2019 Midyear Meeting - Keynote Concluding Remarks

At the Society's November 2019 Midyear Meeting, Blanca Montejo, United Nations Security Council Affairs Division presented a keynote address at the end of the Practitioners’ Forum which provided an overview of the work of the U.N. Security Council and its positive impact on international law. Her poignant comments were worth sharing with those who could not be at the meeting. An updated version of her speech follows.

Blanca is Senior Political Affairs Officer at the Security Council Affairs Division, Security Council Practices and Charter Research Branch in the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.


Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, fellow members of the Society, I want to thank the Society for the invitation to deliver closing remarks today and, in particular, I want to thank Sean, Mark, Ina, and Catherine for their encouragement. I am bound to note that any views expressed today are only mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations and specifically not of the Security Council. 

I feel humbled and honored to be here today to speak about the theme of this year’s Practitioners’ Forum. It cannot be more timely, given recent developments all over the world and the fractious dynamics that we are observing at the national and international levels. I will do so from the perspective of the United Nations and more specifically, from the perspective of the Security Council, an organ that I have come to study and know well through my position. 

As the Secretary-General has affirmed, the Council “bears the burden of not just its own but the United Nations overall reputation.” I would even go further; the Council is at times regarded as the symbol of the current international order.

I think we can all agree that the lack of resolution of the Syrian conflict, the lack of progress of the Middle East peace process, or the war in Yemen—to name only a few—have shaken popular faith in the potential of multilateralism to deliver solutions.

The Council as a multilateral institution was born with a variety of purposes, one of which was to maintain peace among the Big Powers. In this respect, the Council has been largely successful. Let’s be reminded that over the past ten years more than ninety percent of all of its resolutions have been adopted unanimously. 

It is the lack of unity tragically affecting certain conflicts that gets most coverage and criticism. But for all its deserved criticism, I would like to bring a different perspective today; one that (for a change) recognizes some of the Council’s achievements in recent years; as Dag Hammarskjöld once famously said, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”

The Council has been able to adopt decisions that have mitigated the effect of conflict on civilians and has advocated for the respect of international humanitarian law. Let’s take the example of Syria, difficult as it may be. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the Council has adopted a total of twenty-nine decisions (this includes resolutions and statements by the President of the Security Council). Except for four, all have been adopted unanimously. It is also true that this item has registered a record number of vetoes, fourteen in total since 2011.

Of all decisions adopted in relation to Syria, resolution 2165, adopted unanimously in 2014, stands out. It authorized humanitarian agencies to use routes across conflict lines and border crossings to ensure that humanitarian assistance reached the people in need throughout Syria. This resolution also demanded that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, immediately comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The Council has renewed this authorization every year since (also in January 2020 despite very significant disagreements regarding the scope and duration of the mechanism established). And while the Council has not succeeded in solving the conflict, nor has it managed to stop the gruesome chemical attacks on civilians, this resolution has been able to maintain a vital humanitarian lifeline for millions of people in Syria for what is now an nine-year-old war.

Also in its thematic decisions the Council has sent a message by reaffirming the obligation of all parties to armed conflict to comply with the Geneva Conventions and by calling on parties to protect journalists, humanitarian personnel, United Nations personnel, peacekeeping forces, as well as medical staff and facilities. The Council has also strongly condemned the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, the unlawful denial of humanitarian access, and depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, and has urged all parties to protect civilian infrastructure, critical to the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

The Council has solidified international consensuses in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In 2013, faced with the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Council adopted resolution 2118. This was further to the United States’ and Russia’s negotiation of a way forward in fighting the use of these weapons in Syria. And contrary to what happened in other occasions, the Council this time played an essential role in consolidating multilateral support to what had been the initiative of two of its members. 

You are probably shocked at the use of the example since we have all seen with horror the chemical attacks that have occurred in Syria in the recent past, but let’s be reminded that the joint action of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) pursuant to this resolution came to achieve by 2015 the destruction of Syria’s declared stockpile. Also, the Government of Syria has been subject to strict reporting and monitoring by the OPCW ever since. 

And of course, in 2015, the E3+3 (or the P5+1) reached a groundbreaking agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was later unanimously endorsed by the Council in resolution 2231. Again here, what had been the initiative of some became the agreement of all.

