record is not published for formal private meetings, the practice pursuant to Rule 51 is that such a record is nonetheless made in all six official languages and kept in the office of the secretariat.  Rule 56 provides that


“The representatives of the Members of the United Nations which have taken part in a private meeting shall at all times have the right to consult the record of that meeting in the office of the Secretary-General.  The Security Council may at any time grant access to this record to authorized representatives of other Members of the United Nations.”


Thus formal private meetings, unlike consultations and IIDs, offer the opportunity to clarify possible misunderstandings by consulting a verbatim record.[6] 


Formal private meetings, because they have a higher profile than other private meeting formats, can increase public awareness that the Council is continuing to try to address issues over which divisions among its members have prevented the adoption of effective decisions.  This may be especially important in cases like chemical weapons in Syria, over which sharp cleavages within the Council have existed for several years.  Realistically speaking, however, while a meeting format may enhance the quality of the Council’s discussion of an issue, of course it cannot of itself resolve deep-seated differences among Council members over substance.


It remains to be seen whether the convening of the OPCW briefing on 5 November 2019 as a formal private meeting rekindles interest in use of this format for other country-specific agenda items.  This possibility appears to have been on the mind of the UK representative.  In her informal press remarks, she observed that “Private meetings used to be used more often and I can see a good place for them.”  She added, “So we’ll see how today goes and see whether we think it’s a model that can be made more use of.”


(This update supplements pages 28-31 and 37-39 of the book.)


[1] The Director-General’s 73rd monthly report to the Security Council on chemical weapons in Syria was cited as a sub-item (S/2019/854).

[2] Note by the President S/2017/507, para. 92, states that “The members of the Security Council intend to seek the views of Member States that are parties to a conflict and/or other interested and affected parties.  For that purpose, the Security Council may, inter alia, utilize private meetings when public meetings are not appropriate”.  Our book (page 29) observes that “When addressing a specific conflict situation, the Council has tended to decide that, in the words of the Note by the President, a private meeting will be more ‘appropriate’ than a public meeting when political sensitivities related to current developments are high.”  The most frequent use of the formal private format is for meetings of Security Council members with troop-contributing countries pursuant to resolution 1353 (2001), which are discussed separately in S/2017/507.

[3] Except under exceptional circumstances (see pages 37-38 in our book).

[4] These three private formats also have in common that they are activities of the Security Council presided over by the Council President.  This contrasts, for example, with Arria-formula meetings.

[5] Also with regard to transparency, private formal meetings are announced both in the UN Journal and on the Council’s monthly programme of work, and are also recorded in the factual section of the Security Council Annual Report, whereas informal interactive dialogues are not.

[6] The common interpretation of Rule 56 is that having “taken part” in a private meeting refers to those who have made statements, but not those who have merely observed, unless the latter are specifically granted access by the Council.



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