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Essay II
Last Updated: 06/03/2008
Secrecy in the Security Council
Hamish Low

“Secrecy is a drug to which its practitioners become confirmed addicts.”[1]

- William R. Frye    

Following World War II, representatives from 50 nations met in San Francisco to found the United Nations.  One of the purposes of the United Nations is “to maintain international peace and security” and to that end the Security Council was established.  For those who are unaware, the United Nations Security Council is authorised “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity of the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”[2]  It is a body of 15-nations with five permanent member-states (the P5) the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France, and 10-elected representatives from different regional blocks who serve two-year terms.  The presidency of the Council rotates on a monthly basis. Any resolution at the Security Council may be subject to a veto from one of the permanent member states. 

The need for an established consensus in effect constrains the nature of the discussions at the Security Council.  Such negotiations, for the most part, go on in secret – away from the watchful eye of the media.  This secrecy may make life easy for the diplomats who may talk more frankly with their peers, but it limits the accountability of each state to their respective publics.

Secrecy was not always standard procedure in the Security Council, and it does not have to stay this way. This essay will examine how the Security Council became a secretive decision-making body, the implications of this secrecy and how greater transparency is not only possible but necessary.

The founders of the United Nations had intended that the Security Council be transparent in its operations.[3] Rule 37 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council reads that,

Any Member of the United Nations which is not a member of the Security Council may be invited, as the result of a decision of the Security Council, to participate, without vote, in the discussion of any question brought before the Security Council when the Security Council considers that the interests of that Member are specially affected, or when a Member brings a matter to the attention of the Security Council in accordance with Article 35 (1) of the Charter. (emphasis added)

Referring to Article 35 (1) it reads:

Any Member of the United Nations may bring any dispute, or any situation of the nature referred to in Article 34, to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly.

and Article 34:

The Security Council may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.

The Charter clearly indicates that Security Council proceedings were designed to be open in nature, allowing for the participation of all interested parties on matters of “international friction” or such matters that may “give rise” to such friction.  However, in practice, the closed-door “informal consultations” between members of the Security Council essentially makes it a secret body.  Gradually secret meetings began to be held on specific issues through the 60s and 70s until by the 1980s all meetings of the Security Council were secret.[4]  The Council still generally meets formally only to pass resolutions or issue formal statements.[5] By making Council meetings secret, the permanent representatives of the Security Council have effectively denied nations other than the non-permanent members from participating in any issue of interest to them. Even then, the P5 sometimes meet separately from the Security Council to negotiate among themselves. 

Transparency in the United Nations, and in the Security Council is extremely important.  An open Security Council is an accountable Security Council – not in the sense implied within the statutes of the UN Charter, which allow for the suspension (and even expulsion) of member-states who break the rules (such measures have never been implemented), but an accountability with respect to the citizens of their nations on issues of foreign policy. An insistence on the proper procedures for Security Council discussions would be more easily achieved than the complexity of UN member states agreeing on Security Council, and general UN reform. Unfortunately, the major obstacle for full transparency in Security Council procedures is the likelihood of objections from the permanent members of the Security Council. 

Open Security Council meetings would attract greater media attention. In the first decades of the United Nations, media attention gave the public (particularly in the US) a sense of involvement and interest in the United Nations.[6] Changes in the media landscape within the United States have limited the diversity of the media. Deregulation has resulted in a growing shift from a professed impartiality in reporting toward a clear political bias in favour of the right. In the United States, there is a strain of right-wing conservative thought that deeply distrusts the United Nations. Greater transparency in the Security Council, may help to change the perception of the United Nations by the US public. 

Transparency is also the antidote for corruption. Though the resolutions and statements of the president of the Security Council are necessarily made available for the public there is no record of how these crucial decisions were made.  Even the oversight committees that examine how Security Council decisions are made are secret.[7] The United Nations was rocked by the Oil-for-Food scandal following the revelations of the Volcker Commission. The Iraq Steering Committee that had implemented the sanctions on Iraq and that was supposed to provide oversight of the Oil-for-Food Programme had operated in secret.  Such revelations were incredibly damaging to the credibility of the UN.

