Discover the Security Council’s Informal Tool for Crisis Management

19 August 2019   ·   Melanie Coni-Zimmer, ​​Anton Peez

As a member of the UN Security Council, Germany should convene Arria-formula meetings more frequently to address specific impending crises and conflicts. In doing so, it should also strengthen cooperation with countries from the Global South. This would grant additional expertise and flexibility to the Council and diversify the included voices and preferences.

The United Nations (UN) are at the core of Germany’s foreign policy and its explicit commitment to the rules-based international order. In its candidacy and the run-up to its membership on the UN Security Council (UNSC), Germany emphasized that it aims to “ensure that the Security Council is even more active in the area of conflict prevention than [it]…was in the past.” This programmatic focus on crisis prevention is no coincidence, satisfying two different yet complementary ends of German foreign policy. On the one hand, it follows ongoing debates on the matter at the United Nations and other international organizations. On the other, it adheres to the German government’s commitment to crisis prevention as outlined in its 2017 guidelines on civilian crisis prevention.

What remains unclear, however, is how Germany aims to put this programmatic focus on conflict resolution and prevention into practice as a non-permanent member on the UNSC. We argue that Germany should make use of Arria-formula meetings as a means of implementing these goals, and propose how it could do so. Arria-formula meetings can be used to address impending crises and to strengthen ties with countries and stakeholders from the Global South.

An informal and flexible channel for expertise

Strictly speaking, Arria-formula meetings are not sessions of the UNSC, but rather of its members. Generally, a few members of the Council organize and convene the informal meetings and act as chairs for the session. The first Arria-formula meeting took place in 1992 at the initiative of Diego Arria, then-Venezuelan Representative to the UN, with UNSC members informally discussing the war in Bosnia with a local priest. Since then, Arria-formula meetings are frequently invoked positively as a method of opening up the Council to non-members and NGOs.

Initially, Arria-formula meetings were almost exclusively organized to discuss specific country and conflict situations. Today, the focus has shifted, and the majority of meetings – nine out of 13 in 2019, so far – addressed cross-cutting issues, such as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, the protection of children, or transnational organised crime (cf. Fig. 1).

Discover the Security Council’s Informal Tool for Crisis Management

While Arria-formula meetings started as informal and confidential meetings of members of the UNSC, today, such conversations between Council members take place elsewhere. 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 might not deviate from their official positions during the discussion. Nevertheless, Arria-formula meetings feed additional 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 focus on cross-cutting issues

Since its election to the UNSC in mid-2018, Germany has, as of June 1st, 2019, (co-)hosted 15 Arria-formula meetings, six of these as an incoming member in 2018. Meetings with German involvement were in some cases chaired by high-ranking politicians – Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Minister of Justice Katarina Barley, for example – highlighting the importance of the topics in question to the government.

However, only three of the meetings co-hosted by Germany since the beginning of 2019 (as well as during its Council membership in 2011–12) have addressed country-specific 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 its meetings addressed cross-cutting issues such as Human Rights in Peace Operations or the WPS agenda, which Germany has actively supported as a priority issue throughout its SC membership.

In the spirit of Germany’s self-defined goals – a foreign policy that is committed to crisis resolution and conflict prevention – the federal government should prioritize more country-specific Arria-formula meetings to address conflicts at an impasse and impending crises, and, where possible, cooperate with actors from the Global South.

Country-specific sessions: controversial but productive

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 UNSC’s paralysis in light of the tensions and conflicts among the five permanent members. In total, twelve UNSC 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, and the United States – have repeatedly organised Arria-formula meetings on the topic, enabling members of the UNSC 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 UNSC were briefed on the matter 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, 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.

Arria-formula meetings – in the spirit of the Council’s preventive work – can also be organized for situations that are at risk of escalating and need international attention. One recent example is the meeting on the situation in Cameroon in May 2019. The meeting was politically disputed, as both Cameroon and the current African members on the Security Council were critical of organizing a meeting focussing on the humanitarian situation in the country. As a formal UNSC meeting was out of the question due to these tensions, the Arria-formula meeting ensured that Council members nonetheless debated the issue at all.

Do not shy away from organizing contentious Arria-formula meetings

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 UNSC 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 early warning and crisis prevention, but fell apart due to the quick turnaround between agenda-setting and the meetings themselves, and concerns regarding the perceived stigma attached to being covered in such a meeting).

In line with its own aspirations, the German government should not shy away from contentious topics, and organize Arria-formula meetings in order to address impending crises and conflicts in which the Council is at odds. Furthermore, annual renewals of peacekeeping operation mandates could serve as grounds for country-specific Arria-formula meetings. Including local civil society organizations and academic institutions would provide for an additional feedback loop.

Strengthen countries and stakeholders from the Global South 

Arria-formula meetings are primarily organized and used by Western countries. The UN regional group of “Western European and Other States” has organized and co-sponsored around 56 per cent of all Arria-formula meetings since 2012, though these countries hold only one-third of all seats on the UNSC (cf. Fig. 2).

Discover the Security Council’s Informal Tool for Crisis Management

This may be driven by the fact that these countries’ UN missions have more personnel and a greater budget at their disposal. With permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – who host and co-sponsor meetings regularly – this group benefits from ongoing experience in UNSC matters. Other regional groups lack this expertise as they do not have a permanent member within their ranks and because China and Russia rarely engage in hosting.

Instead of organizing 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 UNSC.

Arria-formula meetings already are broadly supported by many UN member states, as they allow for the inclusion of actors beyond the UNSC. 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.


Figures based on the authors’ coding of Security Council Report’s list of all 263 known Arria-formula meetings (as of 01 June 2019). Security Council Report points out that this list is incomplete. 

This is an abridged version of a June 2019 PRIF Spotlight policy paper and posts at PRIF Blog (German/English).

Vereinte Nationen Friedensförderung UN-Sicherheitsrat

Melanie Coni-Zimmer

Melanie Coni-Zimmer is a Senior Researcher and Project Director in Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF)’s research department on transnational politics. Since 2015, she has been a member of the German Federal Government’s Advisory Board for Civilian Crisis Prevention. @MConiZimmer

​​Anton Peez

Anton Peez is a PhD candidate and Doctoral Researcher in Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF)’s research department on international institutions. @antonpeez