Conflict resolution and crisis prevention are two main objectives of German foreign policy. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2019–20, Germany put these topics at the top of its agenda. An informal and flexible meeting format – Arria-formula meetings – can serve as a tool for achieving these goals. Germany should use this format more frequently in addressing impending crises and conflicts in which the Council is blocked, as well as to strengthen cooperation with countries and actors of the Global South.
The United Nations are at the core of Germany’s foreign policy, and its explicit commitment to the rules-based international order. In the run-up to its Security Council membership, Germany has emphasized that it wants to “focus on conflict resolution” and “ensure that the Security Council is even more active in the area of conflict prevention”.1 This programmatic focus on crisis prevention is no coincidence. On the one hand, it matches ongoing debates in the United Nations and other international organizations. On the other, the federal government has committed itself to crisis prevention as a core principle of German foreign policy in its 2017 guidelines for civilian crisis prevention, titled “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace”. Here, crisis prevention is understood as the early prevention of conflicts and their violent outbreak.
At the same time, it remains unclear how Germany wants to put this programmatic focus on conflict resolution and prevention into practice as a non-permanent member on the Security Council. As a means for implementing these goals, Germany should make use of Arria-formula meetings of the UN Security Council. Arria-formula meetings can be used to address impending crises and to strengthen ties with countries and stakeholders from the Global South.
Arria-formula meetings: A flexible UN Security Council format2
The first Arria-formula meeting took place in 1992 at the initiative of the Venezuelan Representative to the United Nations, Diego Arria. Members of the Security Council met in the delegates lounge for an informal discussion with Croatian priest Jozo Zovko, who reported on the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since then, Arria-formula meetings are frequently mentioned positively in discussions on the reform of working methods and the opening-up of the Council to non-Member States and NGOs.
Strictly speaking, Arria-formula meetings are not sessions of the Security Council, but informal and interactive meetings of the members of the Security Council. Generally, one or more members of the Council organise and convene the meetings, invite other members and act as chairs for the session. After 1992, Arria-formula meetings were almost exclusively organised to discuss specific country and conflict situations. Today, the majority of meetings – 9 out of 13 in 2019, so far – addresses cross-cutting issues, such as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, the protection of children, or climate change (cf. Fig. 1).
Arria-formula meetings often get associated with a stronger involvement of civil society in the work of the Security Council, although this description falls short historically. Early on, Arria-formula meetings were mainly used to organise meetings between members of the Security Council and high-ranking national government officials (at least those meetings known to Security Council Report). Meetings with NGOs remained an exception until 2000. Currently, a variety of different actors is invited to bring their expertise to the Council – representatives of governments, NGOs, as well as researchers. Since 2000, around 60% of publicly known meetings included NGOs (110 out of 185), versus 4% (3 out of 78) prior to 2000. Overall, the meetings facilitate input from different actors who would not be able to speak in formal sessions of the Security Council for various reasons.
Nowadays, active participation at Arria-formula meetings is possible not only for Security Council members, but also for UN Member States that are not represented on the Council, as well as for NGOs. Additionally, meetings are regularly live streamed, making meetings accessible for an even broader public.
While Arria-formula meetings were initially considered as informal and confidential meetings of members of the Security Council, today such conversations between Council members take place in other meeting formats. Parts of Arria-formula meetings (such as Q&A sessions) may at times be more interactive than some formal sessions of the Council. Adding to this is the fact that no official protocol exists for these meetings. While the hosts will try to get approval from the other Council members – especially of the permanent members – for organising a meeting, this is not mandatory. Countries that disapprove of a meeting can abstain from participating.
In lieu of a confidential exchange, Arria-formula meetings now contribute to creating transparency and a certain openness of the Council – even if Council members will not deviate from their official positions during the discussion. Arria-formula meetings nevertheless can contribute to feeding additional information and expertise into the Council. They also help discussions on issues and countries that cannot be discussed on the formal agenda due to impasses and differing opinions in the Council.
Germany’s support for Arria-formula meetings
Since its election to the 2019–20 UN Security Council term in mid-2018, Germany has already (co-) hosted 15 Arria-formula meetings (until 01 June 2019), six of these as an incoming member in 2018. This number is significantly higher than during Germany’s last membership in 2011–12, where Germany co-hosted only two of these meetings. These figures match a recent general trend of increased use of this format.
So far, three Arria-formula meetings this year have considered the WPS agenda, another focused on the protection of humanitarian and medical personnel in conflict regions – topics which Germany and France put at the centre of their co-presidency (jumelage) in March and April 2019, and which the two countries partially prepared in Arria-formula meetings. The meetings co-hosted by Germany were in some cases attended by high-ranking politicians – chaired by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Minister of Justice Katarina Barley. Thus, the federal government has highlighted the importance of specific topics and helped prepare the related formal Council sessions.
