China: “The performance of Germany has failed the Security Council”

Published: 16 November 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

At the end of December 2020, Germany’s two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the Security Council came to an end. In two of its last public meetings, two permanent members – Russia and China – gave it the acridest send-off in the history of the United Nations. The farewell messages were addressed to Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, but were, of course, directed at Germany as a member of the Security Council.

Ambassador Heusgen used his last Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East (Syria)” on 16 December 2020 to severely criticise Russia and China once again for blocking humanitarian aid deliveries from entering Syria and thus putting the lives of 500,000 people, including many children, in danger. He accused the two countries of disregarding humanitarian principles and prioritising their support for the Assad government over the humanitarian imperative. This triggered the following angry and bitter response from Mr. Yao Shaojun, the acting deputy representative of China to the United Nations:

“Like our Russian colleague, I am not surprised by the statement by Christoph. As he said, this is the last meeting on Syria in the Security Council. He will not lose this opportunity to attack certain countries and to lecture the Security Council; he won’t lose this opportunity to demonstrate […] double standards by taking this opportunity to show his selectivity. […] Ambassador Christoph […] you are not supposed to be selective […] if the voice on the ground is beneficial to you, you will quote large tracks and if the voice on the ground is not to your benefit, you just ignore [it] and in the future you’d better avoid such double standard selectivity and also hypocrisy [….] your performance on the Security Council, just as you said, the Security [Council] failed the world, […] actually the performance of Germany has failed the Security Council.”

The Chinese representative also questioned Germany’s suitability for a permanent seat on the Security Council and said that Germany’s path to permanent membership would be “difficult.”

Ambassador Heusgen, however, was not deterred by such threats. In his final remarks during the Council meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue on 22 December 2020, he said:

“We always called a spade a spade. We know that we did not only make friends. Our Russian and Chinese colleagues last Wednesday didn’t make a secret of their disapproval of such a transparent approach and thus our work in the Council. […] We will not be deterred by the disdain against those telling the truth.”

He then used his last words to make an impassioned plea for the release of Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who had been detained in China since December 2018 on charges of espionage. Their detention was seen as being closely linked to the arrest of Huawei telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada. Ambassador Heusgen said:

“Mr. President, as I will soon retire after 40 years in Germany’s Diplomatic Service, I am looking at activities of other retirees. Michael Kovrig came into my field of view. A fellow Canadian diplomat, who joined the International Crisis Group after retirement, and who has been held hostage together with Michael Spavor for two years now after Canada’s decision, at US request, to detain a Chinese technology executive. While the Chinese executive spends her time in a seven-bedroom mansion in Vancouver, Michael Kovrig has been confined to an isolated small cell in Beijing.

Some of you might dismiss this as ‘just’ two singular cases among a whole range of issues that the Security Council has to deal with on a daily basis. However, they are not singular and they cannot be dismissed. They represent so many others. This Council will lose its legitimacy if it ceases to be concerned about the fate of individuals, about their protection and security, their human rights and their freedoms, their well-being and their aspirations. Therefore, let me end my tenure in the Security Council by appealing to my Chinese colleagues to ask Beijing for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Christmas is the right moment for such a gesture.”

This statement seemed to have been the last straw for the Chinese delegation. Ambassador Geng Shuang, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, requested the floor again. He reproached Ambassador Heusgen for having “made irresponsible remarks which resulted in division of the Council.” He then continued:

“What he said is totally irrelevant to the theme of today’s meeting, and represents a far cry from the fact. It is totally contrary to the spirit of cooperation and unity. In his last remarks, he in such a malicious manner launched attacks against other Council members. He abused the platform of the Security Council in an attempt to poison the working atmosphere of the Council. In my last statement, I did bid him farewell, well, pretty much out of courtesy and of course in a diplomatic manner. Now, I wish to say out of the bottom of my heart: Good riddance, Ambassador Heusgen. I am hoping that the Council in your absence in the year 2021 will be in a better position to fulfill the responsibilities and mandate for maintaining international peace and security.”

Ambassador Heusgen’s last words were not the only reason why China, just like Russia, was glad to see him leave. Over the two years of Germany’s Security Council membership the two countries clashed over several substantive issues. In addition, China was deeply unhappy about Ambassador Heusgen’s tone and confrontational style of publicly criticising China and thereby undermining its reputation on the international plane.

