On September 2, 2015 the UN press briefing room was filled with journalists. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to the UN arrived in a cheerful mood for his press conference for UN accredited media. The Russian Federation holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of September 2015. This is a significant month for the UN as it is the month that traditionally brings heads of state and government from around the world to the New York headquarters for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. This year is somewhat special, however, as the UN is also celebrating its 70th birthday. A larger than usual number of heads of state and government will travel to New York to contribute to this special occasion.
Ambassador Churkin’s conduct of what is the traditional press conference held by the new president set a notable example of how a Security Council member holding the rotating monthly presidency should interact with the press.
While the recent tendency among several of the current Security Council members has been to shorten the time of the press conference where they take questions, Ambassador Churkin welcomed questions and the press conference continued for almost an hour.
His responses to questions were in general forthright and helped to clarify some of the spectrum of views of those on the Security Council. Similarly he explained how progress had been made on a recent resolution, thereby giving a sense of how the previous frequent stalemates that have occurred on the Council could be averted.
Perhaps one of the most controversial issues relating to the Security Council procedures is the fact that the UN Charter provides the right of veto over Security Council decisions to the five Permanent Members of the Council. Recently conflicting views among members of the Security Council on the Syrian conflict have resulted in some vetoes of resolutions that were tabled for a vote by the Council before there was adequate negotiation over the points in contention.
Some members of the Security Council and other UN members are campaigning to weaken the right of the Permanent Members of the Council to use the veto. Also there are calls for increasing the number of members on the Security Council, with some UN member nations maintaining the need to give some of the new members the veto, while there are other UN member nations trying to limit any further nations that would be granted the veto.
One question to Ambassador Churkin was about his views on the proposals for Security Council Reform.
Ambassador Churkin responded that there were two basic issues in the reform controversy. One had to do with the expansion of the Security Council. This issue is: Should the expansion include new permanent member seats or just a lengthening of some of the terms of elected members? This might involve a new category of members, called “Intermedia Members.” Ambassador Churkin observed that he didn’t see any consensus on this issue. Until there is such a consensus it was unlikely, therefore, that there be any change decided by UN members about this issue.
A second issue in Security Council reform efforts, he explained, is a proposal to limit the veto of permanent members in the case of “mass atrocities.” Ambassador Churkin explained why he felt such a proposal was unworkable. The proposal is that a decision by a yet undetermined number of members of the UN, whether it be 50 or 100, or by the Secretary General or the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that war crimes were happening, would trigger a prohibition against a permanent member using the veto.
The problem with such a proposal, he explained, was that this is a political world. It is not so difficult to put together 50 members of the General Assembly or 100 to deprive a permanent member of the Security Council of his or her veto. The number is not important, Ambassador Churkin argued, as it could be 150. That would mean, however, members of the General Assembly infringing on the prerogatives of the Security Council. Churkin also noted that “you cannot say that every resolution in a dire situation is a good resolution and not going to be used for political purposes….”
It is the veto, he maintained, which allows members of the Security Council to produce balanced decisions which make it possible for the minority opinion to be reflected in the work of the Security Council.
And he pointed to what happened in the Security Council in 2011 with the resolution against Libya. There were those hoping the veto would have been used to stop the passage of Security Council Resolution 1973.
Sometimes as in a case like that of Libya, the absence of the veto can produce a disaster, he noted.
Ambassador Churkin was asked whether the US and the Russian Federation could work together in the Security Council on the situation in Syria.
In response to this question, he offered a recent example of how they had worked together. Ambassador Churkin described how he was first given a draft resolution by the US on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The US is the pen holder in drafting resolutions on Syria. He recognized that he would have to veto the draft resolution unless there were needed changes.
But in this case, the US was willing to negotiate with the Russian Federation to create a resolution that both the US and the Russian Federation could agree to. Through contacts at the level of national Ambassadors between the US and the Russian Federation, and then through negotiation between the Russian Federation’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, a new draft resolution was prepared which the Russian Federation was able to support. Churkin explained that this was a tedious process and that Kerry and Lavrov even had a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister on the resolution. There were also meetings with the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government . The result was S/RES/2235 (2015) and support for the work of the UN Secretary General.
There were a number of other questions raised during Ambassador Churkin’s press conference. One of the questions was whether there was anything the Security Council could do to stop the attack on Yemen.
Ambassador Churkin explained that what was happening in Yemen was a very dramatic situation. That it was well known that the US and the UK are providing all kinds of support for the operation against Yemen. These two nations, who are Security Council members, share the responsibility for what is going on in Yemen. Such a military campaign produces a lot of civilian casualties. The way it looks now is that the mood to continue fighting is prevailing over the need to produce a political program, he said.
Another question concerned the lack of action by the Middle East Quartet in helping to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ambassador Churkin pointed out that the Quartet was important as it provided an international framework to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Going through the calendar of the Security Council for the month of September, Ambassador Churkin especially pointed to a Security Council meeting planned for September 30, 2015. It would be held at the Foreign Minister level of representation. During the meeting, with Foreign Minister Lavrov as Chair, the Russian Federation would present a proposal for a United Front against terrorist groups.
The Security Council press conference lasted 50 minutes, in sharp contrast with the ever shorter press conferences held by some other members of the Security Council when they held the rotating presidency. Such a period of time gave Ambassador Churkin a chance to hear questions and to present responses that helped to shed light on the workings of the Council and the obstacles and successes of the efforts of different member nations in helping the Council to make progress or to be stymied in its efforts.
This press conference provided an example of the kind of press conference that can help the press to provide better coverage of the work of the Council.