However, only three meetings co-hosted by Germany in 2011–12 and since the beginning of 2019 have addressed country situations: a March 2012 meeting on Syria, a March 2019 meeting on Crimea and a May 2019 meeting on Cameroon. Germany also co-hosted a discussion on the situation in Afghanistan in November 2017 as a non-member. The remainder of meetings co-hosted by Germany addressed cross-cutting issues.
In the spirit of the goals Germany has defined for itself – a foreign policy that is committed to crisis resolution and conflict prevention – the federal government should, as we will argue in the following, first initiate more country-specific Arria-formula meetings to address conflicts at an impasse and impending crises. Second, Germany should, where possible, cooperate with actors from the Global South.
Recommendation 1: Stronger commitment to country-specific sessions
Despite the focus on cross-cutting topics in recent years, Arria-formula meetings have nonetheless repeatedly addressed the situation in Syria (18 times since 2011) and in Ukraine (four times since 2015). The example of Syria in particular demonstrates the Security Council’s paralysis in light of the tensions and conflicts among the five permanent members. In total, twelve Security Council resolutions on the situation in Syria have failed since 2011 due to the vetoes by Russia or China. Alongside other countries, the P3 countries – France, the United Kingdom, the United States – have repeatedly organised Arria-formula meetings on the topic, enabling members of the Security Council to address critical developments despite the blockade.
One notable example is a Council session on the situation in Syria in March 2018 during which a procedural vote prevented a briefing by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. Later that day, members of the Security Council were briefed via an Arria-formula meeting. Currently, the Council is not only at an impasse regarding the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, but also other crises, such as Sudan or Yemen, Libya or Venezuela. Arria-formula meetings can be used to provide new input or simply signal the Council members’ continued attention to certain crises, even though the Council might be blocked.
Additionally, Arria-formula meetings – in the spirit of the Council’s preventive work – can be organised for situations that are at risk of escalating and need international attention. One example is the meeting on the situation in Cameroon in May 2019, organised by the United States and co-hosted by the Dominican Republic, Germany and the United Kingdom. The meeting was politically disputed, both Cameroon and the current African members on the Security Council were critical of organising a meeting focussing on the humanitarian situation in the country. Clearly, country-specific meetings can be far more controversial than meetings on cross-cutting topics. However, this underscores the importance of keeping abreast of ongoing developments in specific countries. Arria-formula meetings do not necessarily imply that the Security Council will add these country situations to its official agenda – a concern that, in the past, led to the failure of other interactive meeting formats, such as horizon scanning, which also focused on crisis prevention. Increasing informal meetings on country situations would stress and complement the increasing importance the Federal Foreign Office places on crisis prevention.
Furthermore, annual renewals of peacekeeping operation mandates could serve as grounds for country-specific Arria-formula meetings. Including local civil society organisations and academic institutions would provide an additional feedback loop. In the spirit of its own aspirations, the German government should not shy away from contentious topics and invest in organising country-specific Arria-formula meetings in order to address conflicts in which the Council is blocked, as well as impending crises.
Recommendation 2: Strengthening countries and actors from the global south
Arria-formula meetings are primarily organised and used by Western countries. Proportionally, the UN regional group of “Western European and Other States” organised and co-sponsored around 56% of all Arria-formula meetings since 20123 – even though these countries only hold one-third of all seats on the Security Council (cf. Fig. 2).
This may coincide with the fact that these countries’ UN missions have more personnel and a greater budget at their disposal, and are therefore able to organise Arria-formula meetings more frequently. Similarly, due to the permanent members France and the United Kingdom – who host and co-sponsor meetings regularly – this group benefits from ongoing experience in Security Council matters. Other regional groups lack this expertise as they do not have a permanent member within their ranks (the African and Latin American/Caribbean Group) and because China and Russia rarely engage in hosting. Russia’s last Arria-formula meeting was in 1998, China has never hosted a meeting.
Instead of organising meetings with the usual partners, Germany could cooperate more strongly with countries from the Global South in order to better include their voices and preferences. However, the example of the meeting on Cameroon shows that this will not always be possible. Germany could also more frequently involve countries that are not members of the Security Council.
Stronger efforts for conflict prevention
Arria-formula meetings already are broadly supported by many UN member states. They allow for the inclusion of actors beyond the Security Council. Broadening the scope of voices heard by the Council can influence formal consultations and boost its transparency. In this respect, Germany’s ongoing co-sponsorship of Arria-formula meetings has proven to be productive. Germany should continue to (co-) host meetings on cross-cutting topics, but also increase its engagement for country-specific sessions. This would certainly be more controversial, but it would also credibly underscore Germany’s self-defined commitment to conflict resolution and crisis prevention.