Towards a more accountable United Nations Security Council: Interview with Dr Carolyn Evans – Part 2

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on Dr Carolyn Evans monograph, Towards a more accountable United Nations Security Council. In this series, Dr Carolyn Evans (CE) discusses her research on the United Nations Security Council with Assistant Editor Crystal Ji (CJ). Part 1 examines Dr Evans’ influences that shaped the direction of her research, the Security Council’s relationship with international law, and the problems and potential of the Security Council in performing its role. Part 2 examines what greater accountability could look like for the Security Council. 

CJ: Your book investigates how we can move towards more accountability for the Security Council. What does accountability mean in this context, is there a standard in international law?

CE: No there is not, though there have been attempts to go in that direction. A proposal came out of the International Law Commission in its Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. It has been on the table in the General Assembly for more than 10 years, and it is no closer to finalisation. Also, accountability is a social or sociological concept rather than a strictly legal one. International law definitely does not have a strict meaning for the term, and it is not necessarily equated to, or only synonymous with, legal responsibility. Some people say it should be and make a good case, but I would suggest it is not necessary that it be equated that way, and instead that there is role for legal responsibility separate to the broader concept of accountability.  

The difficulties are also linguistic. Many languages do not have a word for accountability so it is not possible to translate it, and that in itself is a stumbling block. In the Anglophone world, the concept of accountability is basically a post-war concept. The first paper going in that direction is from 1944, so it is not a particularly longstanding concept. I took it back to basics to say that accounting is explaining or justifying, and that has a broad applicability that helps us. What it means for me is that it is dialogic – there is not much point to a monologue on what you did, as the account is not complete until someone responds to that.

I think there needs to be a formal response from the General Assembly as the plenary for the institution. That is not to say the General Assembly should supervise the Council.

In one sense, people used to say the Security Council accounts for itself in annual report. I would say, instead, that it only reports; it puts on the table a report of what it has been doing, but there is no immediate response, or mechanism for anyone to evaluate that, or provide a response later.

It is not like a parliamentary debate where someone will say something and then the other side says something different, there is no mechanism for that. If such a report is intended to explain or justify conduct, it should be a two-way street, there should be a response so you are not talking into the void or going into self-justifying monologue.  

But there I stop short of what other authors often do. A range of authors often bracket in the idea of consequences, so they are following more of what you see in newspapers of being ‘held to account’. That is certainly one part of the picture. I do not tend to use that as the main picture; it is highly valuable and educational to account for things even if there are no ‘consequences’. If you presume there are always negative consequences or some punitive element or even just a pejorative overtone, it changes the nature of accountability – it looks like you are going on a fault-finding mission rather than trying to understand something. What you do not want is an accountability process to end up being just 20/20 hindsight. Accountability is intended to help us understand, so it needs to have that interactive response element, but it does not need to have a pejorative or punitive overtone. For example, we do see shareholders’ meetings that go very badly – people shouting that things were done wrong, that sort of thing. But the other ninety-nine out of a hundred shareholders’ meetings will often be civilised, quiet, productive, where the annual report is given, where a shareholder will say, ‘it worries me a bit that this is happening’. And then the next year, the conversation will say ‘in response, we fixed that’. So, lots of those things happen with respect to accountability, but they are not always regarded as newsworthy. 

CJ: What kind of model would you propose that would incorporate that dialogic process to make the Security Council more accountable?

