The Security Council chamber, with its horseshoe table and striking mural, is instantly recognizable to many people around the world, whether they’re avid followers of international developments or not. The Council’s day-to-day work, and the interactions among its members, however, is less familiar to the public. To give us a peek into that world, we spoke last month to Ambassador Karel van Oosterom, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands, at the end of his country’s latest tenure in the Council as one of 10 elected members.
Could you share some reflections on the elected membership of the Security Council?
In 2018 we saw a further intensification in the cooperation between the elected members of the Security Council. I purposely call them the “elected” members, not the “non-permanent”. We met regularly, set up a WhatsApp group, we worked on improving the working methods of the Council and tried to work together as much as possible and were sometimes able to be a bridge with the permanent members in creating consensus on a resolution. Council Resolution 2401 on Syria was a case in point. We initiated a monthly luncheon/dinner of the elected members with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, just as the permanent ones [the P5] have. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told us during one of those luncheons: the fact that the situation around Idlib did not escalate towards the end of the year, was due in large part to the effective pressure of the E10 [elected 10].
What UN entities did you work with on your priorities?
Too many to mention, but we worked closely together with the Security Council Affairs Division (SCAD) of the then Department of Political Affairs (DPA), especially during our presidency.
But let me highlight two more successful partnerships with the UN. We worked very closely with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization on “our” Security Council resolution 2417, the first ever Council resolution to acknowledge a relationship between hunger and conflict and the first to universally condemn the use of hunger as a weapon of war. The resolution enables OCHA head Mark Lowcock to report to the Council when he sees a potential famine crisis as a result of warfare. A very powerful tool to put potential humanitarian disasters high on the agenda of the Security Council.
And we had a very successful partnership with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Before we entered the Council, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked my Prime Minister during a visit to The Hague in December 2017 for help with making UN peacekeeping more effective. He was especially concerned about the high number of casualties amongst the blue helmets. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte hosted a high-level Open Debate of the Council with SG Guterres during our presidency in March, after which a PRST [Presidential Statement] was issued. The debate was also the kick-off for negotiations on the Declaration of Shared Commitments, which was adopted during the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) summit in September. By the end of the year more than 150 countries had signed up to the Declaration. Furthermore, we worked on two additional Security Council resolutions on Peacekeeping which were adopted in September and December, working very closely with Côte d’Ivoire.
Did you have any influence on the prominent crises, such as Syria, Yemen and Myanmar? Or is decision making dominated by the five permanent members of the Council?
The permanent members of the Council of course are influential. With creativity and cooperation, the elected members can and do play a role. Foreign policy is also a battle of ideas. Let me again give the example of resolution 2410 on conflict and hunger. Raising the humanitarian crises in Yemen and South Sudan on the international agenda was a direct result of that resolution. Based on that resolution, Marc Lowcock was able to ring the alarm on the possible famines there. And let us not forget: if seven elected members unite, they have a veto in the Security Council.
How did the special arrangements between the Netherlands and Italy sharing their Security Council seat work out?
We decided to have a split-term of the Council term after we ended up having the same number of votes after five election rounds. We both had the seat for one year. But during the two years we worked together tremendously at all levels. We identified similar priorities, exchanged information, also throughout our embassy networks around the world. And we exchanged diplomats at our missions in New York and in our capitals. I think it worked out as a great example of Europeanization on the Security Council.
The new Security Council website is a good example of improving the transparency of the Council’s work. What else did you do for transparency during your tenure?
We are glad that our strong cooperation with the then DPA, now the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, on transparency resulted in a new website of the Council. I want to thank the design team, because the website and access to information of the Council really improved.
During our tenure we tried to be as transparent as possible for everyone. Most notably for the wider membership: We briefed so often! We furthermore organized frequent background briefings on specific topics. We organized briefings for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and for journalists. My staff members were also available round the clock for the wider membership, NGOs, journalists and others for questions on our work on the Council. On our Twitter accounts, Facebook and website we constantly informed the wider public.
Can you share a moment of your 2018 membership of the Security Council that will stay with you the rest of your life?
Yes, that was when our colleague Ambassador Bernard Tanoh-Boutchoue of Cote d’Ivoire passed away on 16 April. We were all shocked and in deep mourning. The commemoration service hosted by his family the next week was very emotional. When the Russian colleague read out the letter written by his widow, on 28 June in the Security Council, we could all feel the tears well up. Her exhortation to the Council, in his name, resonated with all of us.
Let me quote a passage from that beautiful letter:
”Sachez que Bernard avait pour chacun de vous, une grande admiration et considération. Et je sais qu’il aurait aimé vous dire : ‘Regardez la vie que je commence et non celle que je finis, car j’ai combattu le bon combat, j’ai achevé la course, j’ai gardé la foi’.
Je voudrais pour terminer mon propos, vous exhorter à continuer à combattre le bon combat, pour un monde plus juste, un monde de Paix.“
Title picture: Karel van Oosterom (centre), Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN and President of the Security Council for the month of March, chairs the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria. He is flanked by Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Mansour Al-Otaibi (right), Permanent Representative of the State of Kuwait to the UN. UN Photo/Manuel Elias