The Evolution of the Security Council’s Military Staff Committee
The United Nations is one of the world’s best-known brands. But many of its structures are a mystery to most non-experts (ACABQ, anyone?). And then there are UN entities that are obscure even to the initiated. That’s the case with the Military Staff Committee, a Security Council subsidiary body. We looked at the work and evolution of the Committee and at how it may gain a greater role in the deliberations of the Council.
The UN’s Military Staff Committee, military advisers to the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, is relatively unknown. That’s not by design, however. According to the UN Charter, the Committee was to have a key role, namely to “advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.”
The Committee was the Council's first standing subsidiary body and the only one mentioned by name in the Charter. It was created through the Council’s first-ever resolution, adopted on 25 January 1946 in London, where the Council met before moving to Lake Success, Long Island
It was the Committee that proposed, on 30 April 1947 the creation of a standing UN armed force to enforce measures to deal with threats to international peace and security. That permanent UN army never came into being, however. The Council discussed the Committee’s proposal but could not reach agreement. The Committee then reported that it was unable to fulfill its mandate and went dormant for years.*
But the Committee never completely stopped functioning, and there were repeated attempts over the years to reinvigorate it. During the Gulf crisis of the early 1990s, for example, there was a formal call to upgrade the Committee. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze proposed in 1990 a UN rapid-response force to handle future crises, while the United States Government at the time had reportedly agreed to a high-level meeting of the Committee “in a step that will broaden the UN umbrella for any military action against Iraq.” The Council took no decision on those recommendations.
The idea of revitalizing the Committee gathered steam after the 2005 World Summit, at which the General Assembly requested the Council “to consider the composition, mandate and working methods of the Military Staff Committee”. Council Presidential statements adopted in August 2009, September 2010 and August 2011 recognized the Council’s need to improve its access to military advice and said that the Council “would continue to” consider the role of the Committee (S/PRST/2009/24, S/PRST/2010/18 and S/PRST/2011/17). Alas, according to Colonel Vadim Pivovar, Principal Secretary and Liaison Officer of the Military Staff Committee, the Council still has not taken any concrete steps in this direction.
But the lack of a Council decision on the Committee’s role has not kept the panel from working. It regularly meets to review operations whose mandates are to be discussed by the Council. It also discusses thematic issues involving military aspects of peacekeeping, and it engages regularly with officials from the Department of Operational Support, the Department of Peace Operations and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.
Since 2014, the Committee has traveled to different field missions to get first-hand information of situations and activities. Colonel Pivovar told Politically Speaking that during these visits, members of the Committee exchange opinions and views with the military personnel on the ground to gain an understanding how peacekeeping missions are run. “They speak a common language because of their military background,” Pivovar said.
In recent years, the Committee has also started to regularly invite military representatives of the 10 elected members to the Security Council to observe its work. The aim is to increase the inclusiveness of the Committee’s deliberations.
Pivovar added that the current pool of military representatives among Council members is a vastly underutilized resource. Institutional interaction between the Council and the Committee is very limited, Pivovar said. In the absence of direct briefings to the Council, the Committee’s discussions are fed into the Council’s decision-making process through the advice that individual Permanent Representatives of the five Permanent Members receive from their respective military advisors.
Former and present Council members have also recently weighed in on the role of the Committee. Permanent Representative of the Netherlands Karel Van Oosterom said during a 2018 meeting on the Council’s working methods that “the role of the Military Staff Committee should be strengthened, especially when it comes to the performance of missions in relation to the mandates.” Dmitry Polyanskiy, First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, said during a July 2019 Council meeting that the Committee’s potential remained underestimated. “We believe that it would be logical to consider more closely ways of utilizing the analytical capacities and practical assistance that the Military Staff Committee can provide,“ he said.
For Pivovar, current discussions on strengthening the Committee are encouraging, and he sees several ways in which its expert advice could benefit the United Nations.
“Establishing or renewing Council mandates is a process that requires huge investment of time and resources from all Council members,” he said. “Ensuring that the Council is presented with sound information and realistic options, and that the mandates can indeed be implemented on the ground, is fundamental.”
*The Security Council over the years gave some of the Committee’s originally mandated functions to other UN entities. Disarmament, for instance, came under the purview of what is now the Office of Disarmament Affairs.