First Impressions: Portugal And The UNSC Eight Months On – Analysis


By Pedro Seabra

When, on October 12th 2010, Portugal won a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security council (UNSC) for the next two years, the country was already aware of the challenges that would immediately arise with such a responsibility. after a hard-fought international campaign to secure the necessary votes against the other contenders – Canada and Germany, the latter also elected – the time had now come to assume the fair share of responsibilities that accompanies such a high-profile international position. in other words, now it was time for the “hard part”.1

Holding an indisputable legitimacy as the primary international overseeing body, the UNSC is tasked with dealing on a daily basis with a multitude of issues ranging from pressing security threats to global coordination on an endless myriad of topics. as such, much of Portugal’s contribution as a non-permanent member would depend first and foremost in its ability to prove itself useful and/or influential for any matter brought up to discussion within the council. That in turn, would also greatly depend on the country’s own initial objectives for such a role and how far it would be able to see them through. Juggling varying international dynamics with the prosecution of the country’s own foreign agenda thus came to constitute an immediate challenge for Portuguese diplomacy in the halls of Turtle Bay.


With that in mind, after eight months “on the job”, this article will attempt to shed some light on Portugal’s preliminary course of action within the UNSC, seeking to provide a mid-way assessment of the developments of the first year. To that end, Portugal’s own official goals and agenda for this mandate – which were abundantly proclaimed and reaffirmed during the lengthy electoral process – will be taken into account in order to contextualize the country’s current positioning in the council. afterwards, a more in-depth analysis of the ongoing term will be in order while taking into consideration Portugal’s responsibilities and main instruments of action at the UnSc. conclusions will then be drawn as to what can be expected for the remainder of Portugal’s term on the council and for its ability to continue coping with the unexpected twists and turns of international politics on the world’s highest stage.

Portugal’s tentative agenda

Since it first presented its intention of running for a non-permanent seat back on January 5th 2000, Portugal incessantly sought to convey to its peers the basic guiding lines that have helped to sustain Portuguese diplomacy throughout recent decades. In essence, they include all the major tenets upheld by the Un and the international community: respect for international law, the principles in the Un charter and human rights; the defense of multilateralism; the promotion of a collective security system, etc. Not exactly a surprise, but a necessary requirement in any campaign for a position in a major international institution. Prevailing custom dictates that any would-be candidate commits itself to act upon such principles and more so if a country is running for a seat at the UNSC. Portugal was no exception and, in that sense, to uphold such guiding principles figured high at the country’s priorities for the UNSC.

On the other hand, Portugal also intensively advocated for a reform of the UN, towards a more democratic, representative, coherent, effective and accountable organization, namely through greater transparency and efficiency in the UNSC. This specific emphasis is easily explained if one takes into consideration previous Portuguese experiences in this body – specially during the 1997-1998 term – when the country worked hard to improve the openness and accountability of the council’s meetings and decision-making process.2 The defense of revamped and reformed methods and procedures for the 2011-2012 term can thus be considered as a follow-up interest of such a previous predisposition and was certainly understood as a compelling argument for several smaller/neglected countries that ended up supporting and casting their vote for Portugal’s bid. Perhaps more importantly, though, Portugal also explicitly and actively stood by international peace and security as central cornerstones of the international engagement professed by the UN itself. To that end, Portugal pledged to contribute to the development of peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations under the continuing leadership of the Un. Likewise, the challenges posed by climate change, the situations of women and children in armed conflicts and the issues of conflict prevention and peaceful resolution also remained central to Portugal’s campaigning platform and were duly promoted as eventual prime concerns within the UNSC.

This core of general leitmotifs must also be complemented by specific geopolitical situations that are of great interest to Portugal and that were therefore potentially worthy of receiving a greater focus amidst the UNSc working agenda. among these, Guinea-Bissau stands out as a constant concern, but the same can be said of Timor Leste’s ongoing nation-building process and every other matter that deals directly with the remaining Lusophone countries (support for Brazil’s UN reforming views included). On the other hand, while standing by its bridge-building vocation and its publicized preferential ties with Africa, developments in Sudan and in the Ivory Coast were equally considered central to any future agenda, while the traditional neutrality in the endless Middle East peace negotiations remained integral to Portugal’s tentative approach towards this particular region as a future non-permanent UNSC member. So, to recap, before actually beginning its term, Portugal presented itself not only as a country mutually committed with the existing international legal framework while keen on reforming some of its leading structures, but also as an active global partner engaged and interested in the positive outcome of many concrete issues that could threaten regional stability or require long-term international focus. Still, good intentions and structured planning aside, what matters in the final analysis is what Portugal actually managed to achieve when the opportunity was granted to implement this agenda. Although still fresh, the first months of Portugal’s term allow for a tentative assessment of the results obtained so far.

