Enshrined Impotence

Germany Joins a Dysfunctional Security Council

Germany is once again part of the UN Security Council for a two-year stint. But the council's inability to put a stop to the violence in Syria and Yemen in recent years shows the need for reform is more urgent than ever. Can Berlin make a difference?

Natan Dvir / DER SPIEGEL
Thursday, 1/10/2019   03:27 PM

On a day in spring, one that is not unimportant for Christoph Heusgen's career, the German diplomat is wearing a bright red football jersey. It is the end of May and four teams from four different regions of the world have gathered on the grass next to the United Nations headquarters in New York. There are a handful of former professional players on hand for the event and Heusgen, Germany's UN ambassador, is playing goalkeeper. The occasion is a celebration of football, but also of its host, Germany.

The tournament came just a few days before the UN General Assembly was to decide what countries would be selected for temporary membership seats on the UN Security Council. And Germany was ultimately a nearly unanimous choice, receiving 184 of 193 possible votes. Since Jan. 1, it has once again been part of the 15-member group.

"We launched our campaign with a clear agenda," Heusgen says in his roomy corner office in the German House, located not far from UN headquarters. And many countries, he says, expressed interest in the German idea. "We will push for a comprehensive concept of security. Issues like conflict prevention, climate change and security, the security implications of human rights and women in peace processes must play an important role."

Heusgen is a guarded person, a man with perfect posture and deliberate gestures. His words are reserved and carefully considered, a manner of communication he honed as a Chancellery official, where he served as Angela Merkel's foreign policy adviser for 12 years. The 63-year-old Heusgen appears to have adopted the chancellor's cautious style.

In the last several years, the world has become louder and rougher around the edges, making Germany's Security Council membership a potentially challenging undertaking. It remains to be seen how far Berlin will get with its idea of conflict prevention when others seated around the horseshoe-shaped table aren't afraid to use military force if their national interests are at stake. Clever ideas and appeals to human rights aren't likely to impress countries like China, Russia and the U.S.

The chancellor seems to hold a similar view, as evidenced by a line in her traditional New Year's speech in which she mentioned the Security Council: "It is in our own interest to take on more responsibility." It is a sentiment she has voiced frequently in recent months as a way of getting Germans used to the idea that foreign and security policy are becoming more difficult. She did not, however, give any indication as to what, exactly, this new responsibility would mean for the country.

'Difficult Decisions'

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also declined to offer specifics. "By way of the Security Council membership, we are moving closer politically to the crises and conflicts," he said in a recent interview. "We won't be able to duck away from difficult decisions."

Does that mean that Germany should get involved if its allies take military action again in response to the renewed used of chemical weapons in Syria? Not necessarily, Maas said. "There are a number of crises in which we play mediating roles. In such instances, it may be wiser to exercise restraint so as not to lose that position."

Just what "difficult decisions" might look like is something that previous German UN ambassadors have experienced. In 2003, the U.S. urged the Security Council to legitimize its planned offensive against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- ultimately without success, despite numerous emergency meetings. Then, in 2011, the body gave the green light to a NATO-