Published: 11 November 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon
In December 2020, Germany’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council came to an end and it was time to bid farewell and to take stock of its membership. In two Council meetings, on 16 and 22 December, Germany was given the most unusual and most undiplomatic send-off in the history of the Security Council by two of its permanent members: Russia and China. The farewells 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.
In yet another acrimonious Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East (Syria)” on 16 December 2020, Ambassador Heusgen accused Russia of contributing to “the suffering and killing of people” in Syria by its pilots bombing hospitals in Idlib and its diplomats blocking “humanitarian aid from entering the country and providing humanitarian goods to hundreds of thousands of children and other people.” In response, the Russian representative accused Ambassador Heusgen of being responsible, in part, for the Security Council having failed Syria because of his “hypocritical position” and his “attempts to say that black is white.” He would be remembered “as a very cynical man who promoted double standards in the Security Council” and who drew “conclusions based on the contents of” the New York Times newspaper. But the Russian representative saved the most damning judgment to the end, saying:
“In conclusion, I have to say that many of our colleagues at the United Nations received the news that Germany would be a non-permanent member of the Council with great anticipation. However, thanks to the Permanent Representative, they widely came to question whether the Council really needed so much dissent, division and negative emotion. Therefore, I understand from my contacts here that the number of those who welcomed Germany’s tenure in the Council seems to have decreased dramatically. I think that draws a firm line under their presence here […].”
Ambassador Heusgen, however, was undeterred by Russia’s disapproval of what he called his country’s approach of “telling the truth”. In his final remarks on Germany’s 2019/2020 term on the Security Council in a meeting on “Non-proliferation” on 22 December 2020, he once again took a swipe at Russia, referring to “the Russian bombing of hospitals in Idlib” and “the FSB’s [the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service] attempt to poison Mr. Navalny.” To this, the Russian representative replied that during his time on the Security Council, Ambassador Heusgen seemed “to have developed a peculiar addiction to criticizing Russia at every meeting, even if it is not relevant to the topic at hand.” He called him “a political diplomat with a reputation as a serious, yet very emotional, man” and accused him of promoting “base and unprofessional nonsense” and unleashing “a smear campaign” against Russia. He concluded with a sarcastic send-off, telling “dear Christoph […]: ‘It is a pity you are leaving at last.’ We will truly miss you.”
One may wonder what soured the two countries’ relations in the Security Council. It had all started well in January 2019, when Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations stated at a joint Russian-German event:
“I would like to begin by congratulating Germany on assuming the Presidency of the Security Council for the month of April. I believe that today’s joint enterprise, for which we voluntarily and wholeheartedly joined after a first whistle from Ambassador Christoph Heusgen will mark our future cooperation in the Security Council not only in the month of April, but throughout the entire German tenure at the Council.”
At the second meeting of the Council in April 2019, the Russian representative warmly welcomed Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to the Council, congratulating Germany on its assumption of the presidency for April and wished it every success. It seems, however, that by the end of the month, the sentiment between the two countries had already deteriorated considerably. There was no word of congratulations or thanks from Russia for Germany’s work during its presidency, as is usual diplomatic practice. While Russia extended the usual welcome at the beginning of Germany’s second presidency in July 2020, there was again no word of thanks at the end.
The German-Russian antagonism in the Security Council seems to have had several reasons. First and foremost, there were substantive differences on a number of items on the Council’s agenda. Second, Germany on several occasions managed to use the rules of procedure and its position as Council president or penholder to outmanoeuvre Russia on procedural grounds. Third, the deteriorating relationship between the two countries was due to the tone, style and, at times, confrontational approach of Germany’s permanent representative. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who had served for 12 years as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy and security adviser, showed a much more self-confident demeanour than previous German representatives and saw eye to eye with the permanent representatives of the permanent Council members, calling them provocatively “the non-elected members of this Council”, and emphasising the role of the “E10 […] to defend international law and the United Nations.”
Antagonisms between Germany and Russia over substantive issues
There were numerous disagreements between Russia and Germany which played out in the Security Council, and which have been dealt with elsewhere. For example, the two countries disagreed over whether the situations in Venezuela, Burundi and Ukraine constituted a threat to international peace and security and thus belonged on the agenda of the Security Council – in all three cases the German view prevailed. Germany and Russia also regularly clashed in the Security Council over the case of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, with Germany insinuating that Russia used a chemical nerve agent to poison Mr. Navalny. The two countries also had different views on the publication of the report of the Libya sanctions committee. In the following some other battle grounds and the “atmospheric” reasons will be examined in more detail.
(i) Russia’s violations of international law in Ukraine
Germany used the Security Council as a forum to reproach Russia for violating international law in Ukraine. Ambassador Heusgen regularly broached Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the violation of human rights there, Russia’s military and other support of the two separatist regions in the Donbas region of Ukraine – the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” – the detention of Ukrainian servicemen in contravention of an international court order, and the shooting down of Malaysian Airline flight HM-17 by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile over the separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine. On 12 February 2019, during a Council meeting on the 2015 Minsk agreements, which sought to end the fighting in the Donbas region, the German representative accused Russia of not having honoured the ceasefire agreed in Minsk. He accused Russia of having invaded Ukraine, saying “Russian soldiers were directly involved, both in the occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk.” Directly addressing his Russian counterpart, he said:
“Listening to Ambassador Nebenzia, I was left with the impression that it was Ukraine that had invaded Russia, not Russia that invaded Ukraine. […] Our Russian partners continue to violate international law.”
