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The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 4th Edition

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Updated on 6 June 2017

Chapter 4:   THE COUNCIL CONVENES

Section 3:   Agenda and Summary Statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized

 

The Security Council’s monthly meetings on the Middle East

 

Speaking with UN journalists early in her term, United States Ambassador Nikki Haley addressed the fact that the Security Council met every month on the situation between the Palestinians and Israel.  Haley questioned why, rather than taking up other more pressing conflicts in the region, the Council held a monthly meeting where “all they do is obsess over Israel”. 

 

The practice of holding a monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” – the Council’s official agenda item for the situation between the Palestinians and Israel – dates back to the year 2002, when Syria was an elected member of the Council, and Tunisia was Chairman of the Arab Group for the month of April.  Previously, whenever violent events occurred on the ground, the Arab Group frequently requested that the Council urgently convene a formal meeting.  These requests were made, pursuant to Rule 2 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, by the Council member holding the Arab “swing seat” [1], or by other members of the Arab Group, pursuant to Rule 3. 

 

Thus in April 2002, Tunisia requested on 1, 6 and 17 April that “immediate” meetings be convened to consider outbreaks of violence and the non-implementation of relevant Council resolutions (S/2002/336, S/2002/359, S/2002/431).  For the first six months of 2002, the Council held 21 meetings or resumptions on the agenda item “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.  During the month of March 2001, the Council convened five meetings or resumptions on the situation.  From October to December 2000, the Council held ten meetings or resumptions relating to Palestinian issues. 

 

Some Security Council members felt that these requests for urgent meetings were too frequent.  However, it was politically sensitive for the Council not to response affirmatively to formal Rule 2 or 3 requests.  Eventually, as a compromise, an informal agreement was reached between the Security Council members and the Arab Group that the Council would hold one meeting on Palestinian issues each month.  In return, it was understood that the Arab countries would not request additional meetings other than in response to exceptional circumstances.  Since 2002, this informal agreement has been largely respected.

 

A further adjustment was made during Qatar’s 2006-7 term as an elected member of the Council.  As detailed in the book on page 23,

 

“frequent crises on the ground in the Middle East often prompted some UN Member States to

request that the Council convene open debates on the region so that interested non-Council

members could state their positions.  Some Council members argued that holding open debates so frequently on the Middle East would be redundant and counterproductive and, as a consequence,

the number of such debates actually held was judged by the requestors as insufficient.  In order to

offer UN Member States a reasonable, but not disproportionate, opportunity to address the Council

on this question, Qatar proposed the idea of convening an open debate on the Middle East on a

quarterly basis, and this convention has generally been followed since that time.”

 

During the United States presidency of the Security Council in April 2017, Ambassador Haley made an effort to counteract what she had earlier termed “the UN’s anti-Israel bias”, which in her view was “long overdue for change”.  For the quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which was due to be held that month, she circulated a concept note which encouraged participants “to examine the conflicts in the Middle East through a broader lens”.  In this connection, she proposed three “key questions”:

 

  • Who are the regional players that most benefit from chaos in the region, and what are the connections between terrorist groups and these states?

  • What steps can be taken to identify and address threats to international peace and security?

  • How can the international community work to ensure that bad actors do not benefit from post-conflict reconstruction efforts?

     

None of these questions was specific to Palestinian issues. The body of the concept note also did not mention those issues, but rather referred to terrorist groups, as well as the situations in Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya (S/2017/305).

 

At the open debate, held on 20 April 2017, the observer of Palestine affirmed that there could be “no discussion of countering extremist terror and stabilizing the region” without recognizing the fact that at “the heart of the instability in our region remains the Palestine question”.   In contrast, the representative of Israel welcomed “efforts to widen the scope of the meetings of the Security Council to focus on the real dangers in the Middle East.” 

 

In her national remarks, Haley reaffirmed her criticism of the monthly Middle East meetings as “absurdly biased against one country”.  In her view, the meetings do “nothing to bring the parties closer together”, but rather “actually work to push the two sides apart”.   She encouraged other States to break out “of old, familiar counterproductive patterns”, so that “we might actually achieve something valuable.”

