What to expect when Switzerland heads UN Security Council

Switzerland's permanent representative to the UN in New York, Pascale Baeriswyl, and her team will have a busy month of May. Switzerland follows Russia as president of the Security Council. Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Switzerland will chair the United Nations' top security body in May. But what does this role entail, and what challenges and opportunities will Swiss diplomats face in New York?

This content was published on April 28, 2023 - 18:00

Since January 2023 – and for the first time in its history – Switzerland has been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. In May, it is reaching a new milestone and will take up the rotating presidency of the New York-based body, which is responsible for maintaining peace and security in the world.

The presidency comes at a time when the council’s capacity to prevent and resolve international conflicts is being seriously questioned. Its 15 members could not stop Russia from attacking Ukraine last year. Twenty years ago it sat still as the United States launched an invasion of Iraq. At the heart of the matter is the ability of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US – the permanent members, known as “P5” – to singlehandedly veto any resolution.

So what does presiding over the Security Council mean? What should be expected from Switzerland? Which issues will keep its diplomats busy this month?

What does the president do (and how much power does it have)?

The main job of the Security Council’s president is to make sure the council’s day-to-day work runs smoothly. This means preparing its agenda, much of which is set in advance. Agenda items include topics being reviewed periodically, and mandates or sanctions regimes coming up for renewal. It also means organising and chairing meetings, distributing information to members, and acting as the council’s public face.

“We should not overestimate the importance of the council presidency. A lot of the tasks associated with being president are pretty mundane,” says Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, an NGO in New York. “There’s little effect on the substance of the council’s work,” confirms Ueli Staeger, a research and teaching fellow at the University of Geneva, who says a telling example of this was Moscow’s presidency in April. Despite its war in Ukraine and the fact that President Vladimir Putin faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes, Russia has not derailed the Security Council and has not been able to sway it in its favour. The president’s most time-consuming tasks include coordinating the council’s work and negotiating agenda items with other members.

What opportunities does the presidency offer?

The main advantage the presidency offers is visibility – both abroad and at home. “What the presidency allows the country to do is to really set out why it’s in the Security Council and explain what its goal being there is, what its role on the world stage is,” says Gowan.

Switzerland has defined four thematic priorities for its two-year term (2023-2024) as a non-permanent member of the council. It will seek to build sustainable peace, protect civilians in armed conflicts, address the impact of climate change on security, and improve the council’s effectiveness.

During its presidency in May, Bern will organise two so-called “open debates” – meetings that will allow Switzerland to set its own agenda. The first debate on “building sustainable peace” will take place in early May, while the second on “protecting civilians” will be held later in the month. They will be chaired by Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis and Swiss President Alain Berset, respectively.

“Open debates can initiate a conversation about certain issues. And that’s what the revolving presidency really is all about: starting or steering a debate on certain topics, setting the direction of the conversation,” says Staeger.

These meetings do not usually lead to concrete results or decisions. “This is not always easy to understand but having a meeting on certain topics is in and of itself a success at the UN. And in the Security Council, holding a debate on a topic shows global powers recognition of its link to international security,” says Staeger.

What challenges will Switzerland face?

The Security Council must respond to crises as they emerge and May is looking to be particularly uncertain.

The current conflict in Sudan between rival military factions will likely occupy council members. And although it would not be Switzerland’s responsibility to draft a resolution or statement calling, for example, for an end to hostilities (this is the role of so-called “penholders”), Swiss diplomats would have to perform additional duties.

“Switzerland would have an extra diplomatic responsibility trying to bring together all the different factions in the Security Council around that resolution. It would have a bigger role in managing diplomacy over that crisis than would be the case if it wasn’t president,” says Gowan.

The war in Ukraine is also looming large with two potential flashpoints: the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal and a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Moscow has repeatedly warned that it might drop out of the grain deal agreement, brokered in July 2022 by the UN and Turkey, allowing Ukraine to export its grain through a safe maritime corridor, if remaining barriers to its own food and fertilizer exports are not removed. For now, Russia has only agreed to extend it until May 18.

If Russia decides to bury the agreement, the US and its allies might table a Security Council resolution calling for its renewal. Russia’s veto would, under new rules established last year, force Moscow to explain its decision in front of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly where it could face heavy criticism for fuelling a global food crisis.

“This would create some really challenging questions for members like Switzerland, because people would be saying: ‘You’re going for a resolution for theatrical effect; doesn’t that make it even harder to try and bring the Russians back into the deal?’,” says Gowan.

The war in Ukraine could also be on the agenda if Kyiv decides to launch its long-awaited counter-offensive in May. According to Gowan, an escalation of the conflict could prompt a country like Brazil to call for a ceasefire at the Security Council, which Western powers would likely oppose. Switzerland, meanwhile, could face pressure from rival powers to choose sides.

The potential closing of two border crossings – due to expireExternal link in May – allowing humanitarian aid to enter Syria from Turkey, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to open following the earthquakes in February, might also be the topic of heated debates. So too could a possible UN decisionExternal link in May to pull out of Afghanistan following a Taliban ban on its female staff. Finally, the council will also decide whether to extend a divisive current arms embargo on South Sudan.

“You could have a series of really nasty debates over Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. And the great test is: can Switzerland maintain calm and professionalism? Can it just manage very difficult meetings? Can it keep everything under control?” says Gowan.

What would a successful presidency look like for Switzerland?

“Success at the Security Council is a collective notion,” says Staeger. “And success in the multilateral sphere needs to be measured differently than in domestic or bilateral policy.”

The council remains the main place where all the world’s powers meet. And in today’s geopolitical context, keeping it afloat requires more efforts from its president.

“In assessing Switzerland’s success as the president of the Security Council, we need to be cognizant that there’s a very difficult relationship among many of its members right now,” says Staeger.

Edited by Virginie Mangin

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