Updated on 21 March 2018
Chapter 4: THE COUNCIL CONVENES
Section 2: Rejection of items
Procedural vote blocks briefing in formal Council meeting on human rights in Syria
On 19 March 2018, the Security Council President convened a meeting at which he put before the members for adoption the provisional agenda item, “The situation in the Middle East” (S/PV.8209). Previously, the seven Council members who requested the meeting had announced that its intended purpose was to hear a briefing on the human rights situation in Syria by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
In recent years, “The situation in the Middle East” agenda item has been used by the Security Council for general regional issues, and also when it has met, variously, on the situations in Lebanon, Syria or Yemen. The use of such general “umbrella” items is one way for the Council to meet on a situation when a more specific agenda item might be politically sensitive.
Under Rule 9 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, the adoption of the agenda is the first order of business at any formal Council meeting. Historically, this has been the moment when any Council members who does not agree with a particular meeting going forward have raised their opposition.
This was the case on 19 March 2018, when the representative of the Russian Federation asked for the floor at the outset of the meeting. He first noted that to his knowledge, the meeting had not been “scheduled in the Security Council’s agreed programme of work for this month.” He then requested an explanation of “what exactly we are supposed to discuss at today’s meeting and whom the Council plans to invite as briefers.”
Speaking on behalf of the Council members who initiated the meeting, the representative of France explained that they had requested a briefing by the High Commissioner because, “in order to act, the Council should have at its disposal all the information it needs to understand the crises it considers, including information on human rights.” This, he added, was particularly the case regarding Syria, “where, as we all know, the human rights dimension has been inextricably linked to the dynamics of the conflict from the outset.” He cited as precedents previous briefings by the High Commissioner on other situations on the Council’s agenda, and he added that “Syria should not and cannot be an exception.” He also noted that a former High Commissioner had briefed the Council on Syria in 2014.
The Russian representative then took the floor to state that his delegation was “opposed to holding today’s meeting, as we immediately informed our colleagues on Friday, 16 March.” Explaining his position, he said
“We see no justification for such a meeting, since human rights is not a subject on the Security Council’s agenda. That is what the Human Rights Council deals with in its work in Geneva. The mere presence of Mr. Ra’ad Al Hussein in New York is not a convincing reason for him to brief the Security Council.”
The Russian representative contended that the proposed briefing was a “deeply politicized” initiative by those who wished to focus on the Syrian Government, “rather than the extremists whom they openly support and who have been terrorizing the people of Syria for eight years”. He asserted that “we believe it essential to cancel the meeting”.
Opposition to the meeting was also expressed by the representative of China. He affirmed that the primary role of the Security Council was “to maintain international peace and security, not to consider human rights issues.” He added that “Pushing the Security Council into discussing human rights issues erodes the functions of other United Nations organs and will not help us to find an effective solution to the issue.” China, he asserted, opposed holding deliberations in the Council “on such issues, and in particular on questions of human rights in Syria.”
As requested by the Russian Federation, the Council President then put the draft agenda to a vote, and it fell short, by just one vote, of the minimum of nine necessary for adoption. Eight votes in favour were cast by France, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation cast negative votes, while abstentions were entered by the three African members of the Council – Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia.
Given the result of the procedural vote, the Council President (Netherlands) then adjourned the meeting. (See the related article on this website on the Arria-formula meeting that convened shortly thereafter, at which Prince Zeid presented the briefing which he would have given in the Council Chamber had the formal meeting gone forward.)
In the Security Council’s earlier decades, there were a number of cases when it rejected consideration of a matter as the result of a procedural vote on the provisional agenda.* In those cases, however, the Council rejected taking up a situation in any of its aspects. What is unusual about the 19 March 2018 is that the procedural vote blocked the convening of a meeting on one aspect related to Syria, a situation on which it otherwise has frequently met.
As described above, at the 19 March 2018 meeting, the Russian Federation requested a procedural vote on the provisional agenda as a means of determining whether a sufficient number of Council members supported hearing the briefing by the High Commissioner. Alternatively, the Russian Federation might have allowed the agenda to be adopted, and then objected to extending an invitation pursuant to Rule 39 for Prince Zeid to participate in the meeting, and requested a procedural vote in that regard. Historically, objections to hearing briefings on human rights at a formal Council meeting were raised in the context of Rule 39 in three different cases which occurred in 1992:
As described in the book (page 256), in August 1992, four Council members objected to a proposal to hear a briefing, in his personal capacity, by Max van der Stoel, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, on the human rights situation in Iraq. In November 1992, two Council members objected to a proposed personal invitation to Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights for the former Yugoslavia, and to a further invitation to van der Stoel. However, in all three cases, no procedural vote was conducted. Rather, after note was taken by the Council President of the objections raised, the briefings proceeded.
On 19 March 2018, the Russian representative seemed to raise as a further reason for not holding the briefing the fact that it was not previously “scheduled in the Security Council’s agreed programme of work for this month”. While each Council Presidency, in consultation with the other Council members, seeks to plan in advance as much of the Council’s programme as possible, virtually all calendars undergo modification as the month progresses. In this connection, the book (page 435) notes
“Although the calendar goes through an adoption procedure, it is essentially a means of publicizing the Council’s intentions and is in no way binding on the Council as to the dates, meeting formats, or formulation of matters to be taken up. The Council can – and does – add or delete items and change meeting formats over the course of each month.”
That flexibility with respect to the monthly work programme is allowable is evidenced in two paragraphs in the S/2017/507 procedural note on working methods:
“5. The members of the Security Council agree that the President of the Security Council should update the provisional monthly programme of work (calendar) and make it available to the public through the Council website each time it is revised and distributed to Council members, with appropriate indication of the revised items (our emphasis).
6. The members of the Security Council invite the Secretariat to notify Member States of unscheduled or emergency meetings not only by email but also through the Council website and by telephone as necessary (our emphasis).”
Accordingly, a proposal to add a meeting during a month is not invalid by reason of the fact that the adopted programme of work for that month previously had not included it.
(This update supplements pages 212-215, 256 and 435 of the book.)
* See cases summarized in pages 212-215 in the book. The first case occurred in 1952, when an agenda item relating to the situation in Tunisia was rejected. In 1953, a procedural vote rejected consideration by the Council of the question of Morocco. The situation in Algeria failed to be taken up by the Council after a procedural vote in 1956. The last case occurred in 1962 when, as the result of a procedural vote, the Council rejected consideration of a complaint by Cuba against the trade embargo and other measures taken against it by the United States.