The greatest impediment to the effective functioning of the UN is the veto-power of the permanent members.  Any renegotiation of the composition of the Security Council or restriction of the veto power to issues that directly affect the state concerned will only come about through a long and complicated process. Transparency in the Security Council, however, requires no changes to the rules but an insistence on practising the procedures that are already in place. 

In 1993 the “Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters related to the Security Council” was established and has served as an ongoing forum for the discussion of these matters.[8]  In the 2007 report of this committee essentially the same suggestions for greater transparency have been made.  The Committee suggested “encouraging formal adoption of rules of procedure”[9], for more information in order to “better follow the proceedings ... (and to) allow Member States to informally exert influence on the decision-making process.”[10]  Also the report suggests that “a mechanism should be established to ensure that Member States whose interests are specially affected will be heard upon request at private meetings of the Council....and Consistent consultations with potential troop-contributing countries in the early phase of a new operation, with the participation of the host country, where appropriate, and regular substantive meetings during ongoing operations.”[11]

Were the existing procedures followed, this would already be standard practise. The same applies to the other suggestions on the “notions on the way forward” in the report; “A mechanism ensure that Member States whose interests are specially affected will be heard upon request at private meetings of the Council...(and)....consultations with potential troop-contributing countries in the early phase of a new operation.” 

The problem is essentially the concentration of power in the hands of the P-5.  The non-permanent members feel that a reform package should be voted on by the General Assembly though “the permanent members indicated that they supported some level of reform ...they stated that these measures should be adopted by the Security Council itself, and could not be “imposed” by the Assembly.”[12]  Could a member-state use Rule 37 to force open the negotiations at the Security Council?  Possibly, though there may be severe political repercussions for confrontational tactics to the status quo.

From the late 90s there have been occasions when Security Council discussions have been opened to a wider audience on certain issues.  Such attempts happened with the acquiescence of the permanent members, rather than in confrontation with them.[13]  In the United Nations Millennium Declaration, member-states of the UN General Assembly resolved to intensify their efforts to achieve a comprehensive reform of the Security Council in all its aspects. Colin Keating, New Zealand's representative to the Security Council in 1993-94 made a general observation that is applicable to this situation,

One of the sadnesses of the kind of democracy that works in any international organisation is that there are very few countries that are free to speak their mind.[14] 

If all nations were free to speak their minds, the United Nations would be a more effective and legitimate organisation. If the transparency and openness of the United Nations Security Council inscribed in the Charter of the United Nations was practiced, then its effectiveness could only be enhanced. 

Of course, United Nations reform will be a slow and complex process.  If the result is favourable to democratic and transparent processes, however, the United Nations will be closer to fulfilling its intended role: the realisation of international peace and security.

[1]              William R. Frye “Press Coverage of the UN”

      International Organization, Vol. 10, No. 2. (May, 1956), pp. 276-281.

      University of Wisconsin Press

[2]    The United Nations Charter

[3]              p 80 - Jassim M Buallay “Enhancing transparency of security council proceedings”

      United Nations Chronicle; 1999; 36, 1; Research Library Core

[4]    Rosenthal “On My Mind; The Secret Council”

      The New York Times

      March 6, 1998, Friday, Late Edition – Final

[5]    p 80 - Jassim M Buallay “Enhancing transparency of security council proceedings”

                United Nations Chronicle; 1999; 36, 1; Research Library Core

[6]    Rosenthal “On My Mind; The Secret Council”

      The New York Times

      March 6, 1998, Friday, Late Edition – Final

[7]    Linda Melvern “Rwanda and Darfur: The Media and the Security Council”

      International Relations 2006; 20; 93

[8]                'Reforming the UN Security Council', Strategic Comments,11:4, 1 – 2 (2005)


[9]    p 19 - Report of the Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters related to the Security Council

      United Nations • New York, 2007

[10]  p 27 – Ibid.

[11]  p 28 – Ibid.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]    p 80 - Jassim M Buallay “Enhancing transparency of security council proceedings”

      United Nations Chronicle; 1999; 36, 1; Research Library Core

[14]  as quoted in Geoff Cumming “NZ in hot seat over genocide in Rwanda”

                 Friday September 22, 2000 New Zealand Herald

Hamish Low is a Master's degree candidate from the University for Peace.