The meeting on 16 July 2019 saw more heated exchanges between the German and Russian representatives over Ukraine. Ambassador Heusgen told the Council that what was going on in Crimea was “a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity through Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea.” He also accused Russia of illegally detaining 24 Ukrainian servicemen. What infuriated the Russian representative most, however, was the suggestion that Russia should “compensate the families of the victims of Flight MH-17 – 298 men, women and children, who lost their lives after having been shot down by Russian weapons”, thereby intimating that Russia was responsible for the downing of the aircraft. The Russian representative retorted:
“Incidentally, I am surprised that the statement delivered by my friend Ambassador Heusgen, who referred to international law and demonstrated an incredible level of legal nihilism, calling upon [sic] the Russian Federation to pay compensation for the victims when there have been no judicial proceedings and no one has yet been identified as the culprit.”
On 6 February 2020, Ambassador Heusgen reminded Council members that it was now “six years since Russia invaded and annexed parts of Ukraine, the Crimea, and it still occupies part of Ukraine, in flagrant breach of international law.” Less than a fortnight later, he once again accused Russia of violating the Minsk ceasefire agreement. He also held Russia responsible for the actions of the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Challenged by his Russian counterpart on this point, he replied:
“Since my Russian colleague mentioned my intervention, I would like to give a very quick answer to one of the questions, namely, whether I believed that the separatists in charge in Donetsk and Luhansk were puppets of the Kremlin. Yes, I do believe that.”
The German-Russian confrontation over Ukraine also surfaced on the sidelines of the Security Council and affected the Council’s practice of holding so-called “Arria-formula” meetings. These meetings are “a flexible and informal forum” that allow Council members to enhance their deliberations. To that end, members of the Security Council can invite on an informal basis any Member State, relevant organization or individual to participate in an informal setting to discuss items on the Council’s agenda. Council members are free to convene such meetings and other Council members generally participate in such meetings, as a matter of respect, even if they disapprove of the topic. Meetings are usually broadcast on UN WebTV. In 2020, the Western States on the Council and Russia both tried to use Arria-formula meetings to publicise their view of the Ukraine conflict to a wider audience.
In order to mark six years of Russian occupation of Crimea, on 6 March 2020 Germany and the other five Western members on the Council (in partnership with Ukraine) organised a well-attended two-hour-and-twelve minute Arria-formula meeting on the “Human Rights Situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine”. During the meeting, the Russian representative deplored that the organisers had rejected a Russian request to also hear briefings from Crimeans actually resident in Crimea. Their absence invalidated the entire meeting. After speaking for almost fifteen minutes, the Russian representative then left the meeting. In his intervention, Ambassador Heusgen referred to “Russia’s flagrant breach of international law through the occupation of Crimea.” He said:
“The international community cannot accept that the law of the strongest takes precedent over the strength of the rule of law. This is what the UN is about. This is also what the UN Security Council is about, because it was created to preserve peace and security. And it is really sad that, Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, is violating international law. […].
Germany urges the immediate release of all Ukrainian citizens who remain illegally detained and imprisoned in Russia and in illegally annexed Crimea. […]
We continue to condemn, and we ask that Russia lift the ban of the Mejilis, the central self-governing institution of the Crimean Tatars, which is in clear violation of an order of provision and measures of the International Court of Justice, which required Russia to abstain from limitations of Tatar representative institutions. […]
We call on Russia adhere to the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of all form of racial discrimination as required by the ICJ in its decision from April 2017.”
On 21 May 2020, Russia organised an Arria-formula meeting on the situation in Crimea as a “follow-up” to the 6 March meeting in order to give briefers from Crimea an opportunity to respond to “the fairy tales about the life in Crimea” and to provide participants with clear information on the situation in Crimea. The meeting was streamed live on the YouTube channel of the Russian representation to the United Nations. Unlike some other Western Council members and Ukraine, Germany participated in that meeting. Ambassador Heusgen actually was the most active participant, with three interventions, putting numerous questions to the briefers and challenging some of their assertions. He also reproached the Russian organisers for having left the 6 March meeting after their statement and promised to stay until the end. He also expressed his hope that when the meeting was streamed to Russia and Ukraine, everything would be broadcast so that people could watch and listen to everything that was being said. He finished his last intervention, saying: “you have to come, Russia that is, you have to come […] back to the observance of international law.”
On 2 December 2020, Russia organised another Arria-formula meeting concerning Ukraine – this time on the “Implementation of the 2015 Minsk Package of Measures on the settlement in Ukraine: a year since Paris Normandie Summit.” Russia invited, inter alia, representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas in the Minsk Contact Group as briefers. The meeting was again streamed on the Russian representation’s YouTube channel. This time all Western Council members, including Germany, boycotted the meeting because they considered it an attempt to present a false and misleading narrative of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In fact, Russia tried to portray the conflict in eastern Ukraine as an internal conflict which was to be settled through dialogue between the Ukrainian parties – Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk – and gave the impression that it was only acting as a mediator in that conflict, rather than itself being an active participant that supplied the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics with military personnel and equipment. Germany’s conduct and absence from meeting came in for stern criticism from the Russian side. Russia’s permanent representative stated:
“We are particularly appalled by the efforts of our German and French colleagues, the Normandy format participants, to boycott this meeting under ridiculous pretext that the format of the meeting does not fall under Normandy Format. Moreover, we know that they worked tirelessly with delegations to dissuade them from participating. Not only this is shameful, but it also goes contrary to the established Security Council practice whereby Arria Formula meeting are not blocked or sabotaged whatever the subject is. […]
Our colleagues even insisted that the meeting should not be broadcast through UN Web TV as other Arria formula meetings. It simply reflects their fear to hear the truth about what’s really happening in Donbass – they would prefer to shut the mouths of its residents. But instead, we have our YouTube-screening today of which we informed the general public.”
