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The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 4th Edition

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Updated on 14 January 2018

Chapter 4:   THE COUNCIL CONVENES

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

 

Compromise on agenda item paves way for Council’s consideration of civil unrest in Iran

 

On 5 January 2018, upon the initiative of the United States, the Security Council met to consider the civil unrest in Iran which began on 28 December 2017.  Rather than adopting a new, specific agenda item in that connection, the Council met under the existing general item, “The situation in the Middle East”.

 

The agenda was adopted without any Council member taking the floor to object formally to meeting on the situation in Iran.  This is noteworthy since the previous month, a procedural vote had been necessary before the Council could consider the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

 

On 5 January, a number of political considerations factored into the decision of some Council members not to force a procedural vote, despite their view that the civil unrest in Iran was an internal matter, and therefore not within the mandate of the Security Council.  However, although they did not officially challenge the holding of the meeting, a number of Council members did express their disapproval.

 

In line with the positions they had taken during the December meeting on the DPRK human rights situation, Bolivia, China and the Russian Federation argued that the situation in Iran did not meet the criteria for consideration by the Security Council.  The representative of China contended that the Council “should not discuss the internal affairs of any country, nor is it the venue for any discussion of the human rights situation in a country.”  He stated categorically that “The Iranian situation does not pose any threat to international peace or security.”  The Russian representative asserted that the meeting was another “misuse of the forum of the Security Council by the United States” and that it undermined “the authority of the Security Council as the principal organ responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security”.  He charged that the subject of the meeting did not “correspond to the Council’s prerogatives under the Charter”, but rather was a “purely internal” matter.  The representative of Bolivia expressed the belief that holding the meeting was a “blatant attempt” to bring to the Council’s attention “issues that do not fall within the purview of this body” and which did not pose a threat to international peace and security.

 

In addition to those three Council members, other members which had supported consideration of the DPRK human rights situation, or had abstained in that procedural vote, nonetheless voiced doubts about meeting on the civil unrest in Iran.  In the view of the French representative, “However worrying the events of the past two days in Iran may be, they do not constitute per se a threat to international peace and security.”  The representative of Kazakhstan, who chaired the meeting as Council President for January, asserted that although his Government regretted the loss of life that had occurred in Iran, it considered “the developments there to be a domestic issue that does not fall under the mandate of the Security Council, since it does not represent a threat to international peace and security”.  The representative of Sweden stated that while condemning excessive use of violence in Iran, “we do, however, have our reservations about the format and timing of this meeting.” 

 

The representative of Equatorial Guinea, an incoming Council member, declared that the situation in Iran “does not in principle constitute a threat to international peace and security”.  He held that the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly Third Committee were the competent forums for addressing human rights issues.  Similarly, the Ethiopian representative expressed doubts as to “whether the Security Council is the proper forum for this discussion”. 

 

The Ethiopian representative was among those Council members who expressed misgivings about the impact of the meeting on the Security Council itself.  He voiced concern that the meeting might undermine the Council’s unity “at a time when such unity is so critical”.  The Peruvian representative, while supporting consideration of the situation in Iran from the angle of prevention,[1] also raised the importance of unity within the Council when he stated that, “Peru is convinced that in order to be credible, coherent and effective, the Council’s action should reflect the unanimous commitment of its members”.  The Russian representative contended that by taking up internal situations in countries like Iran, the “Council’s energy is being dissipated”, instead of being directed towards resolving the serious crisis situations on its agenda. 

 

Given these reservations about the meeting, the modality of convening under the agenda item “The situation in the Middle East” appeared to be an important factor allowing the session to go forward.  In each case since 2000 when procedural votes were necessary before a Council meeting could be convened, this has occurred when the proposed agenda item was very specific to the matter at issue.  This was the case concerning human settlement issues in Zimbabwe in 2005 (S/PV.5237), the situation in Myanmar in 2006 (S/PV.5526), and the human rights situation in the DPRK from 2004 through 2017 (S/PV.7353, -7575, -7830 and -8130).  

 

The particular wording of the agenda item “The situation in the Middle East” has been used by the Security Council since 1967.  It is a so-called “umbrella item”, that is, a general agenda item under which a variety of individual matters have been taken up by the Council, without an exact description.  Under “The situation in the Middle East”, the Council has convened on matters relating to Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen without adopting a more specific agenda item in those instances.  In contrast, “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” is the agenda item employed by Council for meetings specifically related to Palestinian-Israeli issues. 

 

By using the umbrella item “The situation in the Middle East” for the 5 January 2018 meeting on the civil unrest in Iran, the Security Council avoided adding to its Summary statement of matters of which the Security Council is seized an agenda item specifically referring to the situation in Iran.  As noted in the book (page 218),

 

“Because Article 24 of the Charter confers on the Security Council ‘primary responsibility for the

maintenance of international peace and security’, there has historically been some concern that in taking

up a matter explicitly the Council could appear to be deciding a priori that the matter constitutes a threat

to international peace and security.  This has been a particular concern of those Council members which

are strongly committed to upholding the Charter’s Article 2(7) limitation on intervening ‘in matters which

are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’.  While virtually all legal commentators

categorically reject any interpretation that the adoption of an agenda item amounts to a decision by the

Council that a matter constitutes a threat to international peace and security, the adoption of a non-specific agenda item has sometimes been seen as a way of underlining that such a determination is not being made.”

 

At the 5 January 2018 meeting, there was evidence in the statements of some Council members that the agenda item used for the meeting was an important issue.  For example, the representative of China noted that “The topic on today’s agenda is the situation of the Middle East”.  He stressed that the Iranian situation did not pose any threat to international peace and security, “nor is it on the agenda of the Security Council”.  The French representative observed, “We all know that there are items on the Security Council’s agenda that enable us to tackle and treat the various dossiers related to international peace and security in the region, whether their subject is the implementation of resolution 2231 (2015) or whether it is Lebanon, Syria, Yemen or Iraq.”[2]  The representative of Peru appeared to draw a contrast between the Council’s taking up the civil unrest in Iran under the more general Middle East agenda item, and its consideration of Iran’s nuclear programme under “a specific item on the agenda”.

 

However, not all Council members found the compromise with respect to the agenda item to be satisfactory.  The representative of Bolivia asserted, “we are concerned at attempts to force [the situation in Iran onto] the Security Council agenda as part of the broader Middle East agenda item”.   (S.PV/8152)

 

(This update supplements pages 218 and 220-222 of the book.)

 

 

[1] Other Council members which raised the aspect of prevention during the 5 January 2018 meeting included the United States, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands,

[2] As mentioned above, issues relating to Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have been taken up by the Security Council under the agenda item “The situation in the Middle East”.  The implementation of resolution 2231 (2015) is considered under the agenda item “Non-proliferation”.  Matters relating to Iraq are taken up under either “The situation concerning Iraq” or “The situation between Iraq and Kuwait”.