Updated on 6 June 2017
Chapter 2: PLACE AND FORMAT OF COUNCIL PROCEEDINGS
Section 9: Place of meeting at Headquarters
The Security Council’s iconic horseshoe-shaped table
On 16 November 2016, an incident occurred in the Security Council Chamber which highlighted the reverence that some Member States accord to the Council’s iconic table. At a meeting on Kosovo, a representative of Japan advocated developing projects to enhance Kosovo’s economic self-sufficiency. In this connection, he stated:
“Today, I have brought with me a bottle of wine from Kosovo . . . Now, I know that the Security Council
is not a place to talk about wine, but I have a reason for doing so.”
He went on to tell of the successful restoration in southern Kosovo of vineyards which had been destroyed during the earlier conflict.
After completing his statement, the Japanese representative left the wine bottle standing at his place on the Council table. The following speaker, a representative of Venezuela, had barely begun his remarks when a representative of the Russian Federation asked for the floor, on a point of order:
“I apologize for interrupting. I wanted to ask my dear colleague and friend from Japan to take his
bottle of wine off of the Security Council table, if he would. I would like to remind us all once again
that this table is a sacred piece of furniture that should be treated with respect. As a matter of
principle, we should not place glasses and bottles of wine on it.”
Following this intervention, the Council President again gave the floor to the Venezuelan representative. That representative was just resuming his statement when he was interrupted on another point of order, this time raised by the Japanese representative. The latter countered that neither the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure nor its presidential note S/2010/507 contained “a prohibition on bringing a bottle of wine to the Chamber”. However, he thereafter placed the contentious bottle on the floor, out of view (S/PV.7811).
This was not the first time that Council members have expressed respect for their table, which was first installed in the Council Chamber in 1952. At the time of the Capital Master Plan (CMP) to renovate UN Headquarters, the Council Chamber had to be vacated from 2010 to 2013. At that time, Council members were presented with two options concerning the table: to build a new one, or to renovate the existing table. The Council members decided overwhelmingly in favour of preserving their historic table, which by that time had been in continuous use for almost sixty years. Accordingly, while the original table was being renovated, a substitute table was built to resemble the original table as nearly as possible, especially for televised coverage of Council meetings.
The significance of the horseshoe table was again highlighted while the CMP crews were preparing to disassemble it in order to begin restorative work. When the UN’s Department of Public Information wished the disassembling to be a “photo op” for UN journalists, this proposal was taken up by the Council members, and blocked by one of them. A representative of that delegation quipped, “We do not want to see headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers saying, ‘The Security Council is coming apart, just like its table’.” The Council members did agree that the reassembling of the table in 2013 could be photographed.
In 2014, the Russian Federation spoke to the need for propriety as concerns the Council’s Chamber as a whole. When producers of the Netflix drama “House of Cards” submitted a request to film one episode in the Chamber, the proposal was put under a no-objection deadline to all fifteen Council members. The Russian Federation representative broke silence to state, “. . . we consistently insist that the Security Council premises are not an appropriate place for filming, staging, etc.”
A wine bottle is not the most extreme object that has been brought to the Security Council table. That occurred, when a temporary table was in use at Lake Success, at a meeting on 18 September 1950 on the agenda item “Complaint of aggression upon the Republic of Korea”. The United States representative read a lengthy reported signed by General Douglas MacArthur, and then stated:
“There are some exhibits which accompany the reading of the report, and I shall be glad to have the members
of the Security Council examine them, either during the meeting or subsequent to the adjournment. They are
available right here on the table, and their markings indicate their date and identification.”