Russia later also complained about this behaviour in a letter to the Security Council Presidency calling it an attempt at “political censorship” and stating that it had “no other choice but to act reciprocally.” However, Russia did not follow up on this threat. In 2021, Arria-formula meetings on the situation in Crimea, organised by both Russia and Western Council members, were streamed on UN WebTV again.
(ii) Russia’s violations of international humanitarian law in Syria
During its term on the Security Council, Germany missed no opportunity to confront Russia with violations of international humanitarian law in Syria. At times, German diplomats raised the issue almost on a daily basis. Germany accused Russia of “indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure” in north-west Syria “in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.” It claimed that Russia bombed schools, medical infrastructure and hospitals, killed doctors and nurses, and blocked humanitarian convoys. In this context, Ambassador Heusgen exposed Council members to drastic accounts of the fate and suffering of individuals in Syria and described in graphic detail atrocities committed there, telling the Council about ripped out fingernails, faces covered with acid, a corpse that had his penis cut off, and a mother with her new-born baby in her arms under a mountain of corpses. The Council regularly saw acrimonious exchanges between the two countries. For example, on 22 November 2020 Ambassador Heusgen decried Russia for indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure and thus violating international humanitarian law. In response his Russian counterpart accused him of having “apparently signed on as a volunteer in the army of people spreading unverified information about the actions of Russia and the legitimate Government of Syria” and intimated that his “reckless statement” merely prolonged the suffering of the residents of Idlib and other areas. To this Ambassador Heusgen retorted: “I leave it up to others around the table and to the public as to who is prolonging the suffering of the people – is it Germany, or is it Russia?” Truly outraged by the Russian response to atrocities committed by the Assad Government in Syria, Ambassador Heusgen stated on 5 November 2020:
“I must say that I just cannot believe my ears. I would recommend that Mr. Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, look at the Caesar photographs of the prisons in Syria.”
The Caesar photographs were a collection of more than 55,000 photographs of the bodies of 11,000 men, women and children who died while being held in detention by the Syrian Government in two military hospitals near the capital Damascus. The photos had been smuggled out of Syria by a former member of the Syrian police, now code-named Caesar, and were exhibited, inter alia, in New York.
Besides accusations of violations of international humanitarian law in Syria, Germany also intimated that Russia was committing war crimes and crimes against humanity there. Against this background, Germany’s call upon Russia to “fully support the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011” gained a different dimension. The same is true for Germany’s call on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Germany made sure that it was not forgotten who blocked the referral, regularly reminding Council members that it was Russia’s and China’s “responsibility that those who committed and are still committing the most serious crimes in Syria cannot be brought to justice before the ICC.”
Germany not only accused Russia of violations of international humanitarian law in Syria but also portrayed Russia as being opposed to international humanitarian law more generally. 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. These two States then submitted their own draft resolution which failed to receive the required majority because Germany and eight other Council members voted against. Germany subsequently tried to portray the main sticking point as a disagreement on the question of 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. Ambassador Heusgen stated in the Council meeting on 24 October 2019:
“I am not predisposed to get into discussions with our Russian colleague, but I am predisposed to defend international humanitarian law and human rights, and I am doing that in implementation of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 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.”
The real sticking point, however, was not international humanitarian law or human rights 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. Responding to Ambassador Heusgen, the Chinese representative strongly objected to the misrepresentation of the Russian and 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.”
(iii) Russia’s attempts to undermine the credibility of the OPCW
In response to persistent allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced on 29 April 2014 the creation of an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) “to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic.” On 27 June 2018, the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention mandated the OPCW Secretariat to establish an Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) to “identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic […] in those instances in which the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria determines or has determined that use or likely use occurred.” After the OPCW IIT attributed in April 2020 the use of chemical weapons to air force units belonging to the Syrian Government of President Assad, Russia tried to call the ITT’s report, which incriminated its ally, into question. It called the report “politically biased, factually unreliable and technically unconvincing.”
Germany, which had welcomed the ITT’s report, as a result accused Russia of trying to undermine the credibility of the OPCW by questioning the ITT’s findings. During a Security Council Arria-formula meeting on 28 September 2020, Ambassador Heusgen stated: “This is what I am saying about chutzpah: Russia and China are again trying to undercut the credibility of the OPCW, present alternative facts and spread doubts in order to undercut the OPCW again.” This was followed on 5 November 2020 by three rounds of vitriolic exchanges in the Security Council itself. When the Russian representative detected “a large-scale crisis of confidence at the OPCW”, Ambassador Heusgen replied:
“When I listened to [the intervention of the Russian Federation], I thought that I was in the wrong movie theatre here. There is no crisis of trust in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the Security Council has just heard, one speaker after another supports the OPCW and its work. The OPCW enjoys the full trust of the international community with the exception of Russia and its cronies. It is Russia that undermines the credibility of the OPCW by continuously shielding the Al-Assad regime. I have not heard one word of regret from the Russian Ambassador for the thousands of people whom the Al-Assad regime has killed with chemical weapons. There is no one who doubts that Al-Assad has done that. Russia continues to protect Al-Assad and tries to continue to undermine the OPCW.”
