|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
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
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
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.