A new formula for the UN Security Council

The case for the “Pierce formula”

For the best part of a decade, paralysis has plagued the United Nations Security Council. Most recently, the International Rescue Committee described the Council’s response to the coronavirus as “shameful.” As the pandemic rages on, and UN members fail to answer the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, the need to address divisions at the Security Council is more critical than ever.

Even among allies at the Security Council, such as the United States, France, and the U.K. known informally as the P3 relations have also broken down on critical issues, from the response to civil war in Libya to the role of the World Health Organization in the fight against coronavirus. More frequent use of informal meeting formats, especially among democratic countries, is a necessary step in efforts to end increasingly complex conflicts around the world.

In a recent attempt to ease tensions, the U.K.’s former Permanent Representative, Karen Pierce, initiated a new informal meeting format over the past year. Known by diplomats in New York as “sofa talks,” these gatherings take the form of unscripted meetings, which aim to develop a problem-solving mindset among representatives. There are no agendas and no minutes. The formula also differs from other meeting formats because representatives do not submit issues for discussion, and only Permanent Representatives (and the catering staff) are present. Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan coined the term “Pierce formula” to describe the new meetings.

In late March 2020, as the United States went into its coronavirus lockdown, Ambassador Pierce left New York to become British Ambassador in Washington. This transitional moment requires Security Council members to cement the format Pierce initiated as an essential tool for internal dispute resolution.

A diplomat at the U.K. Mission with whom I spoke welcomed the continued use of informal sofa talks, even if the prospect of holding in-person meetings in the near future remains low due to social distancing measures. While their exact form may be different in the future, informal meetings without agendas have demonstrably led to better working relationships, even when diplomatic ties are strained. From the British perspective, Pierce formula meetings have helped the U.K. to rebuild some semblance of a working relationship with fellow permanent member Russia since the low point of the Skripal poisoning in 2018.

Concerns about transparency at the United Nations should not limit the use of the Pierce formula. Transparency remains essential for the UN’s credibility. Over the past decade, the number of formal, open meetings of the Security Council has increased significantly to reflect member states’ desire for greater public accountability. In 2018, there were 275 open meetings and only 120 closed consultations. This marked a significant shift since the early 2010s when around half of meetings took place behind closed doors. In light of the broader trend towards greater transparency, the Security Council should not shy away from closed-door informal meetings when necessary if the formula delivers results in conflict de-escalation and peacebuilding.

As the period of increased Security Council productivity immediately after the end of the Cold War demonstrated, private, informal meetings can generate more honest discussion and lead to better decision-making. In March 1992, for example, a Croatian priest contacted Venezuelan Permanent Representative Diego Arria during Venezuela’s presidency of the Security Council. He wanted to share his account of the ongoing violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but only UN Secretariat officials were typically able to brief the Council formally. Instead, Arria gathered Security Council members informally to hear the priest’s first-hand accounts. From there, the “Arria-formula” emerged. The arrangement allows non-state actors, representatives of NGOs, and others, to brief the Council in an informal setting and is now a fully institutionalized feature of Security Council operations.

From 1989 to 1994 alone, the Security Council authorized 20 new peacekeeping missions. These resolutions required extensive informal discussions to reach an agreement on new Security Council mandates. Then, as now, the global order was in a state of transformation, and the increasingly divergent interests of permanent members in the 21st century necessitate more informal consultation to build trust and rapport.

Despite the challenges that the pandemic will continue to pose for face-to-face diplomacy, the need to maintain informal lines of communication, as well as open in-person discussions where possible, remains. During the pandemic, local actors, such as the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, took advantage of an international community distracted by domestic concerns about the coronavirus by escalating military action.

In a time of crisis, a coordinated international response is more important than ever. If Haftar and other regional players continue to sense paralysis on the part of the Security Council, the conflict will only escalate further beyond the reach of multilateral solutions. Frequent, unscripted dialogue between Security Council members is the first step toward greater unity, especially in the context of greater activism at the Security Council by Russia and China.

On the civil war in Libya, more Pierce formula meetings may enable France, the U.K., and the United States to understand each other’s positions more clearly, and thus formulate a unified set of proposals for peace. If U.S. Permanent Representative Kelly Kraft is serious about her recent assertion that Libya must find “a political path to stability,” then the use of informal meetings to reach consensus among traditional allies at the Council may be part of a multilateral solution. Without the improved understanding and cohesion that informal meetings can provide, it seems unlikely that the P3 can reign in their wayward Turkish and Gulf allies, whose continued incursions into the conflict in Libya divide the Council. While France continues to offer support to the United Arab Emirates’ intervention on behalf of Haftar, the United States is concerned about Russia’s involvement on the same side. Neither country’s approach helps the UN-backed government in Tripoli. As permanent members of the UN’s most powerful body, such an incoherent policy is unacceptable.

As the role of proxies and external actors in the wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen continues to shape the conflict, unity among allies at the Security Council is essential. Unity, especially among democratic Security Council members, acts as leverage against outside intervention in local conflicts, and may, in turn, influence Russian and Chinese geopolitical calculations. Informal mechanisms like the Pierce formula provide a critical forum for this effort.

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

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Alistair Somerville

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He is co-author of a recent report published by the Institute on U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

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