The Russian representative retorted by accusing his German counterpart of employing “a classic case of propaganda”, trying “to mesmerize his audience” and “ignoring the elephant in the room.” He posed the rhetorical question whether Germany lived “under alternative laws of physics and logic that make it take for granted tales and fables worthy of the Grimm brothers?” To this Ambassador Heusgen replied that he could not believe his ears when listening to Russia’s Permanent Representative. He, once again, recalled that Russia was caught red-handed in 2018 when it launched a cyberattack against the OPCW and urged it “to stop blaming others, to stop undermining the OPCW and to finally acknowledge the reality that the Syrian regime is responsible for mass murder and for killing its own population with chemical weapons.”
Germany not only leapt to the defence of the OPCW rhetorically but also tried to prevent Russia from using the Security Council as a forum to undercut the credibility of the OPCW. Together with other western States it voted against Russia’s proposal to invite Mr. José Bustani to brief the Council on the investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The latter had been Director-General of the OPCW from 1997-2002 and was critical of the OPCW’s investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Germany also forcefully objected to critical questions being put to the serving OPCW Director General Fernando Arias during an open Security Council meeting. Ambassador Heusgen stated:
“I find it very treacherous that the Russian Ambassador takes offence at the understanding that questions on this issue should be dealt with in closed consultations and that we expected only statements to be made today. I would like to thank Director-General Arias for his statement, and I assume that Russia’s statement is an attempt at intimidation, to try to catch him off guard.
If Russia were genuinely interested in the substance on this issue, it would not have obstructed all of the efforts made over the years to gather evidence. It would not have blocked the OPCW verification mission. It would not have blocked the attribution of accountability.”
The German intervention seemed to be intended to deflect attention from the Russian questions. There was no “understanding” in the sense of an agreement between Council members, which was shown by the fact that during the same session the British representative also addressed three questions to the Director-General. The Council’s rules of procedure did not prohibit members from asking briefers questions during an open session. On the contrary, that was done regularly, including by German representatives. However, as answers may sometimes involve confidential or sensitive information it is “customary” that briefers can chose to answer them later in closed session. The Russian representative later commented on Ambassador Heusgen’s intervention, saying:
“Everyone has come to know his manner of engaging in discussion and putting questions to briefers on every occasion, except in the case of Director-General Arias, when he asserted the contrary — that ostensibly it was not normal practice to put questions to a briefer. We will also remember him as a very cynical man who promoted double standards in the Security Council.”
(iv) Cross-border humanitarian assistance to northern Syria
The issue that triggered the most acrimonious exchanges between Ambassador Heusgen and his Russian counterparts and soured relations between Russia and Germany was the delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria. Germany served as one of the co-penholders of the Security Council for humanitarian assistance to Syria.
Prompted by the dire situation of the civilian population during the Syrian civil war, the United Nations Security Council decided in July 2014 that the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorised to use routes across conflict lines and four border crossings on the borders with Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, “with notification to the Syrian authorities.” At the same time the Council established a UN monitoring mechanism in the neighbouring States to monitor the loading of all humanitarian relief consignments in order to confirm the humanitarian nature of these relief consignments. The resolution meant that cross-border aid could be delivered without the consent and control of the Syrian authorities. At the same time, the resolution provided only for the monitoring of the loading of the relief consignments in the neighbouring countries but said nothing about monitoring of the distribution in rebel-held areas. This led to a situation where rebel groups were able to interfere with and obstruct aid delivery and misappropriate and redirect aid supplies to rebel fighters.
In 2018, UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners reached on average 5.4 million people with humanitarian aid each month and life-saving assistance delivered across borders represented a vital part of this, including the delivery of food assistance for on average 1 million people each month. In December 2018, this aid delivery mechanism was renewed until 10 January 2020.
In November 2019, Germany and the other co-penholders started consultations on another resolution renewing the established mechanism for humanitarian assistance to Syria once again. Responding to request from humanitarian aid agencies, Germany initially wanted to increase the number of crossing points from four to five. Russia, however, seconded by China, made it clear from the outset that it was generally opposed to cross-border assistance beyond the control of its ally, the Assad Government. Russia criticised that the rebels did not allow humanitarian personnel to enter the area under their control and, instead controlled the delivery and distribution of assistance themselves. As a result, a significant part of the deliveries were not being used as intended. According to Russia, the mechanism had been created as a temporary emergency instrument, given the dire situation at the time. Referring to Article 70 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions and General Assembly resolution 46/182 (1991), it argued that according to international law humanitarian assistance was to be provided with the consent of the authorities of the recipient country. Considering the changed situation on the ground, with the Assad Government having regained control over most of the country, it was essential to revert to the established parameters for humanitarian assistance.
Despite Russia’s opposition, on 20 December 2019 Germany and the other co-penholders introduced a draft resolution renewing the mechanism for three border crossings for a period of six months followed by an additional period of six months, unless the Council decided otherwise. Ambassador Heusgen later explained: “We did not present a compromise, but rather a proposal that was the best for the population from the perspective of the humanitarian organizations.” As it had been indicated to Germany in advance, Russia and China vetoed the draft resolution. The two countries then submitted their own draft resolution which extended the cross-border mechanism for two crossing points for six months. That draft received only five votes in favour, while seven Council members, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States, voted against. Germany together with the other two co-penholders and a fourth State abstained. After the vote on the two draft resolutions, Ambassador Heusgen stated:
“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. […] I again ask the representatives of Russia and China to not let the people down.”
To this, the Russian representative responded:
“My German colleague, as is now customary, […] reproached us for an unwillingness to compromise. We have already made a significant compromise on the draft resolution but for some reason that was not appreciated. We are asked to make compromise after compromise, over and over again, and essentially to return to the same co-penholders’ text for draft resolution S/2019/961, which was unacceptable to us in the first place. We were frank about that right from the start, although for some reason the co-penholders still did not believe it.”
