Updated on 10 June 2020

Chapter 4:   THE COUNCIL CONVENES

Section 6:   Timing of meetings

 

14-day interval between Council meetings, as per Rule 1, during the time of COVID-19

 

After COVID-19 made the UN premises virtually inaccessible, the Security Council has not held a formal meeting since 12 March 2020.  Accordingly, from that date until the present, the Council has gone 90 days without convening a formal meeting.[1]  This has raised questions as to the applicability of Rule 1 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure.  The last clause of that rule states that “the interval between meetings shall not exceed fourteen days.”

 

As it happened, this rule was quickly disregarded early in the Council’s history.  Already during the Council’s first year, after the 23rd meeting was held on 16 February 1946, the Council did not meet again until 26 March.  In total, from 1946 to 1951, the Council failed to observe the 14-day rule on 23 occasions.[2]

 

The first volume of the Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council (page 8) provided this explanation:

 

“It has become customary, when no particular item on the Council’s agenda requires immediate consideration, for the President of the Security Council to consult with the representatives on the Council to ascertain whether there is any objection to his intention to waive rule 1.”

 

In fact, it early became the practice of presidencies not to consult on the 14-day rule at all, but rather to assume there was implicit agreement to waive it unless a member raised the need for a meeting.  This approach was apparent in the response of a Council President (Egypt) at a meeting on 10 May 1949, when the Soviet representative complained that

 

“it is too long – more than a month now – since the Security Council last met.  This is contrary to the Charter, particularly to that Article which states that the Security Council shall function continuously; it is equally contrary to the rules of procedure . . .”

 

The President answered that he had been “in constant touch with the members of the Council, and neither the representative of the Soviet Union nor any other representative asked that a meeting be held.”  Addressing the Soviet representative’s reference to the Charter, he affirmed,

 

“The Charter states that the Security Council shall function continuously, but I imagine that no one assumes that we sit here day and night.  Unless there is a call for a meeting, we do not meet.  All the members of the Council were here and ready to meet in the event that any matter requiring discussion arose.”

 

As to the charge that the delay in meeting had also been contrary to the Council’s procedural rules, the President cited as precedent four previous instances when the 14-day rule had not been honoured.  The Soviet representative then did not press his point.[3]   There appear to have been no further public complaints by any Council member over a non-observance of the last clause of Rule 1.

 

The 14-day rule for the Security Council reportedly stemmed from a feeling among those drafting the Council’s procedural rules that the League of Nations Council had met too infrequently.[4]  However, once the Security Council became operational, concern that it would not meet often enough receded, and holding meetings “on demand” became increasingly acceptable.

 

This reached an extreme in 1959, when the Security Council convened only five meetings:  one in January, one in August, and three in September.  It was during that year that the Council experienced its largest gap ever, from 30 January to 20 August, an interval of 203 days!

 

During a month in another year, when there was no real Council business, the President for that month was so disappointed that he would not have a photo of himself conducting Council proceedings that the other members courteously allowed him to convene a very brief meeting of virtually no content.  He got his cherished photo.

 

Given how often, in the Council’s early years, the last clause of Rule 1 was considered waived, the question arises as to why the Council did not then delete it.  However, as discussed in another article on this website, during that time period, the Council members showed great reluctance to amend their procedural rules so long as the question remained unresolved as to whether or not they should include a rule defining matters considered to be “procedural” and therefore not subject to the veto.

 

In recent decades, the Council’s work programme has been so overloaded that going 14 days without a meeting has not occurred, except very occasionally with respect to the Council’s winter holiday.[5]  Normally the holiday does not violate the 14-day rule.  However, the most recent break, from 21 December 2019 to 7 January 2020, lasted 18 days.[6] 

 

There may be other good reasons for urging the Security Council to try to hold some sort of formal meetings during COVID-19.  However, given the long history of implicit waivers of the 14-day rule – the most recent having occurred barely three months ago – it is doubtful that Rule 1 can be interpreted as obliging the Council to hold formal meetings during the pandemic.

 

(This update supplements pages 235-236 of the book.)

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[1] It has held many VTCs during this timeframe, but these are not considered formal "meetings".

[2] Meetings numbered 24, 44, 222, 357, 424, 427, 430, 439, 454, 455, 463, 471, 472, 473, 477, 531, 532, 541, 549, 552, 559, 566 and 567.

[3] S/PV.424.

[4] That Council had usually gone at least a month, and often much longer, between its sessions.

[5] The tradition of a holiday recess beginning the latter half of December was initiated by a representative of the United Kingdom in 1947.  In a letter to the Council President (S/540), he proposed that the Council “shall endeavour, so far as may be possible, so to arrange its business as to provide that for two periods of the year, of three weeks each, it shall not occupy itself with important business”.  A winter break has been observed since then, but in present practice, for a duration closer to two weeks than three.

[6] The Council, however, was not completely inactive during that period.  Within the 14-day interval, it met twice in closed consultations.

 

 

The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 4th Edition is available at Oxford University Press in the UK and USA. 

The Procedure of the UN Security
Council, 4th Edition

ISBN: 978-0-19-968529-5

FOR INQUIRIES, OR TO RECEIVE NOTICE OF NEW UPDATES, PLEASE CONTACT:   scprocedure@earthlink.net

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