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Updated on 15 November 2019


Section 4:   Order of speakers


Joint statements may be one avenue for fitting Security Council meetings into austerity time limits


On 4 October 2019, Secretary-General António Guterres wrote to all UN Member States updating them on the Organization’s budget liquidity crisis.  Among other measures being taken by the UN Secretariat, he informed them that starting 14 October, “we will discontinue events before or after official meeting hours at all headquarters duty stations and during weekends.”  The term “official meeting hours” was interpreted to mean 10:00-1:00 and 3:00-6:00 p.m. on workdays.


The Security Council members have largely complied with this directive, mostly observing the standard two-hour lunch break and a 6:00 p.m. cut-off for their regular formal meetings and for closed consultations.  This has obviated the need to pay overtime to some personnel, including the necessary interpretation teams. 


However, the first open debate to be held after the start of the new time limits – on “Women and peace and security” – underscored the challenges this strict adherence to regular working hours will pose whenever the Council convenes open debates, for which dozens of non-Council Member States usually inscribe to speak. 


In the past, the annual open debate on “Women and peace and security” extended well into the evening in order to accommodate all non-Council Member States which wished to participate.  It had also become customary for this meeting to continue through the lunch period without a break.  The October 2018 open debate on this agenda item, for example, began at 10:05 a.m. and continued uninterrupted until 8:25 p.m. (S/PV.8382).


In contrast, the open debate on “Women and peace and security” convened on 29 October 2019 began at 10:06 a.m., suspended at 1:22 p.m., resumed at 3:01 p.m. and “rose” at 6:05 p.m. (S/PV.8649).  But the meeting did not adjourn at the end of that day, because some 40 inscribed speakers remained to be heard.  Accordingly, four working days later, on 4 November, the open debate, which had first convened under South Africa’s October Council presidency, resumed under the United Kingdom presidency.  That second resumption began at 3:00 and ended at 6:00 p.m.


As noted in our book (page 51),


“Many Council members make one or more thematic debates a centerpiece of their presidency.  Council members use these debates as an opportunity to highlight an issue of importance to their government and often also as an occasion for a high-level national representative, usually the foreign minister, to come to New York to preside over a Council meeting during their presidency.”


Open thematic debates constitute an important outreach to non-Council members, who otherwise have few opportunities to address the Council.  Also, some thematic debates give rise to considerable interest in the wider international community, particularly among NGOs. 


At the same time, both Council members and non-members agree that there are disadvantages to holding lengthy open debates.  Interest among Member States and the media tapers off as the meeting drags on.  A number of ambassadors attend only to deliver their statements and then leave, so that often only junior members of delegations are present in the Chamber to hear later speakers.  In addition, some Council members believe that the more marginal thematic debates use up valuable time which could better be employed in dealing with pressing country- and region-specific items on the Council’s agenda.


Regardless, it is clear that given the Council’s over-scheduled monthly calendars, it will be difficult to programme additional resumptions of lengthy open debates as a consequence of adhering to the new time restrictions.  For this reason, a number of measures are being looked at.  These measures will probably not eliminate the need for resumptions altogether, but they may serve to reduce their duration.  The measures include:


1.  Starting meetings on time.  During its November 2019 Council presidency, the United Kingdom has been rigourous about this.


2.  Continuing the trend of reducing the number of formalities and diplomatic niceties in order to free more time for substantive statements.


3.  Restricting the number of briefers, and holding briefers to the time limits set out in the Note by the President S/2017/507 (15 minutes for formal meetings; 10 minutes for informal consultations; and five minutes for consultations when preceded by public briefings) or even more stringent limits.


4.  Holding all other speakers to a strict 4- or 5-minute speaking limit.  At the open debate resumption on 4 November 2019, the United Kingdom representative made use of a red light to enforce the announced time limit.


5.  Although some wider recognition will be lost, expanding the trend of reading Presidential Statements into the record instead of reading them out in full during a meeting.


6.  Convening more thematic meetings in the formats of “Debates” or “Briefings”, rather than open debates.  It will be recalled that pursuant to S/2017/507, meetings convened as “Debates” afford participation opportunities only to “non-Council members that are directly concerned or affected or have a special interest in the matter under consideration”, a determination which is made by the Security Council itself.  Participation in meetings convened as “Briefings” is even more limited, normally involving at most only one or two directly affected States.  Even before the Secretary-General’s austerity measures were announced, there had been an increase in the convening of thematic meetings using these more restricted formats.*  However, the Council will have to strike a balance in its use of the various meeting formats so as to continue providing adequate opportunity for interested non-Council Member States to participate in its work.


7.  One other time-saving measure merits particular attention.  Under the heading “Open debates”, presidential note S/2017/507 states that “the Security Council welcomes joint statements by both Security Council members and other Member States.” 


Joint statements have a long history in the Security Council.  The Non-Aligned Movement, for one, has an established tradition of joint statements.  More recently, members of such organizations as the European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have occasionally united behind joint statements.  In these cases, however, it has been customary for at least some individual members of these organizations also to give a national statement, and therefore minimal timesaving has been realized.


Another precedent exists, however, whereby subregional Member States, such as the Nordic countries or the Benelux countries, have aligned behind a statement made by one of their members on their behalf, while the others have forgone making national statements.  Among Security Council members, a common statement by all three elected African countries (the ‘A3’) has sometimes been delivered by one of them.  And on 6 June 2019, at the open debate on the Council’s working methods (S/PV.8539), the representative of South Africa, as that month’s coordinator for the 10 elected members (‘E10’), was the only E10 country to speak, making a statement on behalf of all of them.  That joint statement took about 12 minutes.  Had the elected members each spoken for their allotted four minutes, the total elapsed time would have been 40 minutes.


In October 2015, when Spain convened an open debate on working methods (S/PV.7539), its concept note encouraged speakers to make joint statements and provided novel time guidelines in this regard:


  • Joint statements of groups – up to 10 minutes

  • National statements complementing joint statements – 2 minutes

  • National statements – 3 minutes


A number of States did participate through joint statements.  Notably, one Council member, Angola, spoke on behalf of itself and five other Council members – Chile, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Spain – “from six different regions of the world”.  The Russian representative termed this statement “a genuine revolution in the working methods of the Council”, and added that “Such initiatives should be supported”.   During the meeting, however, there were also some moments of confusion in applying the timing guidelines (see related article on this website).


In any event, joint statements which replace national statements have considerable timesaving potential, and might be encouraged by Security Council presidencies for particular open debates.  They will not, however, be achievable in all cases, as some countries will find it difficult to forgo a national statement on certain topics despite there being a joint statement.  In addition, joint statements can be very time-consuming to negotiate.  And, as has occurred within the European Union over the Middle East, sometimes consensus on a common statement simply cannot be reached.


Nonetheless, more frequent use of joint statements is an interesting option for reducing the length of Security Council meetings, and could be kept in mind not only for Open debates, but also for certain Debates and Briefings.


(This update supplements pages 44-51 of the book.)


* In the case of the September 2019 Council presidency, the Russian Federation convened none of its three thematic meetings as open debates.  Rather, they were held as two Debates and one Briefing. 



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