The German UN Ambassador’s strange understanding of international law

Published: 05 April  2019 Author: Stefan Talmon  DOI: 10.17176/20220113-143334-0

Following the United States’ illegal recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan, on 26 March 2019 Syria asked the UN Security Council presidency, then held by France, to schedule an urgent meeting in order to “discuss the situation in the occupied Syrian Golan and the recent flagrant violation of the relevant Security Council’s resolution by a permanent Member State.”

The Security Council was scheduled to meet behind closed doors on 27 March 2019 to discuss the situation in the Middle East and, in particular, the mandate of the peacekeeping force on the Golan, known as United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). In response to Syria’s request, France decided to turn that meeting into a public session and to give members an opportunity to address the action by the United States. However, unlike the other speakers, Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, did not dwell long on the subject. Rather, he used the opportunity for an all-out attack on the Syrian Government, stating:

“Madame President, this meeting today is scheduled partly in response to a request by the Syrian regime that had asked for this meeting, and I quote, ‘in order to discuss the situation in the occupied Syrian Golan and the recent flagrant violation of the relevant Security Council’s resolutions by a permanent member State.’

Madame President, this request is deeply cynical. The Syrian Government has over the past eight years grossly violated the international laws of war and is responsible for grave war crimes and crimes against humanity. In response to peaceful protests the Syrian regime has reacted with brutal violence against its own population. It has bombed protected facilities, including hospitals, schools, markets, civilian homes. It has used indiscriminate and illegal weapons to kill and terrorize civilians, including cluster bombs and internationally banned barrel bombs. The Syrian regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own population – a flagrant violation of international law – and continues to refuse to fulfil its obligation towards this Council to account for discrepancies in their declaration of chemical weapons. The Syrian regime has arrested, disappeared, tortured and killed tens of thousands of dissenters, activists, journalists, students, professors, medical workers, lawyers and others, including minors. Their horrific reports, accounts of sexual violence.

We have seen the Caesar photos. They have been on display in the halls of the UN building in New York. They are horrifying evidence of the crimes that are happening behind bars in Assad’s hellhole prisons and detention facilities. Tens of thousands are dead, killed by this ruthless regime outside the sight of cameras.

These detention atrocities testimonies by incredibly brave torture survivors, the Caesar photos and regime documents all form the basis of the criminal cases now being investigated by the German Federal Prosecutor and the international arrest warrants issued by Germany, as well as the actual arrests carried out in Germany.

It is profoundly cynical to have a regime known for its atrocious crimes and for its ruthless brutality against Syrians to come to the United Security Council and criticize others for violating international law.”

There can be no doubt about the atrocious crimes committed by the Syrian Government under President Bashar al-Assad and its repeated violations of international law. Nevertheless, Ambassador Heusgen’s comments are difficult to comprehend. While it is commonplace nowadays at the United Nations to refer to a Member State’s government as a “regime” to express disdain, rejection and hostility, calling into question a government’s right to seize the Security Council with a violation of international law is rather unusual. Irrespective of Germany’s dislike of the Assad “regime”, within the United Nations system it is still the Government of Syria. As the government of a Member State, it may bring any situation which might lead to international friction, or give rise to a dispute, to the attention of the Security Council. It may also request that the President of the Security Council call a meeting to discuss such a dispute or situation. In fact, the President of the Council is bound to call a meeting if a matter is brought to the Council’s attention by a Member State. The fact that the government of a Member State has committed serious breaches of international law itself does not automatically deprive it of its right, under the Charter of the United Nations, to seize the Security Council with a violation of international law by another Member State. The UN Charter does not know of a forfeiture of rights. There is also no argumentum ad hominem tu quoque, or appeal to hypocrisy, in international law which. Thus, States are not allowed to discredit another State’s claim of an international law violation through asserting that State’s own violations of international law. Even an aggressor may rely on international humanitarian law governing the conduct of hostilities. One may wonder whether, in a domestic law setting, Ambassador Heusgen would equally have denied a criminal who himself has become a victim of crime the right to invoke the law? As Germany agreed in principle with the Syrian Government’s claim of a violation of international law by the United States, it probably chose to attack the claim-maker in order not to be seen as siding with the Syrian Government.

Category: United Nations

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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