The first eight months

The UNSC today is best known for the occasional tense debates and discussions between the world’s main powers, holding permanent seats and veto power. Whenever international crises erupt, they are usually brought to the council’s attention, thus setting a motion a lengthy – and sometimes ineffective – process of debating, with the aim of reaching a consensual position.

Unknown to many, however, much of the UNSC’s workload is actually channeled on a permanent basis through several subsidiary bodies that range from the Peacebuilding commission to the Counter-Terrorism committee or even to specialized Sanctions committees.3 As with every other non-permanent member, Portugal was entitled to chair some of these, and thus lead the internal discussions on such issues, for the duration of a year. At the top of the wish list, it was an open secret that Portugal desired the presidency of the informal Working Group on Documentation and other Procedural Questions. Indeed, not only would such responsibility allow the country to act upon one of its central electoral platforms – the reform of the UNSC’s internal functioning – but it would also provided a considerable dose of leverage over the remaining countries in attendance. However, perhaps due to precisely such eagerness in advocating change and transparency in a static institution like the UNSC, Portugal’s hopes ended up dashed when that group’s chair was awarded to Bosnia- Herzegovina instead. a slight disappointment for the Portugal’s expectations, but far from decisive, since Portugal managed to secure an informal agreement from the other members that in 2012 it would be placed at the head of this particular committee. It is therefore safe to assume that the effective persecution of this particular goal has only been delayed for the time being.

But if Portugal did not achieve one of its primary objectives right up front, what other responsibilities were then assigned? Interestingly enough, Portugal was entrusted the chairmanship of the Security council committee established pursuant to resolution 1718 (2006), in charge of the international sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/North Korea over its illegal nuclear activities. This comprises a far reach from Portugal’s traditional comfort zone in terms of foreign policy, and a high-profile and extremely demanding spotlight, especially if we take into consideration the frequent stand-offs and crises that have arisen on the heavily militarized Korean peninsula over the past few years. Given this tension, monitoring the application of sanctions and evaluating their actual impact can quickly evolve into a rather central role if the situation deteriorates.

Still, despite the risk of “new north-Korean provocations and the strategic differences between the US and China” on this matter,4 for the last eight months this particular committee has seen most of its works blocked by general indecision over how to engage with north Korea.5 Moreover, China’s refusal to allow publication of a report highlighting north Korea’s lack of compliance with the imposed sanctions – and China’s own connivance, for that matter – has also contributed to this deadlock. In light of this, it is no surprise that Portugal’s line of work has been structurally constrained, especially given that it is inevitably dictated by the pace of developments originating from the six-party talks framework.

Portugal, however, has also had other issues to worry about. On par with the North Korea committee, Portugal was assigned the chair of the informal Working Group on International Tribunals, in charge of debating the draft procedures for the international Draft Mechanism for criminal courts, which will take over after the UnN’s two international criminal courts, for the former-Yugoslavia (icTY) and for Rwanda (icTR), by 2014. Not exactly primetime news material, but still an important task for a country that ran for the UNSC as a member of the international community deeply committed to respect for international law.

Moreover, on top of these two ‘occupations’ and despite not holding the front lead, Portugal was also named Vice-Chair of the Committee on Proliferation of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons, under resolution 1540 (2004) as well as of the committee on sanctions to Liberia, under resolution 1521 (2003).6 There was one international development, though, that caught the world off-guard and added a new dose of responsibility to Portugal’s term in the council: the Arab Spring movement and, more specifically, the unraveling situation in Libya. as the world mobilized in condemning Muammar Gaddafi’s regime’s oppression, a new package of sanctions began to be elaborated at the UN. The need for a new committee in charge of monitoring and coordinating the enforcement of the new legal regulations was therefore required and Portugal was subsequently requested to head this body.7 This unexpected turn of events, which resulted in Resolution 1970, then led to a coveted position of centrality amidst the concerted international efforts that sought to address the Libyan crisis. Furthermore, the Sanctions committee proved invaluable in undermining the financial foundations of Gaddafi’s rule, and was therefore considered a central part of the international response.

The situation further escalated when consensus emerged on the need to impose a no-fly zone on the ground under Resolution 1973. For its part, Portugal continued to stand by its previous condemnation of “the indiscriminate violence against civilians, the gross and systematic violation of human rights and of humanitarian law, perpetrated by a regime that had lost all its credibility and legitimacy vis-à-vis its own population and the international community”8 and thus voted favorably for such an operation. Although it did not physically contribute to NATO’s air sorties, it was then clear that Portugal remained very much committed to their success since it saw resolving this specific crisis.

