Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan diplomat and political figure, is a moving target. But he took the time recently to speak with PassBlue — and explain how, in the 1990s, informal coffees in one of the United Nations headquarters most-famous lounges created what are now called Arria-formula meetings. These have changed how the UN Security Council operates, simultaneously democratizing the UN’s most important body by allowing more voices to take part in its debates as, more recently, they have become more politicized.
Arria, a former governor of the Federal District of Caracas, has been active in Venezuelan politics for more than 40 years. He is known for standing up to high-profile figures, including the past and present Venezuelan presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. In 1976, as governor, Arria plunged into efforts to get the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to release his imprisoned opponent Orlando Letelier. (Letelier was later killed in an by Pinochet’s secret police, working with a United States-sponsored militant group.)
Arria was Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN from 1991 to 1993 and president of the Security Council in March 1992. In 2003, he was a special adviser to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, specializing in Latin America.
While representing his country at the UN and serving in the Security Council, Arria helped create , a type of informal session of the Council that can be initiated by any of its members. The increasing use of these meetings has widened splits among the big powers and is eroding the Council’s reputation, some Western diplomats contend.
Arria has also been a diplomatic fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City as well as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He is on the boards of the private Institute of the Americas and Freedom Now, and is a member of the UN Watch advisory board and chair of the UN Watch campaign to expel Venezuela as a current member of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.
Venezuela’s attorney general issued an arrest warrant for Arria and other opposition leaders in 2014, saying they were plotting to kill Maduro, though supporting documents were later proved to be fake. Still under warrant, Arria, 82, lives in the Dominican Republic and New York City. He is the author of three books, including “The People First” and “Dedication to a Cause.”
Arria talked to PassBlue in June for a story about the. Read here for the fuller interview, including Arria’s takes on how the meetings were created and evolved over the years.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
How did Arria-formula meetings start?
Diego Arria: The Security Council has a small consultations room with a big window that looks over the East River. But that beautiful view is blocked by a very big, heavy curtain. I used to call it “the room without a view,” because the Council was so secretive that they didn’t want anybody to look in from the outside, or from the inside at what was happening outside. That’s what prompted me when I came into the Security Council. I could not understand why we could not hold private meetings with the leaders, for example, of Bosnia, who were suffering a war. Well, it was not possible because according to the regulations, only the members of the Security Council could attend the meetings.
A Croatian priest in Medjugorje, near Dubrovnik, came to see me and told me what was happening in that area, how they were killing people like dogs. I was scandalized because the Secretariat never told us anything. I was president of the Security Council and I invited the 15 members [and the priest] to have coffee in the [UN] Delegates Lounge. I asked the priest, “Why don’t you tell my friends what you told me?” I remember the eyes of the Japanese ambassador widening because of what the priest was relating.
Then I read about a judge, Richard Goldstone, who had produced a report on the how to end apartheid in South Africa. So I called him and I said, “Would you like to come here, for an informal meeting — I will invite you for coffee.” Then we started doing the same with Mandela, with [Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser] Arafat, with many other people.
When I left the Security Council, I got an invitation that said, “We’re inviting Ambassador Arria for an Arria-formula meeting to discuss the Arria-formula.” I remember that [then-ambassador] Sergey Lavrov, who is now the foreign minister [of Russia], was in the meeting and said this is a “triple A” meeting.
The General Assembly that year was presided over by the ambassador from Malaysia, Razali Ismail [who wanted to extend the right to have Arria-formula meetings to all UN members]. I said, “Listen, an American baseball player, Yogi Berra, once said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'” They started laughing. I said: “If you extend it to all members, you will ruin the whole thing. This has to be something manageable.”
That was 1996, and it’s already been 25 years. I believe that opening up [Council meetings] has made them more democratic. Imagine how differently the Yugoslavian war [would have been] if we had been able to hear more outside players. But now the Council is being [held] hostage by China, the United States and Russia, which prevents many issues from entering the Council agenda. The only way members have found to get issues forward is with the Arria formula. For example, two years ago, a human rights report was going to be presented to the Council, but Russia and China vetoed it at 10 in the morning. At 3 p.m. the French, British and Americans called for an Arria-formula meeting where the report was presented. Even better, it was open to the media and got more coverage than had it been a regular meeting.
Russia has held more Arria meetings since January 2020 than it has in the history of Arria sessions. Was Russia, a permanent Council member, not a fan of the meetings at first?
Arria: Never — they never asked. The British, when I was on the Council, seemed to like it at the beginning; the British ambassador would call and say, ‘Diego, would you invite so and so?’ We were eye to eye on most issues in those days, so I did. I did not see it appealing to Lavrov at the time: Don’t forget that to call people from the outside was to open it up. But what’s happening now with Russia is they are having [Arria meetings] to bring in people who support their views. For example, after an Arria [in May] on Crimea the Russians called for a “counter Arria-formula meeting,” which I don’t think is the proper thing to do, but it’s an instrument and the ones who use it effectively will win the day.
During the pandemic, Arrias have become more formalized because they are held online, some diplomats contend. When you created them, they were meant to be unofficial. Do you think more meetings have had the opposite effect, making it hard to distinguish between official and unofficial meetings?
Arria: When we did closed meetings, only participants knew about it. Now Arrias have made it impossible for permanent members to say that they didn’t know of some event or incident because we had already discussed it in an Arria-formula meeting. The formulas also [provide a way for] the smaller countries in the Council to have a bigger voice. My country, Venezuela, could call an [Arria] meeting with the same influence as Russia, the United States or China.
Can you name one Arria meeting that you think was the best you’ve seen or truly embodied what the meetings were created for?
Arria: Ukraine was a member of the Security Council a couple years ago and tried to introduce the issue of warfare against Ukraine by the Russians. The Russians vetoed it, even though Ukraine was a member of the Council, which I thought was very interesting. The Ukrainian ambassador invited me to an Arria-formula meeting. There were about 500 people, and he started by saying, “This is an Arria-formula meeting with Arria’s presence.” And that allowed Ukraine, a country that was a victim of Russia, to explain to the world what was happening.
You seem to say that making Arria meetings public, even though they have become more political, will still have the positive effect of raising awareness on certain issues. What do you think is the future of these meetings?
Arria: Twenty-four years ago, [agreements] among the Security Council members were almost unanimous. We didn’t have these confrontations that you have today. So at that time, the format looked like it worked very well. Now the format of the Council is not working well. The Arria formula was there at the right moment, when there was consensus in the Council, and it matured during a certain period of consensus. Otherwise, it would not have grown the way it has. It’s become a believable instrument — there have been some 350 Arria-formula meetings. The secretaries-general did not actually like the Arria formula; they were afraid that if it took off, the Secretariat would lose its control of access to [certain] information. This was the threat.
Your concluding thoughts?
Arria: The Arria formula depends on the behavior of those who are on the Security Council. This mechanism puts you in a very bad light if you try to misuse it. If Council members tend to use it for issues that are not in the collective interest, they will devalue the importance of its role. And you will look very bad if you call for an Arria and only two countries appear.
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.