Revised on 3 February 2022


Section 6:   Motions, proposals, and suggestions


Explaining the “lead country” or “penholder” practice for drafting outcome documents (with Table)

At a time when the Security Council is adopting more than 200 outcome documents per year, the role of “lead country” or “penholder” has never been more important. And yet the parameters of this practice are somewhat obscure. (For a history of "penholding", see the related article on this website.) While the Council itself does not publish lists of which members are serving as penholders, Council members and those interfacing with the Council maintain informal lists. This PDF constitutes this website's informal list.*






The term used in Rules 32 and 35 of the Council's Provisional Rules of Procedure for a country which puts forward a draft proposal is “original mover”. During a related debate in 1946 on the Rules of Procedure, the term “proponent” was also used in English. The term used in French – “l’auteur” (“author”) – further clarified the Council’s intention (S/PV.41). "Drafter" was also sometimes used in English.


Around the millenium, the term "lead country" became more common. Then the term “penholder”, a colloquial American expression used in the US Congress, came into use after 2010. "Penholder" has been translated as “rédacteur” in French, “redactor” in Spanish, and “автор/соавторы” in Russian (S/2017/507). The term “penholders” was defined by the representative of Portugal in 2012, when he was serving as Chair of the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions, as “the Council members who initiate and chair the informal drafting process”. This drafting process encompasses the Council’s resolutions, statements by the President (PRSTs), letters or Notes by the President which contain decisions, and statements to the press. 


A Note by the President adopted in 2017 (S/2017/507) states that the Security Council members


“support, where appropriate, the informal arrangement whereby one or more Council members (as ‘penholder(s)’) initiate and chair the informal drafting process.  This informal arrangement, where appropriate, aims to facilitate timely initiatives to ensure Council action while preserving an element of continuity, with a view to enhancing the efficiency of the Council’s work.”


Rules 32 and 35 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure make clear that from the outset, the Council intended that one or more Council members (or even non-Council members) would be able to draft texts of decisions to be considered for adoption by the Council. What is different in today’s practice is the element of continuity, whereby a lead country tends to continuously “hold the pen” on a particular item for an extended period of time, sometimes for as long as the item remains on the Council’s agenda. In the Council’s earlier decades, penholding shifted more spontaneously among Council delegations.


The 2017 Note by the President states that “Any member of the Security Council may be a penholder”. However, in actuality the preponderance of penholding is carried out by the “P3” – France, the United Kingdom and the United States – which “hold the pen” on ten or more items each, depending on how various agenda items are defined. France and the United Kingdom tend to be penholders for matters relating to their former colonies. This can have a mixed impact, because it can sometimes be resented by the States concerned, while at the same time it also reflects the continuing existence of close diplomatic, economic, and linguistic ties. The United States tends to serve as penholder on agenda items which are of priority strategic interest in American foreign policy, such as Iraq, the Middle East and the question of Palestine, and Non-proliferation/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


Some odd combinations exist. For example, three different permanent members “hold the pen” with respect to Somalia: The United Kingdom is penholder for the situation in Somalia overall, yet the United States is penholder generally for piracy off the coast of Somalia, while the Russian Federation is penholder for juridical issues relating to piracy off the coast of Somalia. The United Kingdom is penholder for the situation in Darfur, Sudan, while the United States is penholder for relations between the Sudan and South Sudan, as well as for the situation in South Sudan. Penholding for Syria has been fluid, involving both permanent and elected members, depending on whether the specific issue has been political aspects of the conflict in Syria (on which not only France, the Russian Federation and the United States have prepared draft resolutions, but also occasionally some elected members), the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed in the Golan Heights (the Russian Federation and United States together); use of chemical weapons in Syria (France, the United Kingdom and the United States), or the humanitarian situation (Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg in 2014; Jordan, New Zealand and Spain in 2015; Egypt, New Zealand and Spain in 2016; Egypt, Japan and Sweden in 2017; Kuwait and Sweden in 2018; Kuwait and Germany in 2019; Belgium and Germany in 2020; and Ireland and Norway in 2021 and 2022).


On page 395, the book details the curious history of draft resolutions on renewing the UNDOF mandate. The drafts were for many years prepared, with only small technical alterations, by the Secretariat as part of a compromise reached by Council members to keep the process for adopting the twice-yearly resolution as neutral as possible. However, after the Council’s consensus broke down in 2010, different combinations of Council members “held the pen” until it became the usual practice for the Russian Federation and the United States to prepare the draft together.


The provisions in the 2014 and 2017 Notes by the President referred to above were aimed in part at creating more opportunities for elected members to serve as “penholder” for items on the Council’s agenda. Historically, elected members have acted as “lead” for relatively few items. Those items have included Afghanistan, the lead countries for which are usually agreed, at the beginning of each year, in conjunction with the designation of the bureaux of the Council’s subsidiary bodies. In recent years, Turkey, Japan, Germany, Australia, Spain, Japan for a second time, the Netherlands, Germany, Indonesia, Estonia and Norway have served as penholders for Afghanistan. In 2019, for the first time two elected members – Germany and Indonesia – began serving as co-penholders on that agenda item, an arrangement which continued in 2021 with Estonia and Norway serving together. However, with the departure from the Council of Estonia, in 2022, the lead on Afghanistan has reverted to a single penholder, Norway. 


