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Updated on 5 April 2019

Chapter 3:   THE PEOPLE

Section 1:  The President


German Council presidency employs hourglass in new attempt to curb overly long remarks


At a 3 April 2019 meeting on Haiti,[1] in order to encourage speakers to respect established time limits, Germany, as Council President, initiated use of time-honoured technology:  an 18-inch wooden hourglass.  This is the latest attempt by a succession of Security Council presidents to tame the inclination of speakers to continue well past the attention span of their listeners.


The hourglass, made to order in Thuringia, Germany, is timed to expire after five minutes 30 seconds.  This, the German representative noted, would give speakers a slight grace period beyond the time limit set out in the comprehensive presidential note on Security Council working methods, S/2017/507.  In its paragraph 22, the Note encourages, “as a general rule, all participants, both members and non-members of the Council, in Council meetings to deliver their statements in five minutes or less.”


Results were mixed during the meeting inaugurating the hourglass.  The majority of Council members spoke for about five minutes or just a little over.  However, China, Indonesia and South Africa completed their statements in less than five minutes.  This created for the Council President perhaps an unanticipated problem, in that the hourglass was not empty before it became time to reverse it – a problem which the President resolved in one case by saying he would speak very slowly before giving the floor to the next speaker.  In his national capacity, the German representative did not have a precise idea as to how long his statement was turning out to be, since he had inherited some unused sand from the Chinese representative who preceded him.  Fortunately for his credibility, the German representative spoke barely over five minutes.


The one speaker who went considerably beyond the limit was the representative of the Dominican Republic, who held the floor for more than 11 minutes.  The Council President, however, after first joking about having a “private talk” with him afterwards, expressed recognition that as Haiti’s closest neighbour, the Dominican Republic should have the privilege of additional time.  Seeming to justify this perspective, a number of other speakers commented on the cogency of various points raised by the Dominican representative.  


Among speakers other than briefers and Council members, Canada and Argentina stayed within the time limits, but the representative of the European Union spoke for over eight minutes.  This created a somewhat awkward situation for the representative of Germany, for which EU membership is a key foreign policy pillar.  He nuanced his response by saying that in light of the fact that the EU representative was speaking on behalf of 28 members countries, he could forgive him for surpassing the time limit.  This, of course, creates a precedent for making similar allowance in future for representatives of other regional or subregional organizations.


In the Council’s early decades, the length of statements was not particularly a problem.  For one thing, until 1966, the Council was smaller, having only eleven members, as compared to today’s fifteen.  Moreover, meetings occurred much less frequently.  In the two decades prior to the Council’s enlargement, during only three years did the Council hold more than 100 meetings per annum, and during eight years, it held less than 50 per annum.  This contrasts dramatically to the 288 official meetings held in 2018, not to mention the exponential increase in various informal meetings (see related chart on this website).  In that earlier, more lenient atmosphere, Security Council members and invited non-Council member delegations often made statements which were more like speeches, complete with lengthy histories, philosophical reasoning, and oratorical flourishes.  As a result, although many statements were fairly brief, it was common for some to last as long as 30 minutes or more.


By 1979, however, the UN membership had expanded from the original 51 countries to 152 Member States, and lengthy statements had become a problem in all organs of the United Nations.  Not only were overly long meetings testing the patience of the delegations and UN officials who had attend them, but excessively verbose statements were also taxing the interpreting, editing and publishing capacities of the Organization, since all these statements had to be recorded in verbatim records.  As well, there were political implications.  That year Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim was reported by the New York Times as having “expressed sensitivity about the organization being attacked as a ‘talking shop’,” a critique that was particularly widespread in the United States media.


Accordingly, Waldheim, on his own initiative, produced, according to the Times, a report “that would place drastic restrictions on the length and the number of speeches permitted each delegate.  For example, he wants them to keep their explanations of their votes to 10 minutes and replies to the charges of other delegates to two per meeting.”  While the Secretary-General’s proposed limitations do not seem “drastic” by today’s standards, in any event, as can be seen from subsequent verbatim records, his initiative had negligible impact.

Years later, the problem came to a head in the Security Council notably because of the increasing frequency of open debates, particularly on thematic topics.  These open debates could extend through two, and even occasionally, three resumed sessions.  As noted in the book (page 49), during the course of many such meetings,


“Interest both among Member States and the media tapers off as the meeting drags on.  Often in a long thematic debate only junior members of delegations are present in the Chamber to hear the statements of most non-Council Member States, and frequently the ambassadors of non-members attend the meeting only to deliver their statements and then leave.  The fact that the Council has increasingly adopted outcome documents for thematic debates early during the meeting has exacerbated this problem of the ‘empty Chamber’."


In an effort to maintain the quality of thematic debates, the Council decided to limit statements to no more than five minutes.  This formula was initially set out in the first comprehensive presidential note S/2006/507 and, as noted above, is set out in the most recent comprehensive note, S/2017/507.  Council members have often agreed to further reduce the time limit for a particular meeting to four minutes, which generally equates to one page of text single-spaced, or two pages double-spaced.


The first use of a timer in the Council Chamber was during the summit meeting of 24 September 2009 on “Nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament”.  Despite the fact that the meeting was presided over authoritatively by United States President Barack Obama, a number of participants were not intimidated by the timer and proceeded to speak well past the given limit.[2]


Short, targeted statements in the Security Council had long been a goal in particular of the United Kingdom.  After failing for a number of years to make progress in this direction through informal exhortations, during its August 2014 Council presidency, the United Kingdom activated a flashing light system to signal speakers when they reached the limit of their allotted time.  In some instances, the President thereafter banged the gavel to bring a speaker’s remarks to an end.  Few successive presidencies, however, have continued the practice.[3]


It should be noted that the goal of shorter statements is not solely to achieve more streamlined meetings.  Rather, in light of Council members’ own criticisms that their meetings are not sufficiently interactive, it has been hoped that more concise, targeted statements would increase the time available for Council members to respond spontaneously to points raised by each other and by briefers.


There are, however, some downsides to maintaining strict speaking limits.  Substantively, as was seen during the 3 April 2019 meeting on Haiti, occasionally a particular speaker – in that case, the Dominican Republic – has points to make which are of real benefit to the Council’s deliberations but which require more time to present in adequate detail. In addition, it can be diplomatically awkward, when Security Council meetings are held at ministerial level or higher, for prominent government officials to undertake lengthy travel from their capitals only to be rigorously held to a five-minute statement. 


One other difficulty is that in order to keep within the recommended time limit, many speakers now read their remarks at an accelerated pace.  In fact, it is said that the speed at which statements are made in the Security Council today is twice as fast as during the Council’s early decades, and this can make nightmarish the task of the UN interpreters. 


In the past, regardless of the methods employed, it has proved difficult to maintain speaking limits in a consistent manner for an extended period of time.  It remains to be seen whether employing the Thuringia hourglass will become an established practice for future Council presidencies.  Given, however, the exceptions which occurred already during its first use, one suspects that in general, observance of the Council’s optimal speaking limits, rather than being rigidly enforced, will for the most part continue to be left to the good faith discretion of each speaker. 


(This update supplements pages 49 and 117 of the book.)


[1] S/PV.8502.

[2] S/PV.6191.

[3] Among prior Council presidents which attempted to curtail lengthy statements were Italy in 1974 (S/PV.1942) and France in 1986 (SPV.2675 and 2677).



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