Still, when the Libyan regime crumbled down and the National Transition Council (NTC) forces took control of Tripoli, Portugal was also quick in acknowledging the new status quo and subsequently pledged its support to the new authorities. As ambassador Jose Moraes Cabral stated, in light of the new developments, “Portugal stands ready to support the Libyan people on their path to peace and democracy, including in the framework of the Security council and the 1970 Sanctions committee in this new phase in which funds need to be made available for state-building, economic recovery and urgent humanitarian assistance”.9 Portugal’s role, this time in unfreezing those Libyan assets precisely targeted by the 1970 committee, thus remained crucial.

But if Libya proved in itself the unexpected factor in Portugal’s term so far, what to make of its previously targeted ‘interests’? Regarding Timor Leste, for example, Portugal played an active part in underscoring the need for continuing international support even after the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UNMIT) fulfils its term in 2012.10 Likewise, after the initial fears of instability following the referendum in Sudan and the birth of the Republic of South Sudan, Portugal continuously stressed that “the international community should continue to afford to the two States the support and encouragement they will need in the still difficult times ahead.”11 As for Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese efforts were concentrated mainly on the country’s specific configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission where, alongside Brazil, it tried to keep the international interest and effort above constant incidents that threatened to taint the ongoing Security Sector Reform (SSR) process.

However, as the UN gathered for its 66th General assembly, one topic in particular effectively owned the working agenda: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s request for admission of the state of Palestine at the UN. Given Portugal’s stature as a non-permanent member, the country was in a critical but uncomfortable position, since it favored the Palestinian bid in general terms but could not risk compromising any negotiation efforts, improbable as they might appear. Amid the intense row of diplomatic backstage work occurring in New York – including the US’s pre-announced veto intention and the EU’s traditional disarray in this matter – Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho took the opportunity of his address to the General Assembly, to clarify Portugal’s position on Palestinian statehood: “[such a] step must be the result and logical outcome of negotiations. Therefore, we understand this request to be an expression of interest that will be fulfilled with the signing of a Peace agreement, thus ending one of the longest conflicts of our era. Until then, we are open to support a strengthened status for Palestine in the United Nations”.12 For all purposes, a middle ground approach that provides the Palestinians with a way out and a loose incentive for the return to negotiations. Nevertheless, as developments continue to unfold, the practicality of this proposal remains to be seen.

Final remarks

In all fairness, extrapolating conclusions regarding Portugal’s proceeding term based solely in its first eight months would certainly provide us with an inaccurate account. In order to judge a country’s performance in one of the world’s most influential and publicly exposed stages one has to take its full duration into consideration while prudently acknowledging any initial achievements. Still, these last eight months already provide a few hints regarding Portugal’s diplomatic efforts within the UNSC. First, it is safe to say that the change of government in June in no way altered the planned course of action for the country in the council. indeed, despite new slight changes of tone, the pillars of Portuguese diplomacy have remained largely unaltered and Prime Minister Passos Coelho and Foreign Minister Paulo Portas’s first ventures into these matters have only confirmed such a predisposition for continuity. It is therefore no wonder that the priorities for the Portuguese Representation at the UN have remained on track.

Second, it is important to notice that many of the ‘larger issues’ that Portugal identified during its candidacy as potential causes to pursue when in the council, have been constantly brought to the UNSC’s attention in the last few months and were duly addressed by Portuguese diplomats. “Post-conflict peacebuilding”, “Protection of civilians in armed conflicts”, “Security implications of climate change”, “The impact of HIV/AIDS on international peace and security”, “children and armed conflict” are just some examples of what the UNSC has considered so far this year. Although one should not overstate the merit of Portugal in this – specially since it was not Portugal who scheduled or organized these debates – the fact is, it provides a rather positive image of a non-permanent member sticking to and promoting its previously announced agenda.

