Some critical observations on Germany’s Security Council membership

Published: 18 November 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

As is to be expected, both the German Federal Government and its permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, have presented a favourable view of Germany’s two-year membership of the UN Security Council. Some voices in the literature also reached a generally positive verdict. While Germany undoubtedly had its successes on the Council, the global political situation and its direct and public confrontation with permanent members China, Russia and the United States meant that the overall picture is not nearly as rosy as has been painted. While individual aspects of Germany’s Council membership have been dealt with in several case studies, the following are some general observations on its two-year stint on what it considers “the most important organ of the United Nations for guaranteeing peace and security worldwide.”

Germany as defender of international law

Germany’s membership of the UN Security Council was a field day for international lawyers. Germany identified working for “the respect of international law, international humanitarian law, and human rights law” as one of the leitmotifs for its work on the Security Council. It did not disappoint. No one spoke more often of and about international law than Ambassador Christoph Heusgen. He used the Security Council as a public platform to reproach China, Russia, and the United States with violating international law. He became the most outspoken advocate for international law and, at times, talked and acted as if he were the last defender of the international legal order. Thus, he told his Russian and Chinese counterparts:

“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.”

Ambassador Heusgen gave the impression that international law had to be defended against (at least some of) the Council’s permanent members, which he pointedly referred to as “the non-elected members.” Talking about Russia and China obstructing the implementation of sanctions against North Korea, he told the representatives of the non-permanent members: “We as the E10 have been voted into the Security Council to defend international law and the United Nations. We have to take a stand to implement what the Security Council has decided.”

In general, it can be said that Germany got its international law right. There were only very few occasions when Ambassador Heusgen got it wrong or saw “clear violations of international humanitarian law” where there were none. Germany is to be commended for addressing international law violations of both competitors and systemic rivals, and allies. The statements show a genuine concern for and a principled approach to international law. In particular, the statements on international humanitarian law and human rights law breathed the spirit of empathy, compassion, and humanity.

One cannot find fault with Germany’s commitment to international law. However, one may question the way international law was employed in Security Council discourse. Ambassador Heusgen was repeatedly reproached by his Russian and Chinese counterparts for “lecturing others.” While he used international law skilfully, he also used it in a patronising, moralising, and – ultimately – antagonising way. It may also be questioned whether the confrontational, emotional, and judgmental style employed helped in any way to rectify the identified violations of international law. At times, one could get the impression that the public statements were meant more for the international public outside the Council chamber than for the States violating international law present inside.

Confrontation and backlash

Germany’s direct confrontation in the Security Council with Russia and China, but also the United States, came at a high price. During its first Council presidency in April 2019, Germany organised a so-called signature event on “sexual violence in conflict” chaired by its foreign minister that was to find its conclusion in the adoption of an ambitious draft resolution on sexual violence in conflict. The three veto powers, however, forced Germany to water-down its initial draft to save the event. Although, the Federal Government and its permanent mission to the UN put a positive spin on the ultimate adoption of resolution 2467 (2019), the resolution fell far short of Germany’s own expectations and those of international civil society.

Climate change and international security was the other top priority of Germany’s Council membership. During its second presidency in July 2020, Germany convened a ministerial-level open debate on the theme of “climate and security”. Again, Germany drafted a strong resolution on climate change and security and how to mitigate climate-related security risks. In the end, however, the resolution was not even submitted to the Council as China, Russia and the United States signalled their opposition. Again, the three veto powers denied Germany the opportunity to make its presidency a major success. In addition, China and Russia challenged Germany’s initiative to establish “an informal expert group of the Security Council on climate and security” and its request to have the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs act as the group’s secretariat. As a consequence, Germany was only able to establish “an informal expert group of [nine] members of the Security Council” without formal UN secretarial support.

China and Russia also denied Germany as chair of the Council’s North Korea sanctions committee any success in reaching a solution to the ton/barrel conversion rate to be applied to the supply, sale or transfer of refined petroleum products to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For two years, Ambassador Heusgen unsuccessfully tried to reach a compromise. At the first meeting of the sanctions committee under new Norwegian chairmanship in 2021, such a compromise was reached without the situation having changed in any way.

On several occasions, Russia (and China) also put the spanner in German Security Council diplomacy. For example, on 19 January 2020 Germany hosted a Conference on Libya in Berlin which ended with the publication of a 12-page long outcome document. Immediately upon the conclusion of the conference, German diplomats in New York sprang into action to have the conference conclusions endorsed by the Security Council. Russia, however, stalled. On 30 January 2020, Ambassador Heusgen appealed to the Council to “rapidly adopt a draft resolution that endorses the outcome of the Berlin conference.” It was only on 12 February 2020 that, after protracted negotiations, the Council adopted resolution 2510 (2020) by a vote of 14 in favour, with Russia abstaining. Again, Russia managed to deny Germany a quick and  complete success by making sure that the conference conclusions were endorsed belatedly and only as “an important element of a comprehensive solution to the situation in Libya.” Russia and China also made sure that Germany as chair of the Libya sanctions committee was unable to publish the interim report of the Panel of Experts on Libya.