And for all the destructive rhetoric and the serious questions as to its future, the agreement was a game changer—one that was achieved through painstaking multilateral efforts, also within the Council, after a decade’s worth of sanctions. Despite United States withdrawal and the most recent tensions in the region, Iran continues to affirm that it is acting within its framework and it is implementing its nuclear-related commitments.

The Council has continued to deepen international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Only this year the Council adopted two major resolutions, both under Chapter VII of the UN Charter: resolution 2462, which emphasizes the obligation of Member States to criminalize the financing of terrorism, and resolution 2482, which calls on Member States to strengthen a global response to the linkages between international terrorism and organized crime.

The Council has galvanized multilateral support to tackle global emergencies. As it did in the past with regard to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, in 2014, the Council came together to unanimously adopt a resolution to tackle the spread of Ebola. Resolution 2177 effectively paved the way to reverse the isolation of West Africa in its fight against the Ebola virus by lifting general travel and border restrictions, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and providing urgent resources. In so doing, the Council led the multilateral response to the Ebola health crisis with a decision that was sponsored by 134 Member States, an absolute record number in the history of the Council. 

I was at the Council that day and there were so many delegations in attendance that rather than the Council, the Chamber looked like the General Assembly. Within months, the situation improved and by mid-2015 the spread of the virus was contained, eventually ending the outbreak. The disease has since resurfaced in the opposite side of the continent, in East Africa, and the new outbreak is being monitored by the Council.

The Council has used targeted sanctions smartly and effectively to aid the resolution of conflicts and to combat sexual violence in conflict. In 2016, the Council terminated the sanctions concerning Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire and today Côte d’Ivoire sits on the Council, on equal footing, as one of its elected members. And in November 2018, the Council lifted the sanctions on Eritrea further to the peace agreement with Ethiopia in July 2018. Fourteen other sanctions regimes remain; some of which are clearly designed to create conditions favorable to resolving conflicts.

In 2017, the Council introduced sexual violence in conflict as a standalone designation criterion for targeted sanctions in the context of the Central African Republic. This criterion has now expanded to nine of the existing fourteen sanctions regimes. 

The Council has supported (albeit imperfectly) peace and political processes and has engaged with other organizations to prevent conflict. Let’s take Colombia. In 2016, the Council unanimously established the United Nations Mission in Colombia to monitor and verify the definitive bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and the laying down of arms in the country. The Council has actively accompanied Colombia’s peace process with a succession of peace missions as well as with visits of the Council itself to the country, showing very clear support to the peace in Colombia.

Less known, perhaps, is the example of the Gambia. In early 2017, the rapid and active cooperation within the Council and with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) averted a major political crisis in the Gambia, culminating in the unanimous adoption of resolution 2337, which urged all Gambian parties and stakeholders to respect the will of the people, and the endorsement of the decision of ECOWAS and the African Union to recognize Adama Barrow as President.

And in Yemen, at the beginning of 2019, the Council established the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) to monitor and facilitate the immediate implementation of a ceasefire. Despite the daunting challenges and difficulties, UNMHA continues its work on the ground against all odds. And as recently as January 2020, its mandate was renewed until July 2020.

Last, and importantly, the Council’s discussions have pushed the multilateral agenda forward in certain areas of policy and law. More so than it receives credit for. Let’s take the example of climate change. Despite the fragile consensus internationally and the recent withdrawal by the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement, in January 2019, the Council discussed the impact of climate-related disasters on international peace and security. This was the seventh formal meeting of the Council dedicated to the impact of climate on peace and security. In fact, since 2007, the Council has been discussing the question of climate change in the context of international peace and security. And, since 2018, the Council has mandated some of its peace missions to take into consideration climate change in the delivery of their activities.

No doubt, progress has not been linear or overwhelmingly positive. Clearly, the Council’s action has suffered major setbacks. But the multilateral framework did not remain idle. Other institutions stepped in, in an attempt to maintain the international push for progress and decency.

In November 2017, the Council was unable to agree on the extension of the Joint Investigative Mechanism concerning the attacks with chemical weapons in Syria, amidst conflicting views with regard to the quality and conduct of the investigation. As you may recall, various draft resolutions were put forward and failed. The multilateral system however did not fail in addressing the issue. In June 2018, the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention adopted a decision calling upon the Secretariat of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to step in and to put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. On November 5, 2019, the Council was briefed by the Director-General of OPCW on the work of the Investigation and Identification Team.

These contradictory dynamics are as prevalent today as they were in 1946. The complex nature of the Council’s responsibility to maintain international peace and security could not make us expect otherwise. With this, I am not trying to say that this is business as usual. 

No doubt, we live in a time of complex and multi-faceted conflicts, existential threats such as climate change, global emergencies, and deepening inequality, as well as rising tensions over trade. People are moving across borders in unprecedented numbers in search of safety or opportunity. We continue to wrestle with the risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and we are now grappling with the potential dangers of new technologies. There is anxiety, uncertainty, and unpredictability across the world. But this is not new.

In January of 1992, soon after Boutros Boutros-Ghali assumed the role of Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Security Council held its first ever summit at the level of Heads of State and Government. That day at the Security Council, iconic leaders of the period were sitting at the horseshoe table: Boris Yeltsin, George Bush, Francois Mitterrand, John Major, and King Hassan II of Morocco were some of the participants at that meeting. It was the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War and soon after the end of the Cold War. Interestingly, some of the same topics that we are now struggling with were then, as they are now, the centerpiece of discussion: democracy, human rights, migration, economic development, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a progressively deteriorating environment. Nothing seems to be new. 

Let me briefly recall the words of Boutros-Ghali at that meeting: 

“The narrow nationalism that would oppose or disregard the norms of a stable international order and the micro-nationalism that resists healthy economic or political integration can disrupt a peaceful global existence. Nations are too interdependent, national frontiers are too porous and transnational realities—in the spheres of technology and investment, on the one side, and poverty and misery, on the other—too dangerous to permit egocentric isolationism.” 

This was 1992, some thirty years ago!

As opposed to the reality in 1992, a fast-paced and increasingly complex network of actors and stakeholders, beyond nation states, marks our reality today. We require new forms of cooperation with other international and regional organizations; what the Secretary-General has termed “a networked multilateralism.” And we need closer links with civil society and other stakeholders; an inclusive and transparent multilateralism. In this context, the Security Council has a central role to play in showing the value of international cooperation, and it has actually led this process with action. 

The Council is cooperating with more regional and sub-regional organizations than ever before. As my previous examples suggested, the Council is addressing conflicts and situations in Africa in close collaboration with the African Union but also with ECOWAS, the East African Community, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, to name a few. And beyond Africa, the Council is also engaging with other organizations such as the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, NATO, or the OSCE; the Organization of American States briefed the Council last year in the context of the situation in Nicaragua.

In the past years, the Council has also engaged with civil society more than ever before. Since 2010, it has multiplied by six the number of civil society briefers bringing ground experience in relation to the conflicts being dealt with directly into the Chamber. Similarly, it has increased its visits to the field to obtain firsthand information on conflicts directly from those most affected by them, and it has opened itself to the broader membership in a push for transparency, holding more open debates than ever before with more invitees than ever.

For all its progress, the effectiveness of the Council (and the current international order) is no doubt oftentimes in question. As I mentioned at the outset, it is clear that we are living through trying times, times of contradiction. While challenges can only be effectively addressed through greater international cooperation (nationalist recipes cannot tackle them), destabilizing factors and uncertainties in international relations remain. 

These, however, should not lead to panic and overreaction (which, allow me to say, is a rather testosterone-driven dynamic) but rather to bold, calculated, and persistent work in defending international law—at every opportunity and without reservations—and in engaging the existing multilateral institutions to consolidate progress and cooperation. 

Despite the noise, multilateral institutions are continuing their careful and important work. This is not to say that we should take them for granted; rather the contrary, we should defend them with greater courage. It is our responsibility.

Let me quote Hammarskjöld one last time: “It is our responsibility to remedy any flaws there may be in them. It is our responsibility to correct any failures in our use of them. And we must expect our responsibility for remedying the flaws and correcting the failures to go on and on, as long as human beings are imperfect and human institutions likewise.”

I thank you.