2 February 2023
Chapter 5: CONDUCT OF MEETINGS AND PARTICIPATION
Section 6: Motions, proposals, and suggestions
A historical overview of the “penholder” practice for drafting Council outcome documents (2022 update)
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, from the beginning the Council anticipated that one or more of its members (or even non-Council members) would do so.
Today, the Council member which puts forward a draft outcome document is known as the “penholder”. Also on this website is a detailed Backgrounder on the present penholding arrangements whereby, through self-designation, the drafting of texts today is concentrated largely in the hands of the “P3” countries – France, the United Kingdom and the United States – although other Council members, notably the ten elected members (E10), are gaining a larger role in connection with some agenda items.
Over the history of the Security Council, the practice of “penholding” can be viewed as having had three main phases:
During the Council’s first decades, draft resolutions were most often submitted during a formal meeting. Thus their origins were transparent, and the names of the “proponents” were recorded in the relevant verbatim record. The involvement of various Council members in tabling drafts was relatively fluid. It sometimes even engaged members who had no developed connection to the matter at issue, but who merely believed they had a valid proposal for the way forward. And on very rare occasion, the Secretariat put forward a draft.
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 circulate, sometimes 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 a text to the vote, it was often seen more as a Council product than as the product of the member which had originated it. Thus at the adoption meeting, the President would commonly state something non-descript such as, “Members of the Security Council . . . have before them document S/2001/874, which contains the text of a draft resolution”, often adding the phrase, "prepared in the course of the Council's prior consultations".
Nonetheless, during this second phase, the names of drafters occasionally would be read into the record by the Council President. This was the case especially when the identity of the drafters carried particular weight with respect to the agenda item at issue. For example, 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.
It is noteworthy that during much of the Cold War, among the most active drafters were the Council members belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). This stemmed from the fact that neither side in the Cold War particularly relished putting forward a draft with the compromises necessary to gain adoption, if that meant holding back on strongly held national positions. The NAM members, experienced in navigating between the two sides of the Cold War and without the same political constraints, often stepped in to fill the void. This happened so frequently that in the vicinity of the Council Chamber, a small meeting room was set aside for these Council members which even today bears the name “NAM Caucus Room”.
During this second phase, 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. Other groups, formed either directly to assist the Secretary-General or to address situations somewhat independently, also sometimes drafted Council outcomes. This included with respect to such issues as Angola, El Salvador, Haiti, Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, Georgia, Timor-Leste and Western Sahara.
By 1999, concern had grown among some Council members that several of these groups were monopolizing the drafting process for specific Council decisions. This led to adoption that year of a Note by the President (S/1999/165) which affirmed that all members of the Security Council should “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).
Toward the end of this second phase, three significant changes evolved. As resolutions became more complex, gradually the negotiations on drafts began to move out of the Consultations Room, where the negotiating process had been chaired by the Council President and where discussions were at the level of permanent representative. Instead, 1) negotiations began to be held in a small conference or a permanent mission; 2) they started to be chaired by the Council member originating the draft rather than by the Council President; and 3) drafts began to be discussed at expert level instead of by permanent representatives. These changes began to give the originating delegation significantly more influence over the negotiating process.
The third phase of penholding became consolidated around 2003. The shift was not readily apparent for the first several years because draft resolutions were still routinely introduced at adoption meetings without attribution. Also during those early years of the new arrangement, there was less outside reporting as to which Council member was responsible for a particular draft.
Under the new system, Council members, whether permanent or elected, 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. And under this new arrangement, through self-designation, the P3 members – France, the United Kingdom and the United States – have taken on the drafting for the majority of matters on the Council’s agenda. This has become the case especially as concerns country- or region-specific matters.
As detailed in the Backgrounder on this website, to many it has appeared that the predominance of penholding by the P3 has been intended to shut out other Council members, notably the E10, from having drafting opportunities. But in its origins, the system developed more to resolve the problem of France, the United Kingdom and the United States sometimes strenuously competing with each other to produce the draft that would gain traction.
Another factor contributing to the development of a more fixed system of penholding was the fact that the Council's outcome documents were becoming increasingly technical and complex, especially with respect to peacekeeping, sanctions, and non-proliferation. Some of the "P3" have asserted that in-depth expertise, and a large staff, have become necessary to take the lead on such challenging drafts. Nonetheless, when elected members have had the opportunity to serve as penholders, they have shown a capacity to prepare precise and credible outcome documents, demonstrating that not only the P3 are qualified to competently handle the complexity of today's Council decisions.
A third factor relating to the shift away from E10 penholding on country-specific agenda items is that historically, elected members more often prepared drafts on inter-state conflicts, such as that between Eritrea and Ethiopia. But with the exception of the war against Ukraine, today’s Council has before it no other conflicts directly and continuously pitting the regular forces of one country against the regular forces of another. Instead, the other conflicts presently on the Council's agenda involve irregular forces on at least one side.
Finally, a fourth factor is that actions decided upon the Council earlier in its history less often required periodic renewals involving only slight adjustments. A number of older peacekeeping missions had open-ended mandates, such that instead of there being a need for a Council member to draft periodic renewal resolutions, the Council adopted new resolutions only when a modification of the mandate was in order. Similarly, prior to the development of the common practice of having groups of experts assist the work of the sanctions committees, there was no need for periodic renewal of open-ended sanctions mandates or for setting new reporting schedules. In contrast, the Council’s contemporary practice of having fixed expiries for peacekeeping missions and in connection with sanctions has meant more frequent adoption of slightly modified resolutions. And it has been argued that in such situations, penholder continuity is an advantage.
Even though the present phase of penholding involves an outsized role for the P3, several recent trends are introducing more flexibility into the practice of drafting Council outcomes. The Backgrounder on this website details various issues related to the present system, and some of the ways in which it is being challenged and modified.
This Table indicates the penholders for 2023.
(This update supplements pages 96, 127-129, 262, 267, 394, 433, 496 and 677 of the book.)
 For example, Security Council Report, which actively identifies penholders, was not established until 2005, and its “What’s In Blue” feature, where much of this identification occurs, was not launched until 2011.