Security Council Advanced Thematic Disarmament, Civilian-Protection Work Even as Conflicts in Africa, Middle East Topped 2009 Agenda

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Security Council
2009 Round-up

With United States Presiding, Historic Meeting Took First Significant Action on Nuclear Issues since Mid-1990s

While conflicts in Africa and the Middle East once again dominated the Security Council's agenda in 2009, the United Nations body charged with maintaining international peace and security also advanced its work on increasingly critical thematic issues such as nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

In total, the Council convened 171 public meetings in 2009, down significantly from the 217 held in 2008. Eighty of those meetings, or just under half, concerned Africa. The 15-member body adopted 48 resolutions and issued 35 presidential statements. Once again it strove for consensus to heighten the effectiveness of its decisions, with only five resolutions requiring a vote and just one occasioning a veto by a permanent Council member.

Possibly the most meaningful step forward occurred in the area of long-stalled efforts towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on 24 September, when, with 14 Heads of State or Government representing members, the Council took its first significant action on the topic since the mid-1990s at an historic meeting presided over by Barack Obama, the first sitting President of the United States ever to do so.

Unanimously adopting resolution 1887 (2009), members pledged broad progress in combating the proliferation of nuclear weapons, controlling fissile material and ensuring reductions in existing weapons stockpiles. They affirmed the Council's primary responsibility to address nuclear threats, stressing that all situations of non-compliance with nuclear treaties should be brought to its attention. While the resolution did not target specific countries, the diplomatic stalemates over the respective nuclear programmes of Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remained sources of concern throughout the year.

Another topic that received increased attention was the protection of populations vulnerable to armed conflict, which had been building in importance over the previous several years as killing, mutilation and sexual attacks against civilians reached epidemic proportions despite advances in human rights law. The Council held eight related meetings under the agenda items "Children and armed conflict", "Civilians and armed conflict", and "Women, peace and security". It adopted four resolutions and issued two presidential statements aimed at improving the situation on the ground by focusing peacekeeping mandates on civilian protection, monitoring the situation more comprehensively, and engaging all parties to conflict in protecting civilians and prosecuting their attackers.

The most moving meeting in that context occurred on 29 April, when Grace Akallo, a young Ugandan woman abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), recounted her ordeal as a fighter and sex slave, receiving a warm ovation and helping inspire many of the day's 60 speakers to vow to fight the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such suffering. Briefings on humanitarian and other thematic issues, particularly terrorism, also remained high on the Council's agenda as it held public meetings and sessions of its subsidiary committees throughout 2009.

The year began on a bitter note, with the Council seized of Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip following the 26 December breakdown of a truce with Hamas and a subsequent barrage of rocket fire into southern Israel. On 8 January, following a precipitous rise in the civilian death toll and days of intensive meetings, the Council adopted resolution 1860 (2009), despite the abstention of the United States, which called for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces.

While Israel withdrew from Gaza on 21 January, its continued blockade of needed goods, the continued smuggling of weapons by armed groups and a report by a United Nations fact-finding mission alleging war crimes during the offensive cast a pall over Council efforts to restart Middle East peace negotiations, as did continuing Israeli settlement activity and the effects of the intra-Palestinian split between Hamas and Fatah, according to regular monthly briefings to the Council. Despite relative calm and international initiatives - including an 11 May presidential statement urging diplomatic action, stepped-up engagement by the United States and Egypt and a Quartet parley in September - the impasse threatened the very possibility of a two-State solution, Council members heard during the last briefing of 2009 on the topic.