Symbolism and gimmickry

Germany’s first presidency of the Security Council in April 2019 was marked by symbolism and, some would say, gimmickry. For the first time in the Council’s history, two members closely coordinated their consecutive presidencies. France – which presided over the Council in March – and Germany used their joint presidencies, to be known as the “jumelage”, to send a strong message about the unique cooperation between the two EU member States. However, the twin presidencies did not provide much added value – both in practical and political terms – and thus were not repeated in 2020 when the two States again held the presidency back-to-back in June and July. In any case, the joint presidencies seemed to be a German hobbyhorse. Germany seemed to read much more into it than France. Thus, it was revealing that Germany spoke of a “joint presidency” while France usually referred to the “joint presidencies.” The French permanent representative did not even consider it necessary to mention the project when he opened the first public meeting of the French presidency in March 2020. Franco-German cooperation on the Security Council also seemed to reach its limits whenever France’s vital interests or its position as a permanent member of the Council were at stake.

At its third meeting as president on 3 April 2019, Germany asked the Secretariat to open the heavy curtains covering the Council chamber’s two-storey-high windows which had been closed since a bazooka attack on the UN building in 1964. Ambassador Heusgen used the opportunity to state:

“We want to have an enlightened Security Council. I am very grateful to the Secretariat that our intervention to have the curtains opened was successful and we now have natural light in the Council.”

The German UN mission spread the news on Twitter, sharing photos of the Council chamber with open curtains and writing: “Transparency & openness to broader UN membership & civil society are crucial not just symbolically, but also in practice for credibility & legitimacy.” Other presidencies, however, did not follow the German example and in the few meetings that were held in person during the coronavirus pandemic in 2019 and 2020, the curtains remained closed again. Practicality prevailed over symbolism as open curtains made it more difficult to make videos and photographs of the meeting and also raised security issues.

At the meeting on 3 April 2019, Ambassador Heusgen also introduced another “innovation” to Security Council practice – a large hand-made hourglass from Thuringia which counted down about five and a half minutes after it was turned. This was a bit more than the “five minutes or less” recommended for statements in presidential note S/2017/507. The German UN mission again shared photos of the hourglass on Twitter, stating:

“Introducing a new tool to encourage effective Working Methods in the Security Council: an hourglass with flowing sand from Thuringia, Germany. The hourglass has a duration of 5 minutes & 30 seconds and will help speakers keep track of their speaking times.”

This innovation was greeted with some scepticism on the part of other Council members and Ambassador Heusgen was prompted to assure them that there was “an inalienable right to speak” and that nobody wanted to cut members short. He also promised to put forward a draft resolution about the new innovation, but this was never followed up.

The hourglass proved to be a gimmick without much effect, but which created some ill-feeling among members who felt bossed around and patronised. During the meeting on 3 April 2019, the representative of Haiti suggested that Ambassador Heusgen “put the hourglass down horizontally” and was given “some extra time”. A similar suggestion was made by the Russian representative a week later. The hourglass test was quickly discredited by not being applied equally to all speakers. For example, the hourglass was not employed when U.S. Vice President Pence addressed the Council on the situation in Venezuela and spoke for seventeen and a half minutes. This lack of consistency also prompted the Russian representative to state during the meeting on 25 April 2019:

“I see that you are turning over your wonderful hourglass once again, Mr. President. I have to tell you that it will not help you turn back time or change the past. Incidentally, I did not see the hourglass at the open debate on sexual violence in conflict (see S/PV.8514). Or is sexual violence in conflict the only subject that can be discussed interminably and with no regard for the clock?”

In the end, the German presidency had no legal basis to enforce the hourglass test as, according to the rules, speakers were only “encourage[d], as a general rule” to deliver their statements in five minutes or less. Thus, when Ambassador Heusgen made an attempt to cut short the Russian representative, Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told him: “You can turn your wonderful hourglass over as many times as you wish, but I will take as much time as I need.” It is thus not surprising that no other delegation made use of the hourglass and that it did not reappear during Germany’s second presidency in July 2020.

A third procedural innovation that was not well received was the request to dispense with diplomatic courtesies and avoid spending too much time on thanking briefers in the interest of improved efficiency. During the meeting on 3 April 2019, Ambassador Heusgen told his counterparts:

“We are not doing this to annoy members, but because we believe in the Security Council. We believe that this is a very important body and that, at a time when there are many difficult issues on the international agenda, we have to meet the expectations of our citizens and make it work.”

Again, Germany could not impose this innovation on Council members and so the request went largely unheeded and was not repeated during the second presidency.

While there were good reasons for Germany’s procedural suggestions to enhance efficiency and make Council debates more interactive, the new kid on the block trying to teach the old hands the ropes did not go down too well with some of the permanent members of the Security Council and may even have proved counterproductive.

Lack of transparency

Germany advocated an increase in transparency of the work of the Security Council. It did not, however, live up to this demand itself in all respects. During the coronavirus pandemic, most open and closed meetings of the Security Council were held by videoconference (VTC). To ensure the transparency of these VTC meetings, it was agreed that the Council president would, within 48 hours, circulate as a document of the Council a compilation document containing the interventions of the briefers and of all those Council members who requested the inclusion of their statements in the document. Members were therefore required to send their statements to the presidency in a timely manner. It merits observation that on numerous occasions Germany’s UN mission did not provide any written statements for the official record. This could have been a consequence of Ambassador Heusgen heeding his own advice to colleagues, not to read prepared speeches but to speak freely in order to make Council debates more lively and more interactive. In that case, 48 hours might not have been enough time to provide transcripts of the spoken word. This is rather unfortunate as there is thus no written record of some of the most interesting and acrimonious exchanges between Ambassador Heusgen and his Chinese and Russian counterparts, which will make it more difficult to revisit these exchanges in future – but that may have been another reason for not providing written statements.

Category: United Nations

DOI: 10.17176/20220627-172612-0

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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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