Updated on 17 December 2015
Chapter 4: THE COUNCIL CONVENES
Section 3: Agenda and Summary Statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized
Second procedural vote on DPRK human rights agenda item
In a letter to the Security Council President dated 3 December 2015 (S/2015/931), nine Council members requested, pursuant to Rule 2 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, that the Council convene to consider the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The letter was signed by the representatives of Chile, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The agenda item, “The situation in the Democratic Republic of Korea”, relates to the human rights situation in that country, as distinct from the issue of the DPRK’s nuclear programme, which the Council has had under consideration since 2006. The Council had met to take up the DPRK human rights issue only once before, on 22 December 2014 (S/PV.7353). The 2014 meeting was held in response to a letter signed by ten Council members (S/2014/872). The representative of Rwanda, who signed the letter, noted that the ten signatories were from all five of the UN’s regional groups (S/PV.7353). In contrast, none of the Council’s three African members signed the 2015 letter.
Owing to the opposition expressed by China at the start of the 2014 meeting, the adoption of the proposed new agenda item was put to a vote. By eleven in favour, two against, and two abstentions, the Council decided to proceed with the meeting. After that meeting, the new agenda item was automatically added to the Summary Statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized. This was in keeping with Rule 11 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure, and also the 2010 Note by the President (S/2010/507), which states: “The practice of including an agenda item in the summary statement once it has been adopted at a formal meeting of the Security Council will remain unchanged.” (para. 52)
Nonetheless, as was noted in a related article on this website, inclusion of an item in the Summary statement – which is sometimes called “the Council’s agenda” – does not mean that Council members are thereafter obligated to agree to meet again under the same item. That is because under Rule 9, at each of its meetings the Council must, as the first order of business, adopt the agenda for that meeting. Thus at any subsequent meeting on an agenda item added to the Summary statement as the result of a procedural vote, any Council member can again object to meeting under that agenda item, necessitating another procedural vote. Yet it had long been the Council’s practice that once there had been a procedural vote on a new agenda item, further objections to that item would not be made at a formal meeting. This had been the case concerning the next most recent agenda items for which procedural votes had occurred, those related to Zimbabwe and Myanmar, which were voted upon in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
When, however, on 10 December 2015, the Council President (United States) convened a meeting in response to the nine-member request, opposition to taking up the human rights situation in the DPRK had not abated. As had been the case in 2014, the President immediately gave the floor to those who wished to make statements. The representative of China repeated the Chinese position, expounded the previous year, that the Security Council “is not the venue for addressing issues of human rights” and that the human rights situation in the DPRK “does not constitute a threat to international peace and security”. For those reasons, the Chinese representative requested that a vote be held on the provisional agenda. Then the President, in her national capacity, asserted that for as long as the situation in the DPRK “remains unchanged, the Council should continue to hear briefings about, and engage in debates on, the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in this Chamber.”
In light of the formal request for a meeting and the Chinese expression of opposition, the President put the agenda item to a vote. This time, the agenda received only nine affirmative votes, the minimum necessary for the meeting to proceed. Voting in favour were the nine countries which had signed the letter requesting the meeting. Voting against, as had been the case in 2014, were China and the Russian Federation. In addition, Angola and Venezuela, neither of which were Council members in 2014, cast negative votes. Chad and Nigeria abstained, as they had done in the 2014 procedural vote.
As had been the case in 2014, in the 2015 meeting, after the procedural vote, the President briefly suspended the meeting. The meeting then resumed to hear two briefings, followed by statements by Council members, after which the representative of Japan and then the representative of the Republic of Korea, both non-members of the Council, were given the floor. (Japan did not speak at the 2014 meeting, while the Republic of Korea spoke as a Council member; the DPRK spoke at neither the 2014 nor the 2015 meetings.)
At the 2015 meeting, in addition to speaking to the substance of the human rights violations under discussion, most participants gave their reasons for supporting or opposing the Council’s consideration of the situation in the DPRK in a formal meeting. Those favouring such consideration invoked the scale, severity and systematic nature of the abuses which, they contended, amounted to crimes against humanity and threatened regional stability. Several members also linked the human rights abuses in the DPRK to the nuclear threat posed by that country.
The representatives of China and the Russian Federation, in speaking against consideration of the situation in the DRPK by the Security Council, repeated their earlier argument that human rights issues do not fall within the Council’s Charter mandate. The representatives of Angola and Venezuela made similar arguments, and also accused the Council of having a “double standard”, in light of the fact that serious violations of human rights occurred elsewhere without being taken up by the Council. This point was echoed by the representative of Chad.
An additional procedural argument was made by the Russian representative. He noted that the request to convene the meeting was circulated “just two days after the adoption of the programme of work of the Council for December.” Underscoring that the signatories of the request “did not link their request to any events that [had] taken place since the programme’s adoption”, he concluded that “this issue was intentionally left out of the joint work to [be] undertaken by the members of the Council under the December programme.” Such an approach, he added, “does not contribute to enhancing the transparency and openness of the work of the Security Council, a subject about which we speak so often.”
While the Russian Federation may be correct that the submission of the request following the adoption of the Council’s December programme lacked transparency vis-à-vis the other Council members, there are no restrictions on the timing of requests that the Council meet. As detailed on page 435 of the book, although the Council’s monthly work programme
“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.”
In addition, there is no requirement in Rule 2, which was invoked in the nine-State request, that a request by Council members for a meeting be linked to any specific events. Nonetheless, the timing of the request does appear to have been tactical, as does the decision by the President to convene the meeting on 10 December 2015, Human Rights Day.
One other procedural aspect of the 10 December 2015 meeting relates to the UN Journal. The Journal for that day (No. 2015/237) contained no notice of a Council meeting on the situation in the DPRK. This had also been the case when the Council held the formal meeting on 22 December 2014 on this same agenda item, and also on 15 September 2006, the day the procedural vote on the agenda item relating to Myanmar was put to a vote. In contrast, Journal No. 2005/142 did contain a notice of the meeting at which the procedural vote on the agenda item relating to human settlements issues in Zimbabwe was put to a vote. This discrepancy is explained by the fact that between the 2005 notice in the Journal and the lack of notice for the later meetings, the Council adopted its Note by the President S/2006/507. Paragraph 1 of that Note (and of the subsequent Note S/2010/507) states: “The provisional agenda for formal meetings of the Council should be included in the Journal of the United Nations provided that it has been approved in informal consultations”. Notice for the 2015 meeting thus could not be included in the Journal because the Council members had not been able to reach consensus beforehand. (This update supplements pages 220-222 of the book.)