Reflections on elected UN Security Council members’ impact

Strategic Insight 007/2023

30 March 2023

Elected UN Security Council members increase their impact: Continuity through coordination

Fabien Merz

Much ink has been spilled on the asymmetric nature of the relation between the permanent (P5 for permanent five) and the elected, non-permanent UN Security Council Members (E10 for elected ten). Critics argue that the Council is dominated by the P5, leaving the elected members with at best very restrained room to manoeuvre and, at worst, relegated to fulfilling the role of rubberstamping P5 initiatives. While this notion is undoubtedly overdrawn, there is an element of truth to it. Indeed, the P5 yield disproportionate influence within the Council, primarily due to their veto power and the permanent nature of their membership. While the veto (or the threat thereof) gives the P5 the ability to block initiatives they deem contrary to their interests, the permanent nature of their membership has allowed them to acquire an in-depth institutional memory of the intricate Council working methods and precedents. Despite the many opportunities joining the Council entails, it thus also amounts to agreeing to play a game in which the rules are clearly skewed in favour of the P5.

This means that E10 members need to find ways to maximise their impact on the Council’s work despite these arguably challenging circumstances. This can take many forms such as focusing on a number of strategically chosen thematic priorities and increasing the cooperation and coordination amongst each other. In the Security Council, substantial progress is not always, but often achieved in increments. In other words, the processes leading to significant advances often have a cumulative nature to them. However, the non-permanent nature of a two-year mandate makes it quasi-impossible for an elected member operating on their own to achieve the continuity necessary for achieving substantial progress. Accordingly, many E10 have increasingly started cooperating and coordinating their activities not only with other non-permanent Council members but also with outgoing and incoming elected members. A prime example of this is the so-called climate and security agenda, which seeks to establish considerations for the effects climate change has on peace and security more firmly on the Council’s agenda and in its various products. This broader topic was prioritised by Sweden during their stint on the Council in 2017-18, then by Germany in 2019-2020 before the torch was passed to Norway and Ireland in 2021/22. Ensuring continuity, climate security is currently being championed by Switzerland and, to a certain extent, Malta – both countries that have replaced Norway and Ireland since the beginning of 2023.

This coordination beyond the individual mandates has not only allowed these countries to maintain a certain thematic continuity but often also to build on each other’s progress. The Council has so far failed to pass a climate security specific resolution, mainly due to the opposition of veto yielding permanent members Russia and China. However, it is in no large part thanks to the coordinated efforts spanning individual non-permanent mandates that climate security is rapidly becoming established on the Council’s agenda and included in a growing number of its products.

Coordinated action between different E10 members beyond their individual mandate is, of course, not restrained to the climate and security agenda. It nowadays often includes a number of areas in which the ensuing E10 align on. Another prime example of how this mechanism can work is the renewal of the mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid in Syria. As co-penholders of the Syrian humanitarian dossier, Norway and Ireland managed to renew the mandate during their stint on the Council, despite Russian opposition. The first regularly recurring vote for the renewal of the mandate in 2023 was scheduled for 9th January 2023. It was by closely coordinating and building on what Norway and Ireland had prepared that Switzerland and Brazil, the new co-penholders for the file, managed to renew the mandate for another half year. This is not an unimpressive feat, considering the current tensions with Russia. Other areas in which Switzerland will likely be able to build on Irish and Norwegian initiatives might include the Woman Peace and Security (WPS) and the Protection of Civilians (PoC) agenda, to name only a few.

Generally, one can observe an increase in coordination and cooperation between different E10 members, also across individual mandates. This is to be welcomed and needs to be further expanded. It is an efficient way of surmounting some of the challenges E10 countries are facing and ultimately of counterbalancing the asymmetrical power distribution within the Council. Ultimately, a more equitable Council will be perceived as more representative and, by extension, more legitimate.

Spotlight: Ireland in the UN Security Council

Richard Gowan

Ireland has a curious record of sitting in the Security Council when major crises break out. The first three Irish terms in the Council coincided with the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the Falklands war (1982) and the 9/11 attacks on the United States (2001). Prior to returning to the Council in 2021, Irish officials wondered half-jokingly if another crisis would blow up on their watch. They got their answer when Russia launched its all-out war on Ukraine in 2022.

The war that followed was a major test for Irish diplomacy. Ireland had already been an active member of the body in 2021, lobbying other members to take action in response to the bloody civil war in Ethiopia. China and Russia blocked the Council from making more than token statements on the war, and Ireland and Niger also annoyed Russia by tabling a resolution in December 2021 calling for the UN to focus on the security implications of climate change. Moscow vetoed that text, and some other Council members felt Ireland had been unwise to bring it to a vote. In this way, the Irish team in New York developed a reputation for taking diplomatic risks and not being afraid to challenge the permanent members head on.

Russia’s 2022 assault on Ukraine presented Ireland and other Council members with a much greater challenge. Relations between Russia and the three Western permanent members of the Council (France, the UK and U.S.) nosedived. The elected members of the Council – who had previously complained that the permanent members cut them out of decisions – had to take on a greater role in trying to keep Council diplomacy going despite events in Ukraine.

One major challenge for Ireland was leading negotiations in partnership with Norway on renewing the Council’s mandate for aid agencies to deliver assistance to rebel-held North-West Syria, a lifeline for millions of civilians but a constant point of contention with Moscow. In 2021 the U.S. had essentially negotiated the mandate’s renewal bilaterally with Russia. With that channel closed, Ireland and Norway corralled the other elected members of the Council (E10) to support a one-year extension of the humanitarian package. While Russia blocked this last July, it agreed to a six-month extension. Irish and Norwegian officials then quietly persuaded Moscow to agree to a further six-month extension at the start of 2023, although the Council did not actually vote on this until after Ireland’s term ended.

Ireland also succeeded to finding a compromise over the renewal of the UN mandate for European Union peacekeeping in Bosnia in November 2022.  This was also a source of friction with Russia, which had previously raised objections to the UN endorsing the work of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Sarajevo, a post-war international mechanism Moscow would like to see closed. Irish diplomats worked out a compromise for the Council to renew the mandate for the peacekeepers without making any decisions affecting the future of OHR.

Finally, the U.S. also invited Ireland to co-lead a successful push for a resolution creating humanitarian carve-outs to UN sanctions regimes, something Dublin had long wanted.

In hashing out these compromises, Ireland helped ensure that the toxic atmosphere around Ukraine did not cause too much damage to other important files in the Council. Norway played a similar role in guiding a crucial resolution on the future of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan through the Council in March 2023.

The fact that Council diplomacy did not go off the rails reflected a number of factors. Russia appears to want to keep the body open as a place it can do some deal with the West, and Chinese diplomats have quietly urged their Russian counterparts to show restraint rather than block every initiative with Western support. U.S., British and French officials have also concluded that they must keep the Council open as a space to compromise with Russia when necessary.

Nonetheless, it fell to Ireland, Norway and the rest of the E10 to work out some key compromises to keep up this level of cooperation. All sides privately thanked them for doing so. By the end of 2022, Irish officials could take credit for navigating one of the most difficult years in the Council’s post-Cold War history about as well as possible. That was no small achievement.

Fabien Merz is a Senior Researcher in the Swiss and Euro-​Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). He is co-​editor of the policy brief series CSS Analyses in Security Policy, which explores current developments in international security and strategic affairs.

Richard Gowan is UN Director at International Crisis Group. He oversees Crisis Group’s advocacy work at the United Nations, liaising with diplomats and UN officials in New York.

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