The Covid-19 pandemic has brought enormous changes and challenges to the United Nations Security Council. One result has been the heightened politicization and proliferation of the Arria-formula meetings, or informal sessions, of the Council that can be initiated by any member. The increasing use of these meetings has widened the splits among the big powers and is further eroding the body’s reputation, some Western diplomats contend.
The public may know little about these meetings, but Russia has organized more of them in one year than in the last 28, a trend that worries certain Western countries and other members in the Council, who say Moscow is using these more relaxed discussions for propaganda use. Russia, however, says it is just giving other countries a taste of their own medicine, as Western countries use the meetings to get their side heard too.
In an exclusive interview with Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN who originated the meetings decades ago, he suggested that although these meetings have become more politicized, positive results have also emerged from them. But he noted that those who know how to exploit them will succeed in the Council.
A Series of Theatrical Meetings
On April 16, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, opened an Arria meeting that his country arranged by holding a picture of an infamous 2003 Security Council session showing United States Secretary of State Colin Powell telling the members that the US had proof that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was refusing to disarm.
By reminding the Council of the notorious misinformation campaign in 2003, some diplomats say, Russia is using that political minefield to discredit the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Hague-based entity that monitors the implementation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and has conducted investigations and fact-finding missions in Syria. Russia is trying to show how the OPCW is disproportionately influenced by Westerners, especially the US, and how accusations against the Syrian regime, an ally of Russia, are wrong regarding the country’s use of chemical weapons in its continuing civil war.
“On Arria formulas that we held during the pandemic, that would not have happened before the pandemic for simple reasons, because those people who spoke on the screen would never be given business to attend an Arria formula meeting,” Nebenzia said in a press briefing on June 30. “So that gives an opportunity not just to us but to many others to raise issues that perhaps were not possible.”
Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the 2003 meeting in the Council, attended the Arria session on April 16 as a speaker invited by Russia. He told PassBlue that he had intended to hold an earnest conversation about the meeting’s official theme, “Protection of Developing Nations Against Political Pressure: Upholding the Integrity of International Non-Proliferation Regimes,” by focusing on the OPCW. He quickly realized that’s not what he signed up for in addressing the Council.
The Russians “are sometimes extraordinarily obvious in their propaganda, and sometimes they’re extraordinarily good in their propaganda,” Wilkerson told PassBlue in a Zoom call from his home in Falls Church, Va. “I don’t find too much in the middle. It’s either exquisite, or it’s terrible. This one was terrible.”
He added: “I wouldn’t lay any blame on any particular individual or individual state, so much as I would the process. And they all tolerate it. And they all use it.”
Nevertheless, Wilkerson carried on in the Arria meeting, speaking about the influence of powerful countries like Britain, China, France, Russia and the US over some international organizations and the need to ensure that the OPCW remained independent. He soon understood that the meeting had no substance.
“I was frustrated that we didn’t seem to even care about that,” Wilkerson said. “We just wanted to throw rocks at one another.”
The meeting was one of many Arria sessions that have been held virtually by Russia during the pandemic, as the Council has been forced to hold online meetings rather than in-person ones until recently. Since January 2020, Russia has organized 11 Arria meetings; before the pandemic, it held only four across decades. Overall, the Council has held 24 of them in 2020, a record. This year so far, it has held 18.
Russia is not the only country using Arrias in the Council more often. With increasing political tensions permeating the Council in the last year, many members have been reverting to these style of meetings to discuss topics that might not be allowed in the Council because they are easier to organize, acting as workarounds to the rigid rules of what can be debated in the body.
“Today, what’s happening is that the Security Council is hostage to China, the United States and to Russia,” Diego Arria told PassBlue on a videocall from the Dominican Republic. “So they hold the Security Council hostage, and that prevents many issues from entering normally into the Security Council agenda. And the only way that they have found, because of vetoes, and you can sideline it, are the Arria formulas.”
Sven Jurgenson, Estonia’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview with PassBlue: “There seems to be a proliferation of Arria formula meetings, because before [the pandemic], there were not so many. Now even China is doing them and Russia is doing them.” Estonia is an elected member of the Council.
The pandemic has blurred the lines between formal and informal Council meetings, as the members have been working in video teleconference format, resulting, paradoxically, in officializing Arria sessions, some diplomats say. As a Western European diplomat put it, “With Estonia on the Council, these meetings have become sometimes even more professional than regular Council meetings, somewhere between a Eurovision mise en scène to Apple presenting a new iPhone.”
But there is more to it than the changing nature of Council debates.
“Arria formula meetings were created to discuss issues of peace and security in an informal setting outside of the Security Council chamber, for example, for a deeper exchange with Civil Society actors,” Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s recent ambassador to the UN, said in an email. (Germany was last on the Council from 2019 to 2020.) “Oftentimes this is the case for urgent questions related to human rights and security. Unfortunately, we see lately the tendency by Russia to use this format as a means of spreading misinformation, especially in relation to the situation in Ukraine. . . . The Security Council should not be used for such propaganda purposes.”