As a consequence, the Security Council had to adjourn for the holiday season without reaching agreement on the renewal of humanitarian assistance to Syria. In a successful public relations exercise, Germany managed to put the blame for the failure squarely on Russia and China. The international media were 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 issue of humanitarian assistance to Syria returned to the Council’s agenda on 10 January 2020, the date the aid delivery mechanism was to expire. Germany and Belgium submitted a draft resolution which renewed the cross-border mechanism for two crossing points for a period of six months, that is, until 10 July 2020. The draft resolution also called upon “United Nations humanitarian agencies to improve monitoring of the delivery and distribution of United Nations relief consignments and their delivery inside Syria” and requested the Secretary-General to conduct an independent written review of cross-line and cross-border operations, including recommendations on how to further strengthen the UN Monitoring Mechanism. The draft was adopted as resolution 2504 (2020) with 11 votes in favour, none against, and four abstentions (China, Russia, United Kingdom and United States). Although Russia did not succeed with a last minute amendment to the draft resolution, the resolution adopted was, in substance, largely identical with the initial Russian-Chinese draft of 20 December 2019. This apparently allowed Russia to withdraw its own new alternative draft resolution S/2020/25. Upon the adoption of resolution 2504 (2020), Ambassador Heusgen lamented:
“The cross-border operations are essential to the provision of aid. We have done everything we can to keep them alive so that those 2.7 million people will continue to receive humanitarian aid. That decision comes, however, at a very heavy price. Tomorrow morning, 1.4 million people in the north-eastern part of Syria will wake up not knowing if they will be able to continue to get the medical aid that they desperately need […]. I once again appeal to the Russian representative to do everything so that those people who are now asking if they will be able to get their dialysis treatment and all other medical treatment will be able to get it in future.”
While Russia succeeded in reducing the number of crossing points from four to two and limiting their operation to a mere six-month period, Germany again scored on the public relations side with headlines in the media like “Syria: Russia’s veto denies millions of Syrian civilians essential aid amid humanitarian disaster in Idlib.”
The situation escalated further when the renewal of the mechanism was due again in July 2020. Germany held the presidency of the Security Council during that month. Both Russia and China wanted to strengthen cross-line humanitarian assistance, thereby giving the Assad Government more control over aid deliveries to rebel-held areas. They consequently advocated a further reduction of cross-border crossing points from two to one for a period of six months only. Despite Russia having informed the co-penholders of its final position on Monday, 6 July, Belgium and Germany nevertheless submitted a draft resolution the next day providing for the continued opening of two crossing points for a period of twelve months. Not surprisingly, Russia and China vetoed the draft. On 8 July, Russia tabled its own draft resolution which renewed one border crossing for a period of six months. The resolution received only four votes and thus was not adopted. Two days later, Belgium and Germany brought another draft resolution to the Council which provided again for the continued opening of two crossing points but only for a period of six months. The draft resolution received 13 votes in favour but nevertheless failed because Russia and China as permanent members voted against. An alternative Russian draft resolution providing for one crossing for twelve months, although as such an acceptable compromise, received only four votes in favour. Germany and six other States voted against the draft because Russia tried to link the renewal of the crossing point with the issue of sanctions against Syria by including in the draft a paragraph requesting the UN Secretary-General to “provide a report on direct and indirect impact of unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria on its socio-economic situation and humanitarian deliveries from outside Syria.” Both Russia and China were opposed to sanctions imposed on Syria, claiming that they were bringing untold suffering to innocent civilians. The 10 July 2020 deadline for the renewal of the resolution governing humanitarian assistance in Syria thus passed without the Security Council being able to agree on a new resolution.
It was only on Saturday, 11 July 2020, after five days of wrangling, that the Security Council managed to agree on a one-page draft resolution which was stripped down to the bare minimum and simply provided for the renewal of one crossing point for a period of twelve months. Resolution 2533 (2020) was adopted by twelve votes in favour, with none against and three abstentions (China, Dominican Republic, and Russia). The whole process left delegations with a lot of ill-feeling, bitterness and frustration which surfaced in a video-teleconference of the Security Council after the adoption of resolution 2533 (2020) 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. The Russian representative stated:
“I am sorry to say that we abstained on [the] cross-border mechanism draft because we are disappointed [with] how the penholders conducted the whole process. It was from the very beginning overshadowed by their clumsiness, disrespect, and even despise [sic] of Security Council agreed rules and procedures. We could have arrived at this result much earlier. One most important border crossing to Idlib is what Russia was proposing since the very beginning. […] Since we started this exchange, the hypocrisy and double standards of our Western colleagues attained unprecedented heights during these negotiations. […] But this will not deceive anyone.”
Ambassador Heusgen responded to the accusation that the co-penholders had conducted these negotiations with clumsiness, stating that the approach was “not clumsy, this is humanitarian, this is very humane, this is what we try to do […] to get the optimum to the population.” He then addressed his Chinese and Russian counterparts directly, saying:
“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, the Russian representative stated:
“Clumsiness is when you have the result in your hands already on Monday, and we are telling you that we do not have another instruction and we are even giving you the arguments that this can be the only solution to help all the Syrian people in need with respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity and you just don’t follow this route and instead of this you lead us through rounds of unnecessary voting, vetoes and each and every time you present the situation as if China and Russia are enemies of [the] international community and you are the only one who is struggling for the fate of Syrians, which is not the case, you know this perfectly well.”
China also reacted sharply to Ambassador Heusgen’s request to ask the decision-makers back home how they could answer for the decision to cut off the aid of 500,000 children. 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 Russia managed to reduce the number of crossing points from two to one and had to compromise only on the duration of the new mandate, 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.”