To the amazement of those assembled in the Council Chamber, one of the “exhibits” that the American representative placed on the table was a machinegun, which was labeled as being of Soviet provenance. In a rebuttal, the Soviet delegate referred to “the tragi-comedy improvised here by the United States representative for obviously provocative reasons, and which included a display of weapons”. He added, “As regards the machine-gun exhibit shown here by the United States representative, dozens of such guns can be found, and any kind of brand can be put on this weapon for purposes of provocation; but no one can be fooled by that.” (S/PV.502)
The iconic horseshoe shape of the Security Council table was adapted from the table configuration used by the Council of the League of Nations (1920-1946). The League’s Council which initially had only eight members, who sat at a semi-circular table. A table of that shape was used by the UN Security Council at the four temporary locations where it met from 1946 until it moved to its permanent premises. Photos of the first official meeting of the Security Council, held in London on 17 January 1946, show Council members seated at a semi-circular table. That same table configuration was used when the Council met at Hunter College in New York City beginning in 1946, and at Lake Success, New York, starting in 1948. When the Council met in Paris in 1948, while the General Assembly was also in session in that city, a semi-circular table configuration was again used. The table donated by the Norwegian Government which was installed in the Security Council Chamber in 1952 was a variation of the semi-circular tables previously used by the Council, with the ends slightly more extended. Originally it was intended to be made of Norwegian hardwood, but because of fire restrictions and shipping costs, ultimately it was constructed of American ash.
Especially after the Security Council took up residence in its dedicated Chamber, “the horseshoe table” became a widely recognized symbol of the Council, and that remains the case today. A book about the Council published in 2006 had as its main title, The Horseshoe Table, and from time to time “the horseshoe table” also figures in the titles of articles about the Council.
The original Security Council table was made up of 19 slightly curved units, which provided eleven places for Council members, one place for the Secretary-General, one place for Secretariat advisors, and three places at either end of the table for invited non-Council participants. In 1965, when amendments to the UN Charter went into effect increasing the number of Council members, it was decided to preserve the original table, and its matching floor well, by adding two more curved units to the table ends, for a total of 21 places. This extended table provides fifteen places for Council members, one place for the Secretary-General, one for Secretariat advisors, and two places at either end of the table for invited non-Council participants. Portable microphones have made it possible to seat three non-Council participants at either end of the table, whenever necessary for a particular Council meeting.
As renovated during the CMP, the table has retained at each place the two round openings originally created for individual speakers and controls. These have now been repurposed: one with custom-designed controls for the audio channels, and the other with a headset outlet and holder.
The traditionalism of the Security Council members towards their table is also evidenced by the fact that unlike other UN bodies, such as the General Assembly or ECOSOC, Council members have never adopted the use of electronic nameplates. Rather, each place at the table is marked by individually produced plaques. The use of these plaques has led to some nerve-wracking moments when a mistake is spotted in the official title of a non-Council member participant, or a speaker is added last-minute, and new plaques must be speedily manufactured before the start of a meeting.
The original floor well inside the Council table was infilled as part of the CMP. As noted on page 62 of the book, this lowered space had originally accommodated a table for verbatim reporters and press officers, who needed to be close to speakers in earlier years when microphone technology was less advanced. These reporters and officers now sit at the side of the Chamber, “a change insisted on by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States to allow greater interactivity.”
However, on 15 May 2013, at a programme co-sponsored by the Norwegian Government and the American Institute of Architects on the inauguration of the renovated Chamber, architects pointed out that more significant than the previous accommodation of notetakers was the fact that the floor well had been an important architectural detail. That is, the floor well had mirrored, and complemented, the circular dropped ceiling design of the Chamber, and the architects lamented this lost symmetry. As it happens, however, the infilling was done in such a way that should the Council members ever decide to restore the floor well, this work could be completed over a weekend.
A passage in the book (page 676), which has been widely commented upon, states:
“One poignant outcome of enlargement would be the probable retirement of the Council’s present
horseshoe table, which holds so much history. Cleverly designed extensions allowed the original table
to be retained during the first enlargement of the Council from eleven to fifteen members, but it will
not be possible to accommodate a larger influx of new members through a similar method.”
In light of the historical and cultural value of the table, when an eventual enlargement of the Council’s membership occurs, it would seem that an effort should be made to preserve at least some of the original elements of the table. Considering the hundreds of representatives who have sat at the Security Council table since 1952, including many of history’s most influential diplomats and heads of state or government, this table may arguably be the world’s most famous piece of furniture.
(This update supplements pages 62 and 676 of the book.)
Appreciation is expressed to Jon Buono, AIA - Preservation Consultant to UN CMP, and to the Client Services team of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, for contributing to the research for this article.