The Russian meetings could be considered a response to those organized by other countries, including by such past elected members as Ukraine and Lithuania, who focused on Crimea. This territory of Ukraine was annexed in 2014 by Russia, a move that is still contested by the UN itself and Western countries. It’s a topic that infuriates the Kremlin.
“If they want to bring here somebody they think is good for Security Council members to listen to, it’s O.K., we don’t claim that they are not right,” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue. “We may like or not like what they are saying; we may agree with or not agree with their briefers. What we don’t like and what frankly is very unwise on their part is that they do not accept, for example, our briefers.” By briefers, he means generally the experts who speak to the Council.
Russia says the Council’s working online has influenced its decision to hold more Arria meetings because some briefers that it has tried to have speak to the Council in the past have had problems getting visas to attend in person. (The US must approve the visas.) Some diplomats think otherwise.
“Either they’re very partial, they are sanctioned individuals who have a particular view on a conflict or they are conspiracy theorists or also journalists [who] have extremely dubious credentials,” a Council diplomat said on the condition of anonymity about the briefers that Russia proposes. One journalist who was named by the diplomat is Aaron Maté, a reporter working for The Grayzone, a publication criticized for denying the human-rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang, China.
Maté declined to be interviewed by PassBlue. He has attended two Arria-formula meetings organized by Russia on the OPCW, in September and in April. According to one source, he has invited briefers on behalf of Russia in past Arria sessions.
For Western and some other countries, however, Russia is using the meeting to invite guests, credible or not, to push an agenda. Yet that is how the Western-led sessions operate as well.
“I have no problem with [Lawrence] Wilkerson,” a Security Council diplomat said. “I just don’t think he is relevant to the topic of the OPCW.”
Theodore Postol, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attended a Russian-led Arria session in September on the implementation of Resolution 2118, upholding the authority of the OPCW. He said that he found technical mistakes in the OPCW report on the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, and that while he is not a political person, he added, he used the platform to get the message out.
“It was clear to me what they wanted,” Postol said. “I just say what I think is correct; I don’t tell people what they want to hear.”
Diego Arria, the originator
Just outside the Security Council is a room with windows covered by heavy curtains overlooking the East River, meant for informal consultations. Arria, the ambassador of Venezuela to the UN from 1991-1993, when the country had a Council seat, remembers the room well.
“I used to call the room the room without a view,” Arria said in his interview with PassBlue. “Because the Security Council was so secretive, they didn’t want anybody looking from the outside, or the inside going to look at what’s happening outside.”
During his Council term, especially as Yugoslavia was collapsing, Arria said he hoped to bring different perspectives to the body. When he was rotating president of the Council, he invited a Croatian priest to describe to members the conditions on the ground; the priest spoke to the members in the UN Delegates Lounge, an open gathering area. Arria later organized more informal meetings with South African dissidents and other individuals who couldn’t speak in regular Council meetings. Little did he know that decades later, these types of meetings would become part of official Council procedures.
“It’s only a few years after that I learned these meetings were named after me!” he recalled.
Another purpose of Arria meetings was to give smaller countries, like his own, he said, a bigger voice on the Council, since any member can organize the meetings and decide who attends. The meetings used to be private, but in 2012, they started being scheduled in the UN Journal’s daily agenda. They slowly became more public, politicizing them more.
Arria thinks that allowing the meetings to be broadcast publicly on UN WebTV has enabled the world to listen in.
While some member states would like UN WebTV to stop broadcasting the Russian-held Arria meetings, they are aware that the UN would have to do it for all of them. “If they do not allow us to broadcast, we will not allow them to broadcast, and they are interested in the broadcasts,” Polyanskiy said.
The proliferation of Arrias has also hardened the splits in the Council between China and Russia and the other permanent members, Britain, France and the US, while also dividing the 10 elected members. Depending on the country, the latter tend to ally with one camp or the other in the veto-wielding group. In May, China organized one of its first Arrias, on new technologies, a topic that many diplomats watched closely.
“What’s happening now with Russia, they are doing that to bring people who support the views, like in the case of Ukraine and Crimea,” Arria said. “I don’t think that’s the proper thing to do, but it’s an instrument and the ones who would use it more effectively will win today.”
Some diplomats hope the return of in-person meetings — which has been happening more regularly since May — will reverse the use of Arrias. “Organizing an in-person Arria is more complicated, so maybe it will also deformalize them,” a diplomat said.
Yet Arria himself is proud of what the meetings have achieved.
“I think now we’re at 350 meetings of the Arria formula,” he said. “Women’s rights, children’s rights, I mean, topics that people would never have thought they would approach the holy room of the Security Council. Gay rights, LGBTQ, all these things. These were a blast for me.”
Ivana Ramirez contributed reporting to this article.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.