Third, it is undeniable that Portugal, together with the rest of the international community, was playing by ear regarding the landslide in northern africa and the deteriorating situation in Libya that followed. Given that it was immediately catapulted to the frontline, by heading the newly instated Sanctions committee on Libya, Portugal was given an opportunity to play a decisive role in this particular crisis. an unexpected turn of events, to be sure, but also a high-profile responsibility that ended up demonstrating Portugal’s credentials in matters of international security and protection of human rights. Finally, the Middle Eastern conundrum continues to hold the potential to derail all the best-intentioned efforts that Portuguese diplomacy can come up with. Although the country cautiously maneuvered through the heated tempers in attendance of the General assembly, Portugal will inevitably remain in the spotlight for the time being and any decision that it might adopt in the UNSC regarding this matter, will produce repercussions on one side or the other.

in the short-term, though, much of Portugal’s range will be better in evidence when it presides over the Security Council in November, which constitutes a highlight for any non-permanent member’s term. Foreseeing some of his country’s initiatives for that month, Prime Minister Passos Coelho has already indicated that “a meeting on new challenges to international peace and security” with the aim “to promote an integrated vision that mirrors the many challenges we face in the 21st century” will be high on the agenda.13 Portugal’s goal is “to contribute toward a greater coherence between the different debates already held on that topic, thus reinforcing the effectiveness of [the UN’s] joint action”. Moreover, Portugal will continue to view with “utmost importance the institutional complementarity between the General Assembly and the Security Council” and plead for “the Council to be able to work in an open and transparent environment, in particular in its relationship with this Assembly.”14 To that end, it will organize an event on the working methods of the UNSC, further highlighting the country’s commitment to the reform of this body.

All in all, early evaluations of these last few months cannot fail to be fairly positive. When viewed in comparison with other partners in a similar position,15 Portugal has undoubtedly treaded a consistent path of engagement within the UNSC, trying to enhance its expertise in certain scenarios (i.e. Timor Leste, Guinea Bissau) while advocating on issues that it understands to be vital in the advancement of the core principles that sustain the international community. Moreover, despite the singularity of the Libyan situation, the fact that Portugal managed to adapt its discourse and objectives to a fast-evolving scenario bodes well for other future predicaments that are bound to arise in the remaining duration of Portugal’s term. in that sense, expectations for the remaining year and a half are on course, as Portugal will eventually try to push harder for its agenda, and especially so for the reform of UNSC methods and functioning, while continuing to deal with a heavy international agenda that will never really subside.

Pedro Seabra,
Associate Researcher, IPRIS

1 See Pedro Seabra and Paulo Gorjão,“Portugal and the UN Security Council Victory: now for the hard part” (IPRIS Lusophone Countries Bulletin, no. 12, october 2010), pp. 5-9.
2 See Antonio Monteiro, “a Experiencia Portuguesa na Presidencia do conselho de Segurança das nações Unidas” (Nação e Defesa, no. 104, 2003), pp. 81-95.
3 This is possible under Rule 28 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council that states, “the Security Council may appoint a commission or committee or a rapporteur for a specified question”. Presently, there are more than twenty of these structures.
4 Nuno Santiago de Magalhães,“Portugal as nações Unidas eacoreia do norte nuclear” (IPRI, occasional Paper no. 51, March 2011), p. 9.
5 See “Security council Report – august 2011 Monthly Forecast” (United Nations Security Council, 29 July 2011), pp. 13-14.
6 For a complete list of the chairmen and Vice-chairmen of the UNSC’s subsidiary bodies for 2011 see “note by the President of the Security council” (United Nations Security Council, S/2011/2, 4 January 2011).
7 Teresa de Sousa and isabel Gorjão dos Santos, “Portugal vai presidir ao comité de Sanções da ONU para a Libia” (Publico, 3 March 2011). See also “note by the President of the council” (United Nations Security Council, S/2011/2/add. 1, 9 March 2011).
8 Jose Moraes cabral, “Explanation of vote by the Representative of Portugal, H. E. ambassador José Filipe Moraes cabral, on the Resolution 1973 on Libya, in the Security council chamber” (Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations, 17 March 2011).
9 Jose Moraes Cabral, “Statement by the Representative of Portugal, H. E. ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral, at the Security council on the adoption of resolution on Libya” (Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations, 16 September 2011).
10 See United Nations Security council, “Resolution 1969 (2011)” (United Nations Security Council, S/RES/1969 (2011), 24 February 2011); Jose Moraes cabral, “Statement by the Representative of Portugal, H. E. Ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral, at the debate at the Security council regarding the United nations integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UnMiT)” (Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations, 22 February 2011).
11 Luis Brites Pereira, “Statement by the Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and cooperation of Portugal, H. E. Mr. Luís Brites Pereira, at the Security council Debate on Sudan” (Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations, 13 July 2011).
12 Pedro Passos Coelho,“Speech of the Prime Minister to the General Assembly” (Government of Portugal, 24 September 2011).


The Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS) is a non-profit and independent NGO, based in Lisbon. IPRIS is an institution dedicated to research on issues of International Relations, with particular interest regarding Portuguese foreign and defense policies.

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