The penholder for the situation in Guinea-Bissau, not yet determined for 2022, has customarily been an elected member, either an African country or Brazil, in view of its also being a Lusophone country. In 2017, Senegal became the penholder for The Gambia.  Uganda, during its 2009-10 term on the Council, served as lead country with respect to the extension of sanctions to Eritrea in the context of Somalia. In the past, items such as Timor-Leste and the situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia had elected members as penholders, but many such situations are no longer on the Council’s agenda. 


In addition, some thematic issues have an elected member as their lead country, especially if that member has held a thematic debate on the matter during its Presidency. However, the United Kingdom has consistently served as penholder on the protection of civilians. The United Kingdom has also been the lead country for general issues relating to women and peace and security, while the United States “holds the pen” on the question of sexual violence.


For matters concerning the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and the successor Residual Mechanism, as well as the International Criminal Court, the lead country has been the elected member chairing the Council’s Informal Working Group on International Tribunals (IWGIT).  Beginning in 2008, the successive IWGIT Chairs have been Belgium, Austria, Portugal, Guatemala, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Viet Nam and Gabon. The Chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, presently Norway, has served as lead country on that issue. 


A number of elected members have taken the lead on working methods, particularly while chairing the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions. These have included Japan (during three different terms on the Council), Slovakia, Panama, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Portugal, Argentina, Angola, Kuwait, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and, in 2022, Albania.


As explained on page 262 of the book, for a number of years it was common practice for the “penholder” on an item to have the option of speaking first at Council proceedings. That practice has become more variable, starting with the presidency of the Russian Federation in March 2013. The Russian representative spoke directly to this issue during an open debate on working methods in 2012:


“We deem unfounded the prevailing opinion that the so-called penholders have some kind of right to always take the floor first when discussing relevant issues.  In our opinion, that is justified only when they are introducing draft decisions to the Council and therefore representing them . . .”  (S/PV.6870).


The practice of having the penholder speak first has been addressed in several Notes by the President, including S/2017/507. That Note provides that “In certain cases, the President of the Security Council may adjust the list of speakers and inscribe first the delegation(s) responsible for the drafting process in order to allow it or them to make an introductory or explanatory presentation.”


As detailed on page 496 of the book, when members of the Security Council decide to undertake a mission to the field, pursuant to presidential note S/2017/507, they designate one or more Council members to coordinate the mission, including drafting the terms of reference and proposing the itinerary. Normally when the Council members are to visit more than one country, a different head is designated for each leg of the mission. Such heads have usually been the penholders for the items most closely related to the mission.  However, in recent years, a practice has developed for pairing the penholder, which is often a P3 country, with an elected member from the region to serve as a co-lead.  Such co-leadership arrangements have given the Council’s missions to the field a more diverse and regionally appropriate dimension.


Because co-lead arrangements for missions to the field have worked well, some have pointed to them as a promising precedent for developing a system of co-penholders for the drafting of outcome documents. In 2015, the representative of Switzerland, on behalf of the UN Member States belonging to the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT), wrote to the Security Council calling for “the establishment of co-penholderships, whereby more than one penholder initiates and chairs the drafting process.” This, ACT believes, will create “a more participatory decision-making process in the Council” and help “ensure the early exchange of information on draft decisions and the engagement of all Council members in timely consultations” (S/2015/312).


Since then, a number of elected members have participated with some permanent members as co-penholders in connection with certain draft outcome documents. An early case occurred in October 2015 when resolution 2242 (2015) on women and peace and security was adopted during the Council Presidency of Spain. At the adoption meeting, the Prime Minister of Spain spoke of his delegation having worked “in perfect harmony” on the resolution with the United Kingdom. In turn, the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development said, “We echo our thanks to the Spanish Prime Minister for working with us on this important resolution” (S/PV.7533). This cooperative arrangement for the “elaboration of resolution 2242 (2015)” was later welcomed by the representative of Switzerland, speaking on behalf of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group at the Council’s Open debate on its working methods held on 20 October 2015 (S/PV.7539). 


In other examples, Senegal and the United States shared penholding responsibilities for resolution 2320 (2016) on strengthening cooperation between the United Nations and the African Union. In 2017, France and Italy worked together as co-penholders for resolution 2347 (2017) on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflicts. In 2019 and 2020, the United Kingdom and Germany coordinated together on drafting outcome documents relative to Libya and the Sudan. And in 2021, the United States and Mexico engaged in co-penholding on Haiti, while the United Kingdom and Mexico together did drafting on Colombia.


The question has arisen whether a Council member other than the penholder can draft and submit for consideration an alternative text. The Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure make clear that such a procedure is allowable. Rule 32 states that, “Principal motions and draft resolutions shall have precedence in the order of their submission.” If only one Council member was authorized to prepare an outcome document on a certain agenda item, there would be no need for this procedural rule.  In this context, it is also important to remember that penholders are self-selected and have not been authorized to act in that capacity by the Council as a whole. 

Another article on the website details specific initiatives by the elected members to bring about further change in this area of the Council's work, particularly by encouraging co-penholding and a wider role in drafting outcome documents for the elected members who serve as chairs of the Security Council subsidiary bodies. 


(This update supplements pages 96, 127-129, 262, 267, 394, 433, 496 and 677 of the book.)


*Another such list is published annually by Security Council Report.