posted on Fri 12 Feb 2016 1:55 PM
Open Debate on the UN Charter

On 15 February (Monday), the Council will hold a ministerial level open debate on the topic of “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez Gómez of Venezuela, Council president this month, is likely to preside. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to brief.

While no Council decision is anticipated, Venezuela intends to produce a summary of the debate. This is becoming an increasingly common working method. In recent months, some Council members have produced summaries of the main themes of open debates held during their presidencies, including France (March 2015 debate on child victims of non-state armed groups), New Zealand (July 2015 debate on peace and security challenges facing Small Island Development States) and Spain (October 2015 debate on working methods). Uruguay, which held the presidency in January 2016, is in the process of producing a summary of last month’s debate on the protection of civilians. Venezuela intends to transmit its summary of Monday’s debate to the Security Council and the General Assembly.

In preparation for the debate, Venezuela has circulated a concept note to help guide the discussion (S/2016/103). The concept note focuses on specific principles of the UN Charter, including the sovereign equality of states, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-threat or non-use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of states, and the non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

It argues that some states have violated these Charter principles with negative consequences for international peace and security. The note says that violations of sovereignty in some instances have caused the dismantling and collapse of state institutions, creating “conditions conducive to the emergence, growth, strengthening and expansion of terrorist groups.” It argues that there has been “growing interference” in states’ internal affairs. It advocates peaceful efforts to settle disputes—including by regional and sub-regional organisations—maintaining that this could avert the “growing trend” of the Council to address conflicts that do not constitute a threat to international peace and security through coercive means. The note warns against “double standards” in the Council’s efforts to promote international peace and security. It concludes that to protect and fulfil the Charter’s purposes and principles, member states “must reject…[the application of] unilateral coercive measures and national legislation with extraterritorial effects” and not bring to the Council issues within the domestic jurisdiction of states.

Contrasting interpretations of the Charter will most likely be expressed during the debate. The importance of both human rights and state sovereignty are outlined in the UN Charter, but there is a tension between these two concepts that is evident in a number of country-specific cases addressed by the Council, as reflected by its recent deliberations on Burundi, Sudan, and Syria, among other cases. On the one hand, some member states may emphasise elements of the Charter related to political independence, territorial integrity and non-interference in the domestic affairs of states, consistent with the arguments put forth in Venezuela’s concept note. On the other hand, other member states may maintain that state sovereignty should not be a shield against actions to protect civilians from massive human rights violations, while highlighting the need in some instances for coercive measures to fight impunity, promote accountability, and combat the violence of actors undermining international peace and security. Some states may express views somewhere between these two positions.

There will most likely be broad agreement among member states on the importance of enhanced conflict prevention efforts through means related to the peaceful settlement of disputes (Chapter VI) and regional arrangements (Chapter VIII). Many Council members have argued over the years that the Council needs to do a better job at conflict prevention, rather than managing crises when they become very difficult to resolve.

Some members may support the idea of veto restraint in the debate, especially in the case of atrocity crimes. While the veto is a privilege granted in the UN Charter, a number of member states have expressed concerns about the abuse of the veto—and the threat of the veto—by some of the permanent members. Recent veto restraint initiatives by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT) and France and Mexico have garnered the support of a large number of UN member states. The ACT initiative (or code of conduct) had 110 supporters as of 12 January 2016, while the France/Mexico declaration had 86 supporters as of 2 November 2015. Calls for veto restraint were raised by France, New Zealand and Spain when the Council last held a debate (S/PV.7389) on the UN Charter in February 2015 under China’s presidency of the Council. At the same meeting, Angola advocated reform of the veto.

In addition to discussion of the veto, some members may advocate UN reform more broadly. This could include the idea of structural reform of the Security Council, as well as greater emphasis on the importance of transparency in the selection process for the next Secretary-General.