The relations between the two countries on the Security Council must have soured pretty quickly. While China welcomed Germany’s assumption of the Council presidency in April 2019 with the usual diplomatic courtesies, there was no word of congratulations or thanks at the end of the presidency, as is China’s usual diplomatic practice. Similarly, there was no word of appreciation at end of Germany’s second presidency in July 2020.

Two of the main controversies between Germany and China which surfaced in the United Nations took place largely outside the Security Council but nevertheless adversely affected the relations between the delegations of the two countries. In 2019-2020, Germany took a more outspoken position on the South China Sea disputes, actively countering China’s claims in the area in diplomatic notes with the foreign ministries of all coastal States bordering the area and the UN Secretary General. On 24 April 2019, Ambassador Heusgen declared in the UN General Assembly that “China is ignoring international law in the South China Sea”, and in his last meeting in the Security Council on 22 December 2020 he vowed to “continue to fight for the respect for international law […] in the South China Sea.”

The other major controversy between the two countries, over the human rights situation in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, played out mainly in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. In 2020, Germany assembled 39 States expressing “grave concerns” over the human rights situation in China and calling on the Chinese government to “respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet […] uphold autonomy, rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and to respect the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary.” In 2019, only 23 States had signed up to a similar statement. From a Chinese perspective, this resembled an earthquake. According to reports, a department head in Beijing had to resign as a result. China responded by accusing Germany of making “groundless accusations against China on issues related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong” and “interfering in China’s internal affairs with the excuse of human rights and provoking confrontation among Member States at the United Nations.” It also charged Germany with abusing the UN platform, politicising human rights, and provoking political confrontation. Germany, however, also raised the question of Xinjiang both in closed-door and public meetings of the Security Council. On 24 August 2020, the German representative stated:

“[C]ounter-terrorism measures must never serve as a pretext for human rights violations. We all know examples of so-called counter-terrorism measures that indiscriminately target ethnic minorities. […] Regarding Xinjiang, the internment of large parts of the population is, in our view, unjustified. In the long run, it is likely not to reduce but, rather, to increase the risk emanating from terrorist organizations.”

To this, his Chinese counterpart responded that “China firmly rejects the accusation against China by certain members of the Council”, calling them “baseless and absurd”. On another occasion, China had responded to human rights criticism by saying:

“In also disregarding the facts, Germany was expressing arrogance, ignorance, prejudice and a deeply embedded sense of superiority, which had already caused untold human tragedy in the past. China advised those countries [the United States and Germany] to reflect upon and remedy their own problems and to avoid double standards, politicization and confrontation.”

Germany and China also disagreed over the approach to the North Korea nuclear issue. China, together with Russia, was critical of the UN sanctions imposed on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and even more so of the “autonomous or secondary sanctions” imposed by individual States. They advocated a lifting of some of the sanctions as a confidence-building measure to facilitate U.S.-DPRK negotiations and inter-Korean dialogue. On the other hand, Germany – which chaired the Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Committee – took a hard line, stating that “sanctions can and should be lifted only when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea implements the relevant Security Council resolutions.” Both inside and outside of the Security Council, Ambassador Heusgen publicly accused Russia and China of obstructing the implementation of sanctions against North Korea. A spokesperson for China’s UN mission retorted by accusing Germany of abusing its position as chair of the North Korea Sanctions Committee “by continuously interrupting the ongoing in-depth exchange among relevant parties on this issue”.

Another point of disagreement between the two countries was the Security Council’s approach to climate change. The effects of climate change on international peace and security was one of Germany’s signature topics during its Council membership. During its presidency in July 2020, Germany organised a special high-level meeting on climate change and security. It prepared a wide-ranging and ambitious thematic resolution on the topic, but ultimately did not put it to a vote because the veto-holding powers China, Russia and the United States objected. During an open meeting of the Council on environmental degradation and peace and security on 17 September 2020, Ambassador Heusgen expressed his frustration about the attitude of these three States and particularly reproached the Chinese representative, saying:

“It is really a pity that this project was not supported, and we heard again the interventions of our American friends, of our Russian friends, of our Chinese friends, who are not supporting this. […] Having listened to our Chinese colleague who says how much China cares for Africa, I would like to remind you that it was the African presidency of Niger who clearly said there is a link between environmental change, environmental degradation, climate change and security and presses for it. The interpretation of what Africa needs also in terms of support from the Security Council for the problems that we are facing with climate change, I think, we, Germany, have a different view. Colleagues, we can suppress actions of the Council but the problem will not go away.”