I think there needs to be a formal response from the General Assembly as the plenary for the institution. That is not to say the General Assembly should supervise the Council. But the General Assembly is the place for a statement of expectations to come from the membership of the institution, or a statement of disappointed expectations if you like; ‘we expected that to be done and it was not and we are not happy’. Interestingly, Ukraine has precipitated some of that. The 1950 General Assembly Uniting for Peace Resolution that has not been talked about for decades has come back to the fore, which is a way of the General Assembly saying ‘your explanation for your inaction is inadequate, we are now taking the helm’. If you think of it in accountability terms, the relevant resolution from the Security Council owned that it could not reach a resolution on the issue, and the General Assembly response is ‘we are going to do something’. Though the solution might not necessarily be via the Uniting for Peace Resolution, the idea is still a vastly more productive account of whether the Security Council is able to do what it is there to do, and whether it used all the tools it could use. In the book, I talk about examples where, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see many other things that could have been done at the time. I outline that this is evidence that, if there was a dialogue going with the General Assembly and that wider membership, shortfalls in action by the Council might have come out and been addressed at the time, much more contemporaneously, rather than what the Security Council does being almost a monologue in the Council.  

It is important because one of the other old chestnuts of reform is a bigger Security Council. For example, the case is often debated about the Security Council not being representative. In the arithmetic sense, that is true, but the Security Council still needs to be fit for purpose.

The idea I explored was greater corporate memory by having what some might call ‘semi-permanent members’ of the Security Council.

If we think they have trouble making decisions with 15 members, how much bigger can you make it before it would not be able to do anything at all? The General Assembly itself is a good example of inaction from broader membership. Even in some GA committees with 50 members, there is a serious struggle to move ahead simply because it is a big body of people to wrangle. Instead, I looked at the ideas around a modest increase of a handful of members to the Security Council, because if you did exactly what you do now in the Security Council but with more people, I do not think it would make any difference at all. You need to adjust one of the other dials. The idea I explored was greater corporate memory by having what some might call ‘semi-permanent members’ of the Security Council. At the moment, elected members are constrained by not being allowed to serve successive terms. Just as they start to become familiar enough with the work to really contribute, their term is finished. Could successive terms be allowed? Then they could build up more corporate memory and greater ability to deal with the issues.  

So, accountability could be increased by more involvement, by the General Assembly responding, by more push from the General Assembly to indicate direction to the elected members of the Security Council, and the elected members then standing up and doing so. There is the example [mentioned in part I] of the 1267 Ombudsperson. The General Assembly clearly expressed that the system was not right and needed to be fixed. Over a period of years, almost all elected members pursued that and contributed something. Some commissioned studies, others put it back on the agenda after it fell off. They took the idea from the General Assembly that it was a problem that needed to be fixed, then they pursued it. That structure is dialogic and is ongoing to account for the gap that is seen and to look at different ways of bridging the gap. 

All of that said, if you are a very black letter law person, accountability is a frustrating concept because it does not have a strict definition or finite boundary. Hence my answer is long because it is not black letter law. We are back to the Security Council’s basic relationship with international law, which itself is not black letter. My inclination has been to go back to the membership, which has the right to direct the institution as a whole, where this might play out in the General Assembly being the plenary body. The membership should be directing the institution, not just one or two veto-holders. 

CJ: Do you see momentum building for change being instituted? How would you overcome obstacles and find a path forward in that regard?

CE: With every week that goes by with the situation in Ukraine, I think people are discovering what can be achieved. It is a horrible way of discovering it, but it would be worse if we went through all that and did not, so we take the positive where we can get it. Put a different way, the situation in Ukraine itself is a full stop on a long and ugly sentence that played out over decades. Some people would say it is a natural consequence from Crimea, and I would agree, but Crimea itself was a consequence of other inaction of the Security Council which came about because they could not agree on something 30 years ago, which came because they could not agree on something 40 years ago – but if I start giving those examples, we might be here all day! The key is that gradual degradation can be addressed by gradual re-creation. I do not think throwing it out and starting it again is that practical. Just that one example I gave earlier on the Uniting for Peace Resolution – revisiting that and using a tool that was there to be used, using it well and doing as much as they could with that, that is great. And – perhaps quite surprisingly – writing the book made me quite optimistic about the possibilities! 

Dr Carolyn M Evans CSC teaches and researches at the Faculty of Law & Justice at UNSW Sydney, specialising in international law in relation to international organisations. She recently published her first monograph Towards a more accountable United Nations Security Council (Brill 2021).