It was thus no surprise that at the Council’s next video-teleconference on the situation in the Middle East (Syria) on 29 July 2020, Russia restated its criticism of the process leading up to the adoption of resolution 2533 (2020). The Russian representative declared:
“We must register our dissatisfaction with the way the co-penholders conducted the extension of the cross-border mechanism. They put their interests above the Security Council’s common interests, thereby making us struggle for over a week, and enjoyed seeing us exercise our veto instead of ensuring a swift adoption of the resolution.”
Ambassador Heusgen responded to the criticism of the penholders’ handling of the voting in the Security Council, saying:
“First I must say I missed in the statement of the Russian ambassador the empathy for the work of the aid workers and for the situation that is on the ground. […] This is also to my Chinese colleague. Instead of doing everything for humanitarian aid workers […] you make life for these aid workers more difficult by having closed the second [crossing-point].”
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 9 September 2020, he asked “why Russia was fighting so hard to close-down actually the crossing-points, to make it more difficult to get the humanitarian deliveries to the people in need in northern Syria.” He accused Russia and China of bearing “a huge responsibility for the humanitarian situation after they vetoed the additional crossing points”, asking “How inhumane can one get?” On 5 October 2020, Ambassador Heusgen intimated that Russia and China had brought shame and disgrace to the Council by blocking humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria, saying:
“Who brought shame and disgrace to the Council? Was it the 13 countries around the table that in July (see S/2020/661) were in favour of opening three crossing points in northern Syria to allow humanitarian aid into Syria, or was it China and Russia, which vetoed that draft resolution, thereby, according to UNICEF, endangering the lives of 500,000 children?”
Such open and direct accusations of inhumanity, disgraceful and shameful conduct of two of the Security Council’s permanent members by a non-permanent member were rarely, if ever, heard before in the Council chamber. Ambassador Heusgen later portrayed the events in July 2020 as follows:
“In the end, with all the pressure that we had built up, we got a solution the humanitarian organizations said they could live with. They got an extended period of time, i.e. one year starting last July, during which time they could deliver aid through the one remaining most important crossing point.
I think it was necessary to put as much pressure as possible on Russia and China, so that in the end we got a solution which allowed the humanitarian aid organizations to continue their work. It was not ideal, but people in the northwest of Syria maintained access to the life-saving aid.”
Considering that Russia had been willing from the outset to keep the one crossing point in question open (albeit only for six months) and that, in the end, people in the northwest of Syria maintained access to the life-saving aid, not least due to an increase in cross-line aid deliveries as advocated by Russia and China, the question of humanitarian assistance in Syria was perhaps more political that Germany would be prepared to admit.
Outmanoeuvring Russia procedurally
Germany also turned Russia against itself by using the Security Council’s provisional rules of procedure on several occasions to outmanoeuvre the permanent member. It thereby acted either together with the other Western States on the Council or used its position as Council president or penholder.
(i) Forcing Russia to exercise its veto power
During its two-year term on the Council, Germany acted as co-penholder on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The practice of penholdership recognises the lead of one or more Council members with regard to an agenda item. Penholders, inter alia, initiate and chair the informal drafting process of Council resolutions. While penholders are encouraged to present and discuss the draft with all members of the Security Council, they do not need the agreement of other Council members to submit a draft resolution to a vote. As co-penholder Germany was instrumental in submitting four draft resolutions on Syria – one on cessation of hostilities in Idlib governorate in north-western Syria and three on cross-border humanitarian access – that it knew full well were unacceptable to Russia. Germany nevertheless submitted these draft resolutions in order to force Russia to exercise its veto power and publicly show its true colours. It used the exercise of the veto as evidence to portray Russia (and China) as being opposed to international humanitarian law and the delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need in Syria. Germany was thus responsible for four out of the five vetoes exercised by Russia in 2019-2020. Russia saw through this strategy but could not do much about it. During the Council meeting on 24 October 2019, the Russian representative stated:
“[O]ur humanitarian champions deliberately patched together an unacceptable draft resolution (S/2019/756), which we, as was mentioned by the representative of Germany, vetoed along with China. I believe that the draft resolution was presented for the following purpose – so that they might later have the pleasure of mentioning that fact at Council meetings. It seems that this was the reason for putting the draft resolution before the Council.
My German friend is perfectly aware of the fact that the fate of the draft resolution was known even prior to its submission. I warned him about that from the very outset.”
In addition to prompting Russia to veto resolutions, German also adopted the policy of submitting non-consensus draft resolutions at a very late stage in the proceedings in order to force Council members either to exercise their veto or compromise at the very last minute. For example, on 23 April 2019 Germany submitted a draft resolution on “Women and Peace and Security: Sexual Violence in Conflict”, which contained provisions wholly unacceptable to Russia, only hours before a scheduled high-level open debate of the Council. Russia considered this “a dangerous precedent that could have an extremely negative effect on the Council’s working methods in the future.”
(ii) Blocking agenda items suggested by Russia
Germany voted together with other Council members to put items on the agenda of the Security Council despite Russia’s objection. More importantly, however, it also blocked, together with the other Western States on the Council, the discussion of items suggested by Russia. On 20 May 2019, Germany voted against the Russian delegation’s request to hold an open meeting of the Council on Ukraine’s new law on the use of Ukrainian as the sole State language in government functions and services. Germany was not against the agenda item as such but did not want to discuss it on the very day of the inauguration of the new Ukrainian President. It considered Russia’s request for the meeting as a clear attempt to distract from the peaceful, democratic transfer of power and an act of intimidation of the new President. Russia saw matters differently. It considered it the right of every Council member to submit any issue for the Council’s consideration and accused Western Council members of double standards. Responding to the intervention by Ambassador Heusgen, the Russian representative stated:
“Today we have witnessed an attempt to introduce censorship into the Security Council. We do not consider that the way it was done helps to maintain a businesslike atmosphere in the Security Council.”
