Revised on 11 March 2019


Section 6:   Motions, proposals, and suggestions


A historical overview of the “lead country” or “penholder” practice


From Rules 32, 35 and 38 of the Security Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, it can be seen that rather than the Council as a whole preparing draft resolutions, the Council anticipated that one or more Council members (or even non-Council members) would do so.  The term used in Rules 32 and 35 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, and the term “l’auteur” (“author”) in French, which further clarifies the Council’s intention (S/PV.41). The parallel term employed in the General Assembly is “proposer” (Rule 80).  A related article in this section of the website describes the Council’s use more recently of the terms “lead country” or “penholder”.   


The practice of “penholding” can be viewed as having had three phases.  During the Council’s first decades, draft resolutions were most often submitted in the course of a formal meeting.  Thus their origins were transparent, and the names of the “proponents” were recorded in the relevant verbatim record. 


In a second phase, particularly from the 1970s forward, one or more Council members might prepare a draft resolution and then provide it to the Secretariat to type up as a document to circulate, without attribution, to the Council as a whole for discussion either during a formal meeting or in closed consultations.  Once the Council was ready to put such texts to a vote, the President would commonly state something like, “Members of the Security Council . . . have before them document S/2001/874, which contains the text of a draft resolution” (S/PV.4374). 


Nonetheless, during this second phase, the names of drafters occasionally would be read into the record by the Council President.  This was usually the case when the identity of the drafters carried particular weight with respect to the agenda item at issue, as when in 1997, Portugal, the Russian Federation and the United States were announced as the co-sponsors of resolution 1127 (1997) on Angola.  Similarly, in 2002, Syria was identified as the Council member having submitted a draft resolution on Palestine which was subsequently vetoed by the United States (S/PV.4681). 


Carne Ross, a member of the United Kingdom delegation from 1997 to 2002, has described the “race” that often took place during those years when various Council members would rush to prepare and circulate preliminary drafts.  Ross elsewhere gives the example of what happened when, in 2001, the Council approached a critical decision to revamp the Oil-for-food Programme.  Although both the United Kingdom and France had initiated draft resolutions, the United Kingdom draft “became the only draft under discussion and the rival French draft fell away”.  Ross commented that “For many of us, getting the first draft out was very, very important because you would then be chairing the expert consultations”.  He noted that only three or four delegations on the Council had the capacity to do so.  This was partly because from the 1990s onward, Council resolutions were growing increasingly technical and complex.


In addition to individual Council members, sometimes groups of members coalesced as the ongoing lead for certain items on the Council’s agenda.  This was the case of the “Western Contact Group” for Namibia, established in 1977 by the three Western permanent members of the Security Council – France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – joined by Canada and Germany, which were Council members at the time.  The Contact Group engaged in extensive discussions with the Namibian liberation movement SWAPO, the “Frontline States”, and the UN Commissioner for Namibia.  It was on the basis of a text prepared by the Contact Group that the Security Council adopted resolution 435 (1978) which constituted the blueprint for Namibia’s independence from South Africa.  Other groups have been formed either directly to assist the Secretary-General or to address situations somewhat independently, including with respect to Angola, El Salvador, Haiti, Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, Georgia, Timor-Leste, Western Sahara, and piracy off the coast of Somalia.


By 1999, concern had grown among some States that such groups, and particularly the more organized “Groups of Friends”, were sometimes monopolizing the drafting process for Council decisions.  This led to the adoption that year of a Note by the President (S/1999/165) which underscored the importance “that all members of the Security Council be allowed to participate fully in the preparation of the resolutions of the Council and statements by the President of the Council.”  While recognizing the contributions made by “groups of friends and other similar arrangements”, the Note underscored that the “drafting of resolutions and statements by the President of the Council should be carried out in a manner that will allow adequate participation of all members of the Council.”  In subsequent presidential Notes, the Council members have again affirmed the importance of allowing for the adequate participation of all Council members in the drafting of documents (see S/2017/507).


The third phase became consolidated by the mid-2000s.  From that time forward, lead countries, whether permanent or elected members, have tended to “hold the pen” continuously on the items for which they are responsible, either for as long as that item remains on the Council’s agenda or, for an elected member, until its Council term ends.  One factor contributing to the development of this more fixed system of penholding was the fact noted above that the Council's outcome documents were becoming increasingly technical and complex, especially with respect to peacekeeping, sanctions, and non-proliferation.  Some permanent members asserted that a depth of expertise and a large staff were generally necessary to take the lead on such challenging drafts, and this partly explain how penholding became concentrated largely in the hands of the "P3" delegations of France, the United Kingdom and the United States. 


However, when serving as penholders, elected members have also demonstrated a capacity to prepare precise and credible outcome documents.  And, as mentioned in a related article on this website, in recent years the elected members have challenged the virtual monopoly of the P3 in fulfilling this function.  As a result, a wider sharing of penholding responsibilities has been encouraged by successive presidential notes.  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.)