The United Nations Security Council bases its resolutions on agenda items as varied as the renewal of a peacekeeping force mandate in Haiti to responding to a missile launching in North Korea. With resolutions’ language often dense legalese that recalls, recognizes, emphasizes, demands and, at times, condemns and deplores the issue at hand, the style and format make it nearly impossible to trace who wrote them. That, of course, is what council members prefer.
Yet inside the 15-member chamber, there is rarely any doubt as to who is responsible for producing a given resolution; or who “holds the pen,” as they say in council circles. Chances are the work is done by Britain, France or the United States, three of the five permanent members. The other permanent members, China and Russia, particularly the latter, often get involved in negotiations on draft resolutions or lesser nonbinding documents as well.
But it’s not always a welcome involvement. For example, although Russia does not typically “utilize the pen” on South Sudan or Sudan, as Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said recently, it tabled a draft press statement that “derailed” the American version and led to no official statement at all. On the other hand, China worked with the US on the recent resolution outlining more stringent sanctions against North Korea. These close working moments, however, are unusual.
“The question of who is holding the pen for a certain agenda item is rarely discussed,” a European diplomat knowledgeable with the Security Council told PassBlue, asking to remain anonymous. “Usually the P’s prefer to decide this among themselves,” he said, referring to permanent members.
“Those who hold the pen for a certain file have a great sway in the negotiations of any outcome document,” he added. Chairing the negotiations “is a pretty powerful position to have, and the permanent members know this well.”
From the viewpoint of Vinay Kumar, a diplomat with India’s mission to the UN, “The world has been divided by two colonial powers: United Kingdom and France, so they hold the pen on the Security Council for most of the issues on the agenda.” (India was on the council for the 2011-2012 term.) As of February, the US holds the pen on 11 items, including Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, North Korea and South Sudan-Sudan.
Writing a resolution on country-specific items is based on strategic and logistical rationales: America is interested in the UN missions in Haiti and Iraq because of its significant time and investment in those nations, a diplomat at the US mission to the UN said in an interview.
The approach to pen holding is indeed practical, Kumar said. “This is quite understandable that this is the case,” as the council produces about 150 outcome documents a year, so the writers need to have a “good grasp” of a situation “to take an initiative to draft something.” The work requires maintaining close contact with the relevant UN missions in New York and at headquarters level in a country’s capital as well as with the UN Secretariat.
“You cannot come to the council for two years and have these contacts,” Kumar added.
People at the American mission, for example, will often consult their colleagues working on the ground and at embassies in Haiti and Iraq, for example, when they begin to develop a resolution. Consulting with Washington, D.C., is almost always part of the process, which for routine resolutions, like the renewal of peacekeeping mandates, can last a few weeks.
” ‘Let me get back to you – I have to talk to capital,’ ” the American diplomat said, repeating the phrase she commonly evokes in her consultations, referring to the US State Department.
The British mission to the UN – now responsible for drafting council statements and resolutions on Burma, Cyprus, Darfur, Libya, Sierra Leone and Somalia – considers it good form to visit an agenda-item country to hear from the government and UN staff there before writing a resolution, said a British mission official. Other routine practices, like reviewing reports by the secretary-general and consulting closely with council partners and other pertinent UN members are also conducted. The person charged with resolution drafting also consults other experts within the mission as well as colleagues in London and abroad in work that can include 20 or more people.
African agenda items assignments are mostly handled by Britain and France, both former African colonial powers, although elected council members from Africa might write a draft resolution on thematic issues regarding their continent, such as peace and security. Kumar said that Togo proposed documents on Guinea-Bissau, another West African nation, while South Africa drafted a document on Timor-Leste, in Southeast Asia. (All 10 elected members serve a two-year term with five countries overlapping every year; this year, the elected countries are: Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Korea and Togo.)
“Any other country can propose an outcome document and occasionally they do, but in practice that is very rare and few and far between,” Kumar said. “Mastering all the decisions on the Security Council requires some degree of expertise.”
Currently, Australia is responsible for resolutions on Afghanistan, an agenda item previously held by Germany. South Korea has nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; Russia is responsible for the legal aspects of piracy, while China apparently does not hold the pen on anything.
China’s minor writing role, Kumar said, is “an intra-P5 decision,” and the P3 “decided not to give anything to China.”
Elected members sometimes participate in drafting resolutions in the council’s subsidiary bodies on a range of agenda topics, from counterterrorism to women, peace and security. This year, Guatemala is in charge of international tribunals, a role it inherited when Portugal vacated the council in December 2012.
Syria is an interesting case. When India was the rotating council president in August 2011, it negotiated a presidential statement regarding the Syrian crisis. Russia and the US took control of the UN “disengagement observer force” (UNDOF) mandate in Golan Heights from the Secretariat. And the two short-term UN supervision missions in Syria in 2012 were managed variously by France, Britain and Russia. So Syria “has not stabilized in terms of pen holders,” Kumar said.
Ultimately, the process for any pen holder cycles back to one individual sitting at a computer and working on a Microsoft Word document, sometimes with track changes from previous resolutions. Yet, resolution writing was not always so regimented.
When Carne Ross was the first secretary of the British mission to the UN, from 1997 to 2002, countries on the council raced to release preliminary drafts.
“For many of us, getting the first draft out was very, very important because you would then be chairing the expert consultations,” Ross, the executive director of Independent Diplomat, an advisory group in New York, said. “In truth, there were only three or four countries that ever did it – that had the capability of doing it.”
A rat race can still ensue to present a draft resolution when a nonagenda item catches the council unaware, as the escalating political violence did in Libya in 2011, prompting the council to issue a no-fly-zone order that May. An agenda item without a designated writer, however, remains the exception.
“It’s the dirty little secret of the council that it is run by the P5 countries,” Ross said. “Nobody else has any importance and anybody else who tries to tell you that, of the value they have, is wrong.”
Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to www.amydlieberman.com