While the Chinese representative did not respond immediately, Ambassador Heusgen publicly calling into question China’s commitment to Africa was well noted. Only four days later, China, together with Russia, challenged the German initiative of forming an informal expert group of the Security Council on climate change and security and objected to Germany’s request that the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs act as secretariat of the informal expert group.

China was probably most annoyed by Germany’s conduct with regard to the Syria file in the Security Council. German representatives regularly criticised and challenged China over Syria. They repeatedly reminded Council members that it was China and Russia that had blocked the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and that it was their responsibility that those who had committed and were still committing the most serious crimes in Syria could not be brought to justice before the ICC. Germany also accused China and Russia of “trying to undercut the credibility” of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, “present alternative facts and spread doubts in order to undercut the OPCW again”.

Germany also used the Syria file to portray China as being opposed to international humanitarian law. On 19 September 2019, Germany and the other two co-penholders on the Syrian humanitarian file submitted a draft resolution on cessation of hostilities in Idlib governorate in north-western Syria, knowing full well that the resolution would be vetoed by Russia and China. Germany subsequently tried to portray the main sticking point as a disagreement over whether “counter-terrorism operations […] absolve parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law”, giving the impression that Russia and China were not prepared to respect international humanitarian law when combatting terrorism. The real sticking point, however, was not international humanitarian law but the scope of the ceasefire to be imposed by the Security Council. While Germany and other Western States wanted the ceasefire to apply to “all parties”, thereby providing a breathing space to the Syrian opposition, Russia and China wanted to exclude from the ceasefire “military operations against individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council,” thereby allowing the fighting against the Syrian opposition to continue. The matter came to a head at the Council meeting on 24 October 2019, when Ambassador Heusgen once again reproached Russia and China for vetoing the ceasefire resolution. Referring to the statements of his Russian and Chinese counterparts, he then continued:

“In their statements today, to which I listened very carefully, there was a lot about counter-terrorism but nothing explicitly addressing respect for international humanitarian law.”

Responding to Ambassador Heusgen, the Chinese representative strongly objected to the misrepresentation of the Chinese position, saying:

“First, before he comments on others’ statements, he should first understand the content of those statements. If he is confused about them, it might not be appropriate to make such comments. I emphasized in my statement that we should consolidate the results that have recently been achieved in countering terrorism, continue to act in accordance with Council resolutions and international law — let me emphasize, international law — unify standards and combat all forms of terrorism. I have a personal background in international law. It is common sense that international law includes international humanitarian law and everyone should understand that. I also want to highlight the fact that China has its own principles and positions that it bases its statements on, and it is not anyone else’s place to lecture or comment on them.

Secondly, how China votes in the Council, including on resolutions drafted by the humanitarian penholders, depends on the merits of the case. Our position is based on our consideration for international peace and security and for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, security considerations and humanitarian needs of the country concerned. It is also based on China’s principles and positions, which we have steadfastly adhered to. We regard to how we vote, do not have to look to others to help make our decisions, and it is not Germany’s place to worry about that.”

Ambassador Heusgen, however, did not back down but took to the floor once again, saying:

“It may not be for me to criticize Chinese positions, but it is for me to uphold international law and international humanitarian law, and the term ‘international humanitarian law’ was not mentioned in either the Russian or the Chinese statement.”

While the Chinese representative let the matter rest at that stage, it was clear that China did not appreciate being lectured by Germany in an open Security Council meeting and being accused of  not honouring international humanitarian law.

Another issue that triggered acrimonious exchanges between Ambassador Heusgen and his Chinese counterparts and soured relations even further was the delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria. As one of the penholders of the Security Council for humanitarian assistance to Syria, Germany was instrumental in submitting several draft resolutions on the extension of a cross-border humanitarian aid mechanism which allowed for the delivery of aid from neighbouring countries without the consent or control of the Syrian Government, knowing full well that they would be vetoed by China and Russia. China had consistently expressed reservations concerning cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries arguing that the Syrian Government had the primary responsibility for improving the humanitarian situation in Syria and that humanitarian assistance should be provided from within Syria across conflict lines “in order to  prevent relief supplies from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations or being diverted for other purposes.” Germany used the issue of humanitarian aid to Syria to put China on the back foot, accusing it of blocking aid deliveries to people in need. After Russia and China had vetoed a draft resolution which would have extended the humanitarian aid mechanisms for three border crossings, Ambassador Heusgen told the Council on 20 December 2019:

“This is a very sad day for the Syrian people and the Security Council. China and Russia bear an enormous responsibility. We are going into the holiday season now, and 4 million people in Syria do not know if in the next year, after 10 January 2020, they will still receive food, be able to feed their babies or get medicine.

