Unpredecented Happenings at The UN Security Council Elections This Week

Dulcie Leimbach

Paolo Gentiloni and Bert Koenders, foreign ministers of Italy and Netherlands, announcing Wednesday that the countries will split a seat on the United Nations Secretary Council for the 2017–2018 term. Credit: JJC McILWAINE/UN PHOTO

In a narrow vote conducted over seven hours amid five rounds of inconclusive balloting between Italy and the Netherlands for an elected seat on the United Nations Security Council, the two nations decided to split the two-year term. Italy will get one year, as of January 2017; and the Netherlands will take the seat in 2018.

The vote on June 28 for the contested seat for the Western Europe and Other regional group was tied, 95 to 95, prompting the two countries, in consultation with Germany and other European delegations, to emerge from a closed-door meeting to announce the split as a show of “unity” between like-minded nations in a post-Brexit era.

“The decision we take, it’s rather original,” said Paolo Gentiloni, the foreign minister of Italy, after the announcement, with Bert Koenders, his Dutch counterpart, at his side.

Was it an “anti-Brexit vote?, a reporter asked, and Gentiloni answering, “absolutely.”

The annual election for five of the 10 rotating seats on the Security Council dragged on for an entire day, with a lunch break, as the Netherlands versus Italy decision forced additional rounds of voting by the General Assembly’s 193 members.

For the first time in UN history, the election was held six months before the Council term begins on Jan. 1, enabling new members to better adapt to the Council’s work. Generally, the elections have been held in late September or October. Five of the 10 elected seats on the Council are filled every year.

In the first round of voting in yesterday’s election, Sweden breezed into the other Western Europe and Other seat on the Council; while Bolivia and Ethiopia ran unopposed for the Latin America and Caribbean and Africa seats, respectively. A few votes — for Cuba, 1, and Colombia, 1 — failed to throw off the initial round of voting for Latin America, as the election process began promptly at 10 a.m., managed by Mogens Lykketoft, the current president of the General Assembly and a Dane. The other regional group, Eastern Europe, did not field a candidate as it currently holds a seat in the Council through Ukraine.

The elected seat reserved for the Asia-Pacific region had little trouble going to Kazakhstan, which beat Thailand in two rounds of voting, a surprise win as well. Kazakhstan declared its candidacy in 2010, but Thailand had assumed it had the seat. Part of the appeal for Kazakhstan may have been that it never served on the Council before and it has given up its nuclear-weapons program.

“Will all delegates please take their seats,” Lykketoft intoned more than once as the assembled delegates gathered in the General Assembly Hall to begin voting. Apparently, the Syrian diplomat was busy “hugging and kissing Sudan and Iran,” ignoring the call for order, one observer noted on Twitter.

China, a permanent member of the Security Council, gushed over Kazakhstan’s win to a journalist from the country after the election. “Kazakhstan is a very important nation in the UN,” said Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN. “We highly appreciate the constructive role Kazakhstan will play to peace and security.”

The tight race between Italy and the Netherlands threw voters off, as Italy’s position in southern European seemed to counter its northern Europe competitors. Italy had been campaigning avidly in a public way for years at the UN, presenting classic Italian films and music in the evening, offering food extravaganzas of their best prosciutto and other specialties and even giving away tons of gelato in one day in early June.

The Netherlands kept its campaigning more discreet, holding private meetings on UN topics — sustainable development goals and such — at its mission, where journalists and other outsiders could not observe the goings-on.

A new feature of the Council campaign this year involved an open debate, held in May at the UN by the World Federation of the United Nations Association, a nongovernment group, among the contested candidates. Kazakhstan, Thailand, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands took part. At the debate, the candidates, all men, representing their countries, stayed civil if not polite, thanking or acknowledging one another as if they were taking part in a ballroom dance.

In fact, neither Kazakhstan nor Thailand had expressed much enthusiasm to participate in the debate, unwilling to say whether they would join the session until the last minute. The questions posed to all the candidates avoided anything provocative, like hair-raising hints of Thailand’s coup in 2014 or Kazakhstan’s blighted record on press freedom and other civil liberties.

The Western European candidates, on the other hand, either bragged about how many times they had served on the Council in the past or reminded the audience how many years it had been since they had sat in those sacred seats. Sweden, coming off as the smoothest candidate of the three, represented by Olof Skoog, slipped in that Dag Hammarskjold, a fellow countryman, had served as a secretary-general, emphasizing the country’s rich legacy at the UN.

Italy had compelled listeners to consider its steadfast role as gatekeeper to the southernmost door to Europe, leaving it to contend with the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees arriving at its shores. The Netherlands seized the opportunity to say how dedicated it was to UN peacekeeping missions and providing development aid to the poorest countries in the world.

And on June 28, as its foreign minister said, the race between Italy and the Netherlands “came out equal.”

This article was updated to reflect when Kazakhstan declared its candidacy.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.