Blocking and inviting civil society briefers to the UN Security Council

Published: 22 December 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

During the meeting of the UN Security Council on “The situation in the Middle East” on 5 October 2020, the Russian Federation, as President of the Council, proposed to invite Mr. José Bustani to brief the Council on the investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Mr. Bustani, who had been Director-General of the OPCW from 1997-2002, was to be invited under Rule 39 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure. However, Germany and five other Western member States of the Council objected to him being invited because the purpose of the meeting was to review the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) and the OPCW Executive Council decision of 27 September 2013 on the scheduled destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Western States argued that, as Mr. Bustani had left the OPCW more than a decade before the issue of chemical weapons in Syria came before the Council, he was not in a position to provide relevant knowledge or information on the topic of the meeting. The objection must also be seen against the background of Mr. Bustani having been critical of the OPCW’s investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Russia’s policy of undermining the credibility of the OPCW and trying to call into question the use of chemical weapons by its ally, the Syrian Government of President Bashar al-Assad.

In the ensuing debate about the Council’s procedure, the Russian Federation argued that in order to block a briefer proposed by the presidency of the Security Council, a majority of Council members would have to vote against that proposal; Germany and the other Western States on the Council took the position that the invitation of a briefer to whom an objection had been raised required a vote of at least nine Council members in favour. The question was thus whether a negative or a positive vote was required in such circumstances. The President gave in to the position of the Western States and put to the vote his proposal to invite Mr. José Bustani to brief the Council. The proposal received only three votes in favour (China, Russian Federation, South Africa). The six Western States on the Council voted against and six member States abstained. Having failed to obtain the required nine votes, the proposal was not adopted and, consequently, Mr. Bustani was not invited to brief the Council. This gave rise to an acrimonious exchange between Russia and Germany during which the German Permanent Representative of to the United Nations, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, insinuated that Russia had “brought shame and disgrace to the Council” by preventing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2018 to brief the Council about the massive human rights violation in Syria, as well as by vetoing the opening of three crossing points in northern Syria to allow humanitarian aid into the country in July 2020, by launching a cyber-attack on OPCW in The Hague in 2018, and by using chemical weapons even on its own citizens. Addressing the Russian President of the Council directly, Ambassador Heusgen also stated:

“You will recall that in 2018 (see S/PV.8209) your delegation blocked the Dutch presidency when it tried to bring in Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights […] to brief the Council about the massive human rights violations in Syria, the mass murders, the disappearances, the rapes. You prevented that. Russia and China prevented Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein from briefing the Council. That brought shame and disgrace to the Council.”

To this, the Russian President replied:

“I would like to once again recall that the question that the representative of Germany referred to was not about the person who held the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, but rather about the item being considered by the Security Council. That item did not go through because it did not receive enough votes. He therefore cannot tell us that we blocked a briefer who was supposed to speak to the Council. It was an agenda item, not a speaker. Those are two different things.”

Ambassador Heusgen retorted defiantly that “the result is the same – you prevented the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from speaking here in the Council.” For this comment, he was reprimanded by the Russian President as he was not speaking – as invited – on a point of order but on a matter of substance.

Germany was criticised for blocking Mr. Bustani briefing the Council not just by Russia but also by China. The Chinese representative singled out Germany from the countries having voted against the proposal, stating:

“I very much regret the result of the procedural vote just now and the failure to have Mr. Bustani brief the Council. As I stated earlier, outsiders, some of whom were absolutely no match for Mr. Bustani in terms of professionalism and representativeness, have been regularly invited to brief the Council in previous meetings, in accordance with rule 39 of the rules of procedure Nevertheless, some countries, including Germany, have been very positive about inviting these people, but today blocked Mr. Bustani from briefing us. The flagrant hypocrisy on the part of the representative of Germany and others is truly astounding. […]

I must say that, in his remarks, the German representative did not raise the question of chemical weapons in Syria at all. His statement consisted entirely of attacks on other members of the Council. He treated the Council as a venue for venting his sentiments and dissatisfaction. Such practices are not at all constructive. […] If countries come here to attack other countries rather than discuss the issue at hand, how can we talk about solidarity in the work of the Council? How else can the Council play a role?”

The Chinese representative was taking a swipe at Germany’s policy of inviting a great number of civil society representatives during its two presidencies of the Security Council in April 2019 and July 2020, insinuating that the briefers invited by Germany were not always of the highest quality in terms of professionalism and representativeness. When taking stock of Germany’s two-year membership of the Security Council, Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas proudly told members of the Federal Parliament that “[m]ore often than any other member of the UN Security Council, we had civil society organisations and human rights organisations come and brief the Security Council.” While other Council members usually invite officials of the United Nations system or representatives of other international or regional inter-governmental organisations, Germany made the Security Council a forum for members of civil society and representatives of non-governmental organisations. During its two presidencies as a non-permanent member of the Council in 2019-2020, it invited the following 29 civil society briefers, of whom 21 were women:

April 2019

  • Naz K. Modirzadeh, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School
  • Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Lorna Merekaje, Secretary-General of the South Sudan Democratic Engagement Monitoring and Observation Programme and Women’s Representative to the National Constitution Amendment Committee
  • Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  • Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  • Amal Clooney, barrister
  • Inas Miloud, Chair of the Tamazight Women’s Movement
  • Muna Luqman, a female civil society representative
  • Nujeen Mustapha, a young woman from Aleppo
  • Nada Majdalani, Palestinian Co-Director of EcoPeace Middle East
  • Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Co-Director of EcoPeace Middle East
  • Yana Abu Taleb, Jordanian Co-Director of EcoPeace Middle East
  • Loune Viaud, Executive Director of Zanmi Lasante, a non-governmental health-care provider for Haitians
  • Kathleen Page, Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Rosa Emilia Salamanca, Executive Director of the Corporación de Investigación y Acción Social y Económica

July 2020

  • Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Dismas Kitenge Senga, President of Groupe LOTUS and Honorary Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights
  • Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an Indigenous Mbororo woman from a nomad community of Lake Chad, and Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples (AFPAT)
  • Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega, Member of the Municipal Association of Women and defender of Afro-Colombian territorial and human rights
  • Khin Ohmar, Founder and Chair of Progressive Voice, on behalf of NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security
  • Nadia Carine Therese Fornel-Poutou, Executive President of the Association of Central African Women Lawyers
  • Khalil Shikaki, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ramallah
  • Daniel Levy, President of the United States/Middle East Project
  • Wafa Mustafa, representative of Families for Freedom
  • Mahamadou Seydou Magagi, Director of the National Center for Strategic Studies and Security of Niger
  • Coral Pasisi, Director, Sustainable Pacific Consultancy Niue
  • Wafa’a Alsaidy, General Coordinator in Yemen of Médecins du Monde
  • Raja Abdullah Ahmed Almasabi, Chairwoman of the Arab Human Rights Foundation
  • Amany Qaddour, Regional Director of Syria Relief and Development

Of the 387 invitations extended under Rule 39 in 2019, only 67 were extended to representatives of non-governmental organisations and members of civil society. This means that some 22.4 per cent of all civil society briefers were invited by Germany, compared to an average of 5.6 per cent by the other 14 Council members. While the percentage of women invited under Rule 39 was 38.7 per cent in 2019, the percentage of women invited by Germany in that year was 80 per cent.

Under Rule 39 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, the Council may invite any person “whom it considers competent for the purpose, to supply it with information or to give other assistance in examining matters within its competence.” While it is established practice that the presidency invites briefers, it is not a right of the presidency but of “the Council”. Any Council member may request the invitation of a person under Rule 39. If the presidency or another member wants to invite a briefer it needs the support of the Council to do so. As a rule, briefers are accepted by the Council without a vote. In practice, members of the Council usually agree in prior informal consultations to extend an invitation to a particular individual. However, it is by no means unprecedented that Council members object to extending an invitation to a proposed briefer. The statement by the Russian Council President “that it is very rarely in the history of the Council – if at all, practically – that I have seen a briefer rejected, in particular one proposed by the presidency” just shows a very short memory. Less than two years earlier, on 30 October 2018, the Russian Federation had requested that Ms. Elena Kravchenko, the “President of the Central Electoral Committee of Luhansk”, be invited to brief the Council on the upcoming “elections” in the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”, the two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. On that occasion, the Western States on the Council also objected to the invitation and as the proposal to invite Ms. Kravchenko received only one – the Russian – vote, she was not allowed to brief the Council.

Putting the proposal “to invite Mr. José Bustani to brief it today” to a positive, rather than a negative, vote was in line both with precedent and the UN Charter. The invitation of a briefer is a procedural matter. According to Article 27(2) of the Charter, decisions of the Council on procedural matters “shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members.” There was thus no question of the Russian Council President ceding “to the wishes of certain delegations”.

Over the past six years, the practice of inviting members of civil society to brief the Security Council has seen a significant increase. While in the period from 2000 to 2014 the Council invited annually between six and 19 persons who were neither officials of the UN system nor representatives of other international or regional inter-governmental organisations, since then the number of civil society briefers invited has increased from 28 in 2015 to 67 in 2019. In addition, the composition of the group of persons invited has changed. While invitations under Rule 39 of the Security Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure were initially extended to representatives of national liberation movements and facilitators of a peace process or national dialogue, like former South African President Nelson Mandela, in recent years invitations have been extended to representatives of non-governmental organisations, members of civil society or other stakeholders. Civil society briefings may be seen as a new, softer and compassionate side of the Security Council. Such briefings may bring the plight of individuals to the Council chamber and may illustrate and enrich the background on the basis of which Council members take their decisions, but it may be doubted whether these briefings have any impact on the hard decisions the Security Council has to take, especially in areas where the strategic, political, or economic interests of the (permanent) Council members are at stake.

One may also question the wisdom of engaging in time-consuming procedural in-fighting and blocking briefers if – as in the present case – the statement of the blocked briefer is read into the Council’s official record by a member of the Council as part of that State’s national statement. While this may show contempt for the majority and the decisions of the Council, there is no way to prevent such behaviour.

Category: United Nations

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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