Updated on 4 November 2017
Chapter 2: PLACE AND FORMAT OF COUNCIL PROCEEDINGS
Section 4: "Periodic meetings", summits, and high-level meetings
An “almost summit” convened in September 2017 on the reform of UN peacekeeping
On 20 September 2017, under the presidency of Ethiopia, the Security Council met to take up the issue of “Reform of United Nations peacekeeping: implementation and follow-up” (S/PV.8051). This meeting took place during the opening week of the General Assembly’s General Debate for which, as always, a large number of Heads of State or Government gathered in New York. Before unanimously adopting resolution 2378 (2017) on peacekeeping reform, the Council heard statements by Secretary-General António Guterres; Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission; and José Ramos-Horta, Chair of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations.
At the 20 September meeting, seven of the 15 Security Council members were represented at the level of Head of State or Government. In addition to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, who presided, in attendance were Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of Egypt; Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, President of the Council of Ministers of Italy; Macky Sall, President of Senegal; Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden; Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine; and Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.* This was the highest number of Heads of State or Government representing Council members since the Security Council summit on “Foreign terrorist fighters” was convened on 24 September 2014. At that summit, chaired by United States President Barack Obama, thirteen Council members participated at the level of Head of State or Government.
At the 20 September 2017 meeting, the States not attending at the level of Head of State or Government included the United States (which was represented by Vice President Michael Pence), and China, France, Japan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation (all of which were represented by Foreign Ministers). Bolivia and Uruguay participated at the level of Permanent Representative. Had only one or two more Council members been represented by a president or prime minister, based on past practice and general understanding, the meeting would have been considered a “summit”, since a majority of the members would have participated at that level.
Initially there was a strong possibility that the 20 September meeting would attain the status of a “summit”, because in addition to the Heads of State and Government who did attend, four others would be in New York at that time to address the General Assembly: Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia; Emmanuel Macron, President of France; Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister of Japan; and Donald Trump, President of the United States. The expectation that the 20 September meeting would be a “summit” was reflected in Security Council Report’s Monthly Forecast, a publication to which a number of Council members often provide information. The September 2017 Forecast, posted on 1 September, referred to the upcoming meeting as a “summit-level” open debate. However, as the date of the meeting approached, it evolved that an insufficient number of Heads of State or Government would attend for it to be considered a summit, and by the time Ethiopia’s concept note was published on 15 September, the meeting was referred to rather as a “high-level” open debate. Similarly, when Security Council Report published its What’s In Blue preview the day before the meeting, it also updated the description to that of a “high-level” open debate.
No official public explanations have been given as to why Morales, Macron, Abe, and Trump did not participate in the Council meeting, although some delegations have suggested that these absences were not intended as a snub either to the Council or to its Ethiopian presidency, but rather resulted from over-scheduling. However, it is noteworthy that the Government of Sweden gave priority to the Council meeting over the Assembly’s General Debate, in that the Swedish Prime Minister participated in the Council meeting, while it was Sweden’s Foreign Minister who gave that country’s address in the General Debate.
The book (pages 41-43), supplemented by an article on this website, gives a history of the seven Security Council summits held after 1970, the year when the Council convened its only “periodic meeting” under Article 28(2) of the Charter. The seven summits are as follows:
31 January 1992 on “The responsibility of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security”, convened by the United Kingdom and attended by one King and twelve Heads of State or Government;
7 September 2000 on “Ensuring an effective role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security, particularly in Africa”, convened by Mali and attended by fourteen Heads of State or Government;
14 September 2005 on “Threats to international peace and security”, convened by the Philippines and attended by fourteen Heads of State or Government;
25 September 2007 on “Peace and security in Africa”, convened by France and attended by eleven Heads of State or Government;
24 September 2009 on “Nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament”, convened by the United States and attended by fourteen Heads of State or Government;
23 September 2010 on “Ensuring the Security Council’s effective role in maintaining international peace and security”, convened by Turkey and attended by nine Heads of State or Government; and
24 September 2014 on “Foreign terrorist fighters”, convened by the United States and attended by thirteen Heads of State or Government.
As can be seen from this record, four of the seven summits have been convened by permanent members: France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The book (page 43) described as “summit fatigue” the tapering off of the participation by Heads of State or Government between the summit of 2009 and that of 2010, as well as the downgrading of the level of a 2011 meeting originally intended by Lebanon to be a summit. Among likely explanations, the book suggests that Council meetings at the summit level may seem less compelling now that there are more occasions which bring together Heads of State or Government in other settings. In addition, as mentioned above, convening a summit during the same month as the Assembly’s General Debate – which has been the timing of six of the Council’s seven summits – risks scheduling conflicts for at least some Heads of State or Government. Moreover, as a practical matter, summits present logistical and security challenges, both for the presidents and prime ministers attending, and for the UN Secretariat.
The topic of peacekeeping reform taken up on 20 September 2017 is a crucial one for the United Nations generally, and for the Security Council in particular, and a Council meeting convened at summit level would have given added weight to the adoption of resolution 2378 (2017). However, reviewing the seven summits held by the Council, there does not seem to be a strong correlation between the importance of the issue taken up, and the level of attendance. In fact, in at least one or two of the cases, the "star power" of the presiding official may have swayed the decision of other Council members to attend at summit level, more so than the agenda. Overall, in light of uneven past experiences, it appears likely that most future September presidencies will refrain from attempting to organize a summit unless they receive convincing fixed commitments to attend at that level from an ample number of Council members.
(This update supplements pages 41-43 of the book.)
* Three Heads of State or Government of non-Council Member States also participated in the meeting: Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia; Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa; and Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway.