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Updated on 30 January 2020


Section 7:   Appointment of bureaux of subsidiary bodies


2019 presidential note revisits chairmanship arrangements for the Security Council’s subsidiary bodies 


On 27 December 2019, after two years of negotiations in the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions (IWG), under the chairmanship of Kuwait, the Security Council adopted presidential note S/2019/991 on the subject of selecting the Chairs of its subsidiary bodies.


Although there are only two operative paragraphs, the new note represents a landmark.


Paragraph (a) simply restates the guidance contained in paragraph 113 of S/2017/507 that “the informal consultation process for the selection of the chairs should take place in a balanced, transparent, efficient and inclusive way”.


It is paragraph (b) of S/2019/991 that is groundbreaking.  It states that


“The members of the Security Council stress that this informal consultation process should take into account the need for a shared responsibility and a fair distribution of work for the selection of the Chairs among all members of the Council, bearing in mind the capacities and resources of members.”  (our emphasis)


This hard-won provision is understood to imply that the appointment of permanent members (P5) as Chairs should also be considered.  As detailed in another article on this website, this issue was highlighted in a letter sent to the Security Council President on 13 November 2018 by all ten of the then elected Council members (E10), as well as the five incoming members (S/2018/1024).  The letter stated, inter alia, that these States


“have consistently emphasized the need for fair burden-sharing and an equal distribution of work among all members of the Security Council, including its permanent members. This principle should apply to the distribution of the chairmanships of the subsidiary bodies of the Council where, as a general rule, no member should chair more than two subsidiary bodies, as well as to the so-called ‘penholderships’.  The call for a more equal distribution of work is not new and has been persistently brought forward by members and non-members of the Security Council, including at the open debate on working methods of the Security Council presided over by Kuwait, in February 2018.  It has also been a recurrent topic of discussion in the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions.  We strongly believe that a more equal distribution of work among all members is not just a matter of fair burdensharing, but that it will also positively affect the overall effectiveness of the Council."


There is no doubt that chairing the Council’s subsidiary bodies has constituted a significant burden for the Council’s elected members.  In particular, the more active subsidiary bodies can tax the time and human resources of their Chairs’ delegations, and can also subject them to considerable political pressure. 


In light of the adoption of the new presidential note, consideration is being given to the question of which subsidiary organs might be best suited to be led by a permanent member, although at this stage the question is still theoretical. 


Among the chairmanships most sought after by incoming members are those for the Council’s thematic working groups – on children and armed conflict, peacekeeping operations, international tribunals, working methods, and conflict prevention and resolution in Africa.  Chairing one of these working groups offers an elected member a notable leadership role within the Council, including the opportunity to serve as penholder for the related agenda item.  It can therefore be imagined that most E10 would be reluctant to relinquish those positions.  So if permanent members are to take on some subsidiary body chairmanships, it would likely be of sanctions or counter-terrorism committees.


There have been a few instances in the past when permanent members have served as Chairs of Security Council subsidiary organs.  The Committee of Inquiry established by resolution 496 (1981) in connection with Seychelles was chaired by France, pursuant to resolution 507 (1982).  The first Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Committee was the representative of the United Kingdom, and he was succeeded in that role by the Russian representative.  The representative of France served as the first Chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.[1] 


Otherwise, as noted in the book (pp. 556-557), from the outset there was a general practice for the Council’s subsidiary organs to be chaired by elected, rather than permanent, members.  The rationale for this practice has been obscured, but it may relate to an understanding reached in 1946 among the wider UN membership that the permanent members would have virtually continuous membership in some of the UN’s other principal organs or their governing bodies.  As part of that understanding, it was reportedly agreed that the P5 would not participate in the bureaux of those organs or governing bodies, so as to give the opportunity to other Member States to serve in leadership positions.[2]  It is possible that, in parallel, the same principle was applied to the bureaux of the Security Council’s subsidiary organs.


In any event, given the reported current reluctance of some of the permanent members to chair subsidiary bodies, it is noteworthy that all five of them joined in the consensus necessary for presidential note S/2019/991 to be adopted. 


As a next step, it remains to be seen whether any P5 agree to take on a chairmanship when the new bureaux for the Council’s subsidiary bodies are next appointed for 2021.  As noted in another article on this website, France, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom have for some years been serving as Vice-Chairs of certain subsidiary organs, whereas China and the United States have not.


(This update supplements pages 556-559 of the book.)


[1] At the time the Al-Qaida sanctions committee was established in late 1999 by resolution 1267 (1999), the Council decided to wait until the start of 2000 to appoint its first Chair, which became Argentina.  Pending that appointment, the representative of the United Kingdom undertook two official actions on behalf of the committee in December 1999, but he did so in his capacity as Security Council President for that month, rather than as the committee chair.   

[2] This practice came to be known as the “Cascade theory”.



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