My Chinese colleague said very clearly that China supports the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA asked for this. It asked for more than what we offered. How can he be against that? I again ask the representatives of Russia and China to not let the people down. We are ready to work hard to see to it that after 10 January 2020 there will still be a possibility for those suffering people to survive.”

To this criticism, the Chinese representative responded as follows:

“China firmly rejects the groundless accusations levelled against it […] Like the positions of any other country, our position is indisputable. Our independent voting decisions are made on the basis of our principled positions and are not subject to accusations by any party.”

The Chinese response did not prove very successful. In a clever public relations exercise, Germany managed to put the blame for the failure to extend the aid mechanism squarely on Russia and China. The international media titled: “Russia and China Block Cross-Border Aid Deliveries to Syria”, “Russia, backed by China, casts 14th U.N. veto on Syria to block cross-border aid”, “Russia and China veto UN extending cross-border aid to Syria”, “Russia, China Veto UN Resolution On Cross-Border Aid For Syria”, or “Russia, China block extension of cross-border humanitarian aid for millions of Syrians”.

The situation escalated further when the Syrian aid mechanism was up for renewal again in July 2020. After a week of wrangling with five rounds of voting in which China and Russia twice exercised their veto, the Council on 11 July 2020 adopted a resolution which provided for the renewal of one crossing point for a period of twelve months. The whole process left delegations with a lot of ill-feeling, bitterness and frustration which surfaced in a video-teleconference of the Security Council in the late afternoon of 11 July 2020. In speeches that were later redacted or were not submitted at all for the official protocol, the Russian and Chinese representatives, on one side, and Ambassador Heusgen, on the other, exchanged fierce arguments. Directly addressing his Chinese and Russian counterparts, Ambassador Heusgen said:

“We all act on instructions, but when you report home, Jun and Dmitry, just tell them that the German Ambassador asked: How those people who gave the instructions, who gave the instructions to cut off the aid of 500,000 children, if they are ready to look into the mirror tomorrow.”

Exercising his right to reply, China’s acting deputy permanent representative stated:

“Ambassador Christoph, we do not need your lecture in my capital how to make decision. They know what they are doing. They are doing the right thing.”

Ambassador Heusgen later explained that the co-penholders had deliberately not presented a compromise draft resolution in order to demonstrate “to the outside world that it was Russia and China creating huge problems for aid organizations and being responsible for the suffering of people.” This strategy proved successful. Although China and Russia succeeded in reducing the number of crossing points from two to only one, Germany again successfully portrayed Russia and China as trying to cut off the Syrian population in need from vital aid deliveries. Thus, the international media were titled: “UN: Russia and China launch despicable veto of lifesaving aid for millions of civilians in Syria”, “Russia, China veto approval of cross-border aid for Syria”, “Russia, China veto Syria aid via Turkey for second time this week”, “Syria: Russia and China veto last-ditch aid extension deal”, “Russia, China veto proposal for humanitarian aid to Syria.”

Having put Russia and China successfully on the back foot, Ambassador Heusgen made sure that the matter was not forgotten. In subsequent Council meetings, he regularly returned to the topic of humanitarian deliveries to Syria. For example, on 5 October 2020, he intimated that China and Russia had brought “shame and disgrace to the Council” by vetoing the opening of three crossing points in northern Syria to allow humanitarian aid into the country. On 27 October 2020, he told the Council:

“Russia and China bear a huge responsibility for the humanitarian situation after they vetoed the additional crossing points, which would have greatly facilitated humanitarian aid. How inhumane can one get?”

It must have been clear to Ambassador Heusgen that public accusations of the blocking of aid, cynicism, inhumanity, and bringing shame and disgrace to the Security Council would not leave Sino-German relations unscathed.

Category: United Nations

DOI: 10.17176/20211123-164501-0

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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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