The new language law was ultimately discussed in the Security Council on 16 July 2019.
(iii) Blocking Russian requests for briefers
Germany also used its position as president of the Security Council to block a Russian request to hear a special briefing. In July 2020, the media reported about a major oil spill in the Al-Rmeilan oil fields in north-eastern Syria. The oil fields were in an area under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who were fighting the Assad Government and were protected by U.S. forces, which kept a military base in the area. Expressing concern about the “high risks of environmental disaster”, Russia requested an additional briefer from the UN Secretariat to inform Council members of the negative consequences on the environment and human health during the open meeting on the situation in the Middle East (Syria) on 29 July 2020. It noted that the United States, which was occupying the Syrian oil fields, had not provided either financial or technical assistance to solve that problem. Germany, which held the Council presidency in July 2020, did not invite the requested briefer which prompted the Russian representative to complain that despite the obvious relevance of this topic to the discussion, his delegation’s request “was not treated appropriately.” To this, Ambassador Heusgen replied:
“I hate to say this, but Russia is a permanent member and should know the rules and the rules are that requests like this have to be issued 24 hours before and we only got it yesterday afternoon. So you want to put the German presidency in the bad light by not getting a specialist, by not getting somebody to brief on the issue.”
The Russian representative retorted that he did not recall a 24-hour rule, despite being a permanent member of the Security Council but promised to check. In the end, Ambassador Heusgen did not seem to be too certain about the rule stating that it was a good occasion for the Political Coordinators to see how the rules were with regard to these kinds of request. He said that he had been told by the German Political Coordinator that it was a 24-hour rule but that the matter could be discussed with the Political Coordinators. There was no such rule, either in the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure or the Working Methods Handbook. The latter provides only that members of the Secretariat may be invited to participate in the discussion, including for the purpose of giving briefings to the Council, on a case-by-case basis. All there could have been was a gentlemen’s agreement between Council members that requests for briefers should be made at least 24 hours before a meeting to give other Council members a chance to prepare for the briefing and briefer. However, this was not a formal procedural rule and there was no legal obligation to comply with it. It seemed to be more a “whenever possible” rule which would have allowed Germany to invite the requested briefer if it had wanted to.
It seems, however, that Germany was intent on deflecting attention away from the issues of U.S. occupation of the area where the oil spill occurred and a possible responsibility of the occupying power. Directly addressing the Russian representative, Ambassador Heusgen stated tongue-in-cheek:
“What I found interesting though that is a new development in the Russian position, that we had this month already a discussion on domestic developments in Mali, we had a discussion now about the oil spills in Syria, maybe it has to do with the big oil spills that we have in Norilsk or the domestic situation in Khabarovsk, that Russia is mentioning this but we will certainly at the right moment come back to this, but again I think it is good that we are raising here domestic developments, we are raising environmental issues; so I expect the Russian Federation soon to ask for Ms Bachelet to brief the Council.”
Ambassador Heusgen was playing here on Russia’s general opposition to discussing domestic and, in particular, human rights issues in the Security Council. He also alluded to major oil spills in Norilsk and Khabarovsk that had caused major environmental damage in Russia and suggested that they also could become an issue for the Security Council. The German strategy proved successful. Although the Russian representative threatened that his delegation would ask for a separate meeting to hear a briefer on the subject, the question was never raised again in the Security Council.
(iv) Calling special meetings of the Security Council to discuss Russia’s actions
During its presidency in April 2019, Germany used its position to schedule a special meeting in which Russia’s actions with regard to Ukraine could be discussed. According to Rule 1 of the Security Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, the Council president can call a meeting of the Council “at any time he deems necessary.” On 24 April 2019, at 15:00 Moscow time or 08:00 New York time, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an Executive Order which allowed residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship in a simplified and expedited procedure. As a result, the Government of Ukraine requested a special meeting of the Security Council. On 24 April 2019, at 15:51 New York time, Ukraine’s Permanent Mission to the UN tweeted: “Russia’s decision to issue Russian passports in the occupied territory of Donbas is a violation of the UN Charter and Minsk Agreements. Ukraine requests UNSC to consider this provocative move. @GermanyUN #GERinUNSC.” Although originally there was no Council meeting planned for the day, the German presidency changed the programme of work and called a special meeting for 25 April 2019 at 15:00 New York time. Speaking at the meeting, the Ukrainian representative thanked Ambassador Heusgen for his “swift reaction and that of [his] team and the convening of this briefing at such short notice, at the request of our delegation.” Russia was less pleased about the speed of Germany’s action. The Russian ambassador said:
“I will not hide the fact that we were surprised by our Ukrainian colleagues’ initiative in convening today’s meeting, which was immediately supported by the German presidency.”
It is also of interest to note that at the meeting, four briefers were heard. Depending on the exact time when the Ukrainian request reached the German delegation, the “24-hour rule”, which Germany invoked with regard to the Russian request above, may well have been violated.
Russia paid Germany back when it held the Council presidency in October 2020. On 30 September 2020, Germany proposed to hold a Council meeting on Libya on 5 October 2020 as a follow-up to the Berlin conference on Libya. However, the Russian presidency did not schedule a meeting concerning Libya throughout October. Germany was thus forced to organise a ministerial meeting on Libya on the margins of the 75th UN General Assembly.
Character and tone of the relations
It’s not only what you say, but how you say it. From the outset, Ambassador Heusgen adopted a highly personalised and confrontational style of conversation with his Russian colleagues. Rather than seeing the Russian diplomats as representatives or mouthpieces of their State, he often engaged them in a personal way. This triggered the Russian Permanent Representative, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, to state at the Council meeting on 12 February 2019:
“A new chapter has recently emerged in our Council meetings in the form of our dialogues with our friend Christoph Heusgen, the Permanent Representative of Germany, who devoted a significant part of his statement to conversing with me.”
No one was addressed more often by Ambassador Heusgen than the “Russian representative”, the “representative of the Russian Federation”, the “Russian Ambassador”, the “Russian colleague”, “our Russian friends”. Ambassador Heusgen also frequently addressed the Russian representatives by their names. On 29 July 2020, Ambassador Nebenzi replied to Ambassador Heusgen:
“I am proud to be the target of your statements […]. I am a usual suspect, I am always eager to hear from you and I think the rest of the Council is also enjoying our exchanges.”
During a meeting on “Syria (chemical weapons)”, Ambassador Nebenzia felt compelled to take to the floor for a second time after, once again, having been addressed personally by Ambassador Heusgen, saying:
“I am already long accustomed to the fact that my friend, the German Ambassador, uses the Security Council platform to engage in a bilateral dialogue with me personally. In his statement today, I think he mentioned Russia 10 times more than he mentioned Syria. He bombards me with rhetorical questions that he believes make me petrified and speechless.”
The statement also highlighted another characteristic trait of Ambassador Heusgen’s exchanges with his Russian colleagues. In public meetings, he frequently bombarded them with a host of questions – both genuine and, more often, rhetorical – trying to force them to respond. For example, after addressing some of the questions put to him, the Russian representative stated at the meeting on 19 November 2019:
“I am sure that our German colleagues are perfectly familiar with all of these facts. Frankly, therefore, their almost masochistic desire to hear them again and again is astounding.”
On 19 May 2020, after Ambassador Heusgen had again addressed a number of questions to his Russian counterpart personally, Ambassador Nebenzia replied:
“[T]hese were not questions, these were maxims presented in the form of ultimate truth. I have been answering those maxims many times over in my statements that I made on this subject in the Security Council, but I have a feeling, an impression, that my friend Christoph sometimes wouldn’t listen to what I am saying.”
That it was more about the effect of asking these questions than a genuine interest in receiving an answer also became clear when Ambassador Heusgen put such questions to the First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, Ambassador Dimity Polyansky, after the latter had already left the Council chamber. After his return, he told Ambassador Heusgen:
“I should be asked questions when I am in the Chamber, not when I am at another event with the Secretary-General. That is, unless it is just from a desire to put one’s interlocutor in an uncomfortable position.”
Although not being alone in this, Ambassador Heusgen achieved mastery in misrepresenting the Russian position and putting words into the mouth of his Russian counterparts which led the Russian Ambassador to say:
“I do not know who told him what I said, but the way he interpreted my statement makes it clear that it was restated in an inaccurate manner. I can repeat my statement for him personally later, should he so wish.”
During the meeting on the situation in the Middle East on 27 June 2019, Ambassador Heusgen stated in rather lofty words:
“What I was more surprised by was what the Russian representative just said. He said that the approach we are taking here – the approach of putting emphasis on human rights and international humanitarian law; of seeking a political solution; of not accepting sexual violence against women – is an outdated approach. I do not want my children to grow up in a world like that which he imagines. I want my children to grow up in a world where humanitarian law and human rights are respected, where we look for a political solution and where we do not bomb indiscriminately.”
Nothing of that sort had been said by the Russian representative who had spoken of “pressure, the attempts at isolation and the open flirtations with illegal armed groups” being “outdated approaches to the Syrian issue.”
On occasion, Ambassador Heusgen also deliberately distorted his opposite’s position. For example, when Russia called for a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian language law banning Russian from public life in Ukraine, the German representative welcomed “a very positive shift in the position of Russia, which until now has always insisted that questions that are not directly related to peace and security or to human rights issues be discussed in Geneva.” The Russian representative, however, had made it clear that his country considered the Ukrainian language law a matter of international peace and security because it constituted a root cause of the “internal divisions and confrontations [in Ukraine], which have resulted in the current ongoing crisis and territorial division.” In fact, the question of the use of the Russian language in Ukraine played an important factor both in the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The language law was thus clearly a matter for the Security Council.
Last but not least, Ambassador Heusgen also adopted a rather patronising and sarcastic tone towards his Russian colleagues. For example, on 12 February 2019 he told them that he thought their proposal for a Council resolution mandating a UN mission to eastern Ukraine was “a joke”. On another occasion, he told them that they were “very good diplomats” or that he was “fascinated by Russian diplomacy” which must have textbooks which provided for the intimidation and provocations of new inexperienced leaders and that no opportunity for cynicism should be missed. Russian diplomats reaction to such accusations was thin-skinned. Ambassador Nebenzia told the Council that “my Germany colleague has tried (it has already become a tradition) to teach us diplomacy.” On 24 October 20219, the Russian representative stated:
“We constantly hear instructions from others as to what we need to do and what we should not do. I want to ask him what Germany itself is doing to stabilize the situation in Syria beyond lecturing others.”
Even if some of the Russian reactions were probably as calculated and staged as some of the German ambassador’s questions and statements, they nevertheless show how charged and difficult relations between the two countries in the Security Council became over time which, in turn, explains the farewell Germany got.
Category: United Nations