The Security Council: 'In Camera' or on Camera

Whatever happened to the days when virtually all meetings of the Security Council were open to the public and transparency was the order of the day? Those, it now appears, were "the good old days" and they're long gone. In their place is a system of closed meetings that are covered through leaks to media favourites, spin and rumour because that is where much of the substantive business takes place. Which leaves Council members, when meeting in public, simply to state positions for the record and rubber-stamp the decisions made behind closed doors.

A plethora of terms are used to refer to meetings other than those mentioned in the Charter, Sydney D. Bailey and Sam Daws observe in their book entitled "The Procedures of the UN Security Council". These include: informal consultations, informal meetings of members of the Council, consultations, consultations of the whole, informals, formal informals and informal informals, to name but a few.

But whichever names they go by, such meetings are closed, shutting out the public and, more importantly, the media who, until the 1980s, were responsible for generating interest in the Council's, and the UN's, work. It is high time to revert to the way things were!

Recall, if you will, the events of January 2000 when, under the US presidency of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (he was accused, in some quarters, of launching a Holbrooke for Secretary of State campaign), the Security Council focused, in open meetings, exclusively on Africa: HIV/AIDS, refugees, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. African Heads of State and Government, particularly those involved in the Congo conflict, attended, including the elusive Mr. Laurent Kabila.

The month of Africa proved to be a huge success mainly because the meetings were all public and they consequently received extensive media coverage, internationally and nationally. Even the encounter with Senator Jesse Helms, the ornery Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he lectured the UN and threatened to send everyone packing if they didn't do as he said, and was rebuked, in turn, in language far more diplomatic than he seemed capable of, made for great media. All sides were able to air their views in the public eye, and everyone could read or see what went on. There are those cynics who suggest that, through these public meetings, Africa gained more attention in one month than in three years with an African as UN Secretary-General. The meetings restored much needed relevance to the UN and placed it at the centre of media focus.

The point to be made here is that journalists did not have to press against one another, under a squawk box or cram around one microphone at the so-called "stake-out position", stretching to hear what the latest spinmeister had to say. They got their news, yes, the old-fashioned way - by following the story.

Nowhere in the Charter does it say that meetings of the Security Council should be conducted "in camera". Rule 48 of the Rules of Procedure merely states: "Unless it decides otherwise, the Security Council shall meet in public." The system of closed meetings that is now in place is the result of the liberal, or narrow, interpretation given to the rule. As the Council pronounces itself on various aspects of reform, it might want to look into how it conducts its own proceedings, including the regrettable practice of closed meetings.

Following complaints by non-members of being marginalized and excluded from its deliberations, the Security Council, on 16 December 1994, issued a tepid statement on its working methods and procedures, in which it promised greater recourse to open meetings. The statement said: "It is therefore the intention of the Council, as part of its efforts to improve the flow of information and the exchange of ideas between members of the Council and other United Nations Member States, that there should be an increased recourse to open meetings, in particular at an early stage of its consideration of a subject. The Council will decide on a case-by-case basis when to schedule public meetings of this sort."

Almost four years later, the members of the Council, in a note dated 30 October 1998, in which it recalled its earlier action on the need for greater recourse to open meetings, agreed that the Secretary-General should be encouraged to make statements to the Council, when he deems it appropriate, in public meetings of the Council.

Closed meetings are an obsolete relic of the 1980s. During the last stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed that open controversies might not help a warming détente and decided to hold "adequate consultations" before arriving at a resolution. Within the Secretariat at the time, a senior Soviet diplomat headed the Department in charge of the Security Council matters, while an American headed Political and General Assembly Affairs. When the exclusive "club of two" agreed on an issue, the rest went along; when they clashed, the others paid the price. When the other 13 Council members protested, they were brought into the consultations. Obviously, the "club of two" stayed in direct touch through other channels, mainly to keep their proxies in line. With fewer official open meetings and more informal closed consultations, a separate conference room was built adjacent to the Council, with phones, lounge chairs and side entrances.

As is usual in such cases, a conceptual theory was advanced, namely that it was more productive to have a consensus resolution that everyone agreed should be implemented, rather than a controversial one with a majority vote when those opposed might not cooperate. That concept may have helped in specific cases at the time, but an indiscriminate search for consensus often resulted in a substantively watered-down resolution, with the majority being held hostage to the interests of the minority. Furthermore, while it is preferable to obtain a consensus, a Security Council resolution is, according to the Charter, and whatever the majority, binding on all its members. The Charter also indicates that the "peoples of the United Nations" should be mobilized to support the Organization's objectives. But how can they do so if they have no clue as to what is going on in the crucial area of their own peace and security?

In the beginning, most meetings were open. Consultations were quietly held in the Delegates' Lounge, the dining room, private residences or an agreed number of nearby restaurants that became almost an annex to the UN.

All meeting rooms had (and still do have) press seats with a special arm for a notepad. Noted journalists, among them John Scali (ABC), Abe Rosenthal (The New York Times), Richard C. Hottelet (CBS) and Pauline Frederick (NBC) covered such distinguished diplomats as Adlai Stevenson and Henry Cabot Lodge. Diplomats were energized by the presence of highly respected journalists covering their meetings, and journalists were stimulated by the quality performance of the diplomats.

The world paid attention to UN coverage back then, such as the 1950 boycott by the Soviet delegation of an open Security Council meeting which ultimately resulted in the vote to send UN, mainly US, troops to Korea; the open debate on the Cuban missile crisis; or the sight of a Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe on his delegation's table.

But when closed Council meetings became the order of the day, most American news organizations withdrew their regular correspondents. And even though they were provided with rent-free offices at UN Headquarters, it was felt that struggling to find out what went on behind closed doors simply wasn't worth the effort.

That view changed following a Security Council meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government in January 1992. That meeting marked the end of the Cold War and probably unduly raised expectations about the potential role of the UN. Media interest was once again heightened. CNN set up a full-time office and an ever-ready camera with reasonable freedom of movement; indeed, then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali referred to CNN as the 16th member of the Security Council, even if it did not attend meetings. The New York Times, which had always maintained an office at Headquarters, appointed Barbara Crossette, while The Washington Post sent in Julie Preston, then John Goshko, to cover the UN. The four major international news agencies, the BBC, Le Monde, and several Asian, Arab and Latin American papers also fielded solid reporters.

No secrets can be kept for too long in a multinational glass house. Anyone with real interest in the decisions of the Security Council need only hang around long enough on the second floor to meet a delegate out for a leak - figuratively and literally, seeing as how the men's room is located around the corner from the Council Chamber.

To sum it up, the time has come for the Security Council to adopt a new - some might say "old" -- approach to its meetings, and a new millennium is an excellent pretext for doing so. In an era of more open societies and communications revolution, the Council may find an open, transparent process to be refreshing. The sight of some Council members leaking a story or beating one another to the exit microphone is as ungracious as the sight of hurried journalists straining to hear the last sentence of a self-serving "response to a question". All that is needed, for the UN's sake, is to plug in the public switch.