 

Virtually all Council members acquiesced in the Presidency’s request that they address the broader situation in the region.  However, many also used the occasion to reaffirm the centrality of the Palestinian question.  The representative of Sweden asserted that “the international community and the Council have a responsibility to remain engaged” in this question.  The French representative contended that “By its gravity, its symbolic dimension and its place in the collective imagination, the scope of the unresolved conflict is foundational and goes far beyond the borders of Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

 

In his statement, the representative of Japan said that the Israeli-Palestinian “is one of the central issues shaping international relation in the region” and “feeds into wider regional dynamics”.  For the Uruguayan representative, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, owing to its duration and its spillover into the rest of the region, remains the most relevant of all of the situations that affect the Middle East.”  Similarly, the Chinese representative expressed the view that “The Palestinian question remains at the heart of the Middle East issue”.  The Bolivian representative highlighted the primacy of Palestinian issues by quoting former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement that “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just one of many conflicts in the region.  It is in many ways a long-standing, gaping wound that has fed tension and conflict throughout the Middle East.”

 

Among the African members of the Council, the Ethiopian representative asserted that “one cannot ignore the Palestinian issue”.  The representative of Senegal affirmed, “We all agree that the Palestinian question remains relevant.”  The Egyptian representative argued that the fact that “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” had been on the Council’s agenda for many years reflected the Council’s awareness “of the importance of the Palestinian question and its influence on the Middle East as a whole”. 

 

One of the firmest responses to the American approach was that of the Russian representative.  He expressed “categorical disagreement with the attempt to tailor this meeting to the domestic American context and exclusively to American foreign policy objectives”.  In his view, the Palestinian-Israeli problem “should remain at the centre of the regional agenda and of the international community’s attention”.  Another strong reaction was expressed by Iran, a non-member of the Council, whose representative stated that “By blaming all others but the occupying Power, the United States seeks to erase the question rather than address it”. 

 

Another non-member of the Council, the representative of Lebanon, asserted that “we in the Chamber all share the same frustration of having the Palestinian question agenda item discussed every three months”.  However, because a just and durable settlement of the conflict had not been achieved, “consequently the Palestinian question keeps rooting itself deep in the agenda of this body.”  The representative of South Africa contended that “this quarterly debate should not stray from the core Israel-Palestine issue”.  It was his view that because the issue remained unresolved after 70 years, “today’s open debate, at the very least, should provide the wider United Nations Membership with an opportunity to express their views on the conflict.”  (S/PV.7929)

 

Regarding the specific agenda item “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, this wording was first used at an official meeting convened on 3 October 2000.  However, the Council has had a long history of meeting on this situation under a variety of agenda formulations, including

  • The Palestine question (1947-1966); [2]

  • Arrangements for the proposed Peace Conference on the Middle East (1973);

  • The Middle East problem, including the Palestinian question (1976-1985);

  • The situation in the occupied Arab Territories (1976-1998); and

  • The question of the exercise by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights (1976- 1980).

 

These five agenda items, although inactive, remained on the Council’s Summary statement of matters of which the Security is seized in response to an annual request from Syria, until 2015, when such a request was not received and they were deleted (see related article on this website). 

 

Since 24 October 1967, the Council has maintained a more general agenda item relating to the region on its Summary statement – “The situation in the Middle East”.  Today this agenda item is used by the Council for more global discussions of the region.  It is also used for formal meetings convened on the situations of specific countries such as Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen which, by convention, are not specifically named in the agenda item formulation.  These countries, are, however, indicated on the Council’s monthly programme of work.

 

(This update supplements pages 23 and 229-233 of the book.)

 

__________________________

 

[1] On page 127, the book explains that “since 1968 there has been an informal understanding between the African and Asian Groups that there will always be one State representing the Arab Group on the Security Council.  Under that arrangement, a candidate country belonging to the Arab Group is put forward alternately, every two years, by the Asian Group and then by the African Group.”

 

[2] The years given indicate the first and last formal Council meetings convened under each item.