On 25 October 2021, we collaborated with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich to hold an in-depth discussion on the role of civil society on the United Nations (UN) Security Council in light of Switzerland’s current candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We were joined by a number of high-ranking and experienced representatives of government, civil society and the scientific community alike, including Flavio Milan, Head of UN Coordination at the FDFA, Fabien Merz, Senior Researcher at CSS, as well as Dr. Annyssa Bellal of the Geneva Academy and Madeleine Rees OBE, Secretary-General of Women‘s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Security Council Briefers

Dr. Bellal and Madame Rees have both had the opportunity to appear before the UN Security Council as Briefers in the past, meaning that they were invited to brief the council on their respective areas of expertise, as they related to the council’s agenda. As a well-known expert on international law, Dr. Bellal was invited to brief the council on the Geneva Conventions in August of 2019, together with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares. WILPF Secretary-General, Madeleine Rees, was invited to brief the Council in February 2020 on how to ensure an effective and safe environment for women human rights defenders and women peacebuilders.

Both Dr. Bellal and Madame Rees recounted their experiences before the Security Council in some detail during the panel discussion and the ensuing Q&A, which in turn raised a number of profound questions about the role of civil society on the UN Security Council. Many of these questions also touched upon the evening’s introductory remarks by  Flavio Milan and Fabien Merz. What, for instance, are the general procedures related to members of civil society appearing before the Security Council? How often does it happen that private citizens are invited as briefers? And which organizations and individuals have had the honour to be invited in the past?

Switzerland’s Role in Civil Society Inclusion at the Security Council

In his introductory remarks, Flavio Milan emphasized that according to rule 39 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure, non-state actors may deliver briefings to the council on specific thematic or country-based issues, participate in open debates, as well as attend informal so-called “Arria-formula” meetings. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad and Project Renew (an all-women demining team in Vietnam), for instance, have briefed the Security Council in the past. The Swiss government has supported the inclusion of civil society in the work of the UN for over twenty years. It has released multiple statements in this regard and has served as a coordinator of the ACT group for the enhancement of accountability, coherence and transparency in the working methods of the Security Council in February 2021.

Meanwhile, Fabien Merz was able to comment in detail on these initiatives from a research point of view, having published on the security aspects of Switzerland’s current candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as the engagement of civil society concerns by previous non-permanent Security Council member states. In response to the question of what role civil society plays on the Security Council, Mr. Merz listed four distinct categories: The provision of thematic expertise, the promotion of public discourse, the enhancement of learning processes and finally, the role of the watchdog.

Future Challenges 

In sum, there is definitely potential for more civil society involvement on the UN Security Council and countries like Switzerland are actively promoting the role of civil society in its work. This being said, however, there also remain challenges for briefers, especially female briefers, as Madeleine Rees explained in some depth. There have been instances in the past, where female briefers were harassed on account of their statements before the council and Madame Rees argued that the UN needs to take direct steps to protect civil society representatives who give testimony at their own risk. More specifically, she stressed that the threat of harassment may deter future briefers from speaking out, especially if their testimony itself has low chances of having a direct impact on the resolutions of the council.

Both briefers in attendance were unanimous in their support for Switzerland’s current candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, both on account of Switzerland’s permanent neutrality and of its track record for the promotion of civil society involvement on the council. The Swiss government approved of Switzerland’s candidacy for the period of 2023-2024 back in 2015, arguing that Swiss neutrality is in fact compatible with UN Security Council membership. During the fall of 2020, the government has also committed itself to enhancing Switzerland’s peacekeeping contribution, seeing as peacekeeping remains an important agenda item at the Security Council.

Bearing this in mind, we hope to keep the discussion on the role of civil society at the UN Security Council active and ongoing, having gotten off to a constructive start. We look forward to many similar events such as this one and to close, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to our contributing speakers and panelists on the day and to our distinguished audience for joining us both in person and online.


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