This article is published as part ofFridays With MUNPlanet and its series dedicated to world politics and the United Nations. It is based on research by Jason Ralph and Jess Gifkins which was published in the European Journal of International Relations titled ‘The Purpose of United Nations Security Council Practice: Contesting competence claims in the normative context created by the Responsibility to Protect’. The article was awarded 'Best Article in EJIR for 2017' by the European International Studies Association and is available Open Access.
The United Nations Security Council has its own unusual language and ‘penholder’ is one such term. It refers to the state that takes the lead on drafting decisions for a particular conflict or thematic area. For example, the UK is penholder for the conflict in Yemen, and the US is penholder on counter-terrorism. Penholding is a powerful role, as the state that leads the drafting gets to set the terms of debate via both interpreting the situation and framing the response. Germany’s Ambassador to the United States outlined the importance of this role; “The one who leads, the one who presents the text, who stakes out a position early in the day, is the one who more or less determines the game”.
The concept of penholders is relatively recent, beginning in 2008, but has come to shape the way the Council operates. Initially, ‘penholding’ was a division of labour – a way to manage the increased workload of the Council – but over time,it has come to mean ‘political ownership’ of an issue. This can lead to situations where if the penholder does not write a draft then no one writes a draft. Penholders are resistant to attempts to encroach on their perceived ownership of an issue, even though this is a self-appointed role.
The exclusionary nature of this practice becomes evident when we consider who the penholders are. In 2017 there are 39 conflicts and thematic areas with penholders, the vast majority of which are held by the UK, the US and France (known as the Western permanent three, or P3) either individually or together. Penholding currently refers to continuous political ownership. These two points together mean that the P3 have established a stranglehold for themselves on the political power inherent in their penholding roles. Elected members haveexpressed much frustration at their marginalisation from penholding.
Penholding is an example of the rich, informal social environment that structures decision-making in the UN Security Council. An interesting aspect of this arrangement is that there is nothing inevitable or unalterable about it. Indeed, in recent years elected members of the Council have begun to challenge the dominance of permanent members in drafting. A research project by Jason Ralph and myself investigated the practice of penholding and demonstrated how changes in penholding can overcome deadlocks, as happened in the humanitarian track of the Syrian conflict.
Penholding on Syria is complex, with negotiations split into a political track, a chemical weapons track, an accountability track and a humanitarian track. While permanent members have dominated negotiations for the first three tracks, a revolving group of elected members have taken over penholding for the humanitarian track. Initially, in 2014 this group was Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan. Elected members taking over penholding on as sensitive an issue as the Syrian conflict was seen as ‘crazy’ and as ‘a hostile act’ by one of the Security Council diplomats we interviewed.
However, elected members were able to bring fresh creativity to the negotiations, and focused on the needs on the ground in Syria, rather than on ‘point scoring’. They were able to pass a series of resolutions, Resolution 2139, which demanded that parties allow humanitarian access; and Resolution 2165, which authorised the delivery of humanitarian aid without the consent of the Syrian government. As such, the change of penholder enabled decisions that would likely not have occurred without the leadership of elected members.
To date, a group of elected members have managed to maintain penholdership of the Syrian humanitarian track, but have faced considerable resistance. When Australia and Luxembourg finished their two-year terms on the Security Council the permanent members attempted to reassert control. Quick maneuvering by Spain and New Zealand, and the continuity of Jordan, enabled elected members to continue penholding on the humanitarian track, and the current group of elected members who are penholders for the Syrian humanitarian track are Egypt, Japan and Sweden.
Cracks began to emerge on the penholder system in the Syrian negotiations, which emboldened elected members who have begun to challenge the system in other areas. Elected members have since taken on penholding for resolutions on Israel-Palestine and on responding to attacks on healthcare workers. There has also been a recent increase in co-penholding between permanent and elected members.
The practice of penholding does not need to be exclusionary. If it were simply a division of labour, there could be a system of rotation or mechanisms to ensure that all Council members took part in penholding. In fact, more equitable penholder practices are a one of the few areas of Security Council reform that are both desirable and feasible.
Penholding can seem like odd ‘UN speak’, but the concept gets to the crux of questions on power and legitimacy. This informal and self-appointed practice determines which states get to shape responses to some of the most pressing issues in international peace and security. In the article, we argue that ‘competent practices’ need to be about more than diplomats achieving their desired goals, and should take into account both the effects that decisions have on the ground and the effects that the process of decision-making has on working relationships in the Council. As such, the activism shown by elected members on the Syrian humanitarian track represents a positive move towards more inclusive Security Council practices.
The article that this blog draws from also makes a broader critique of the current separation between practice theory and normative theory within the discipline of International Relations and poses a standard of ‘R2P competence’ to assess practices within the UN Security Council. ‘R2P competent’ practices aim to protect people from the crimes outlined under R2P and use decision-making practices that build and sustain a collective approach within the Security Council.
Jess Gifkins is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester and Honorary Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, at the University of Queensland. She researches the practice and process of decision-making within the United Nations system. She has published articles in the European Journal of International Relations,Cooperation and Conflict,Global Responsibility to Protect, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and Critical Military Studies, on the United Nations, the responsibility to protect, and international responses to crises in Darfur, Libya and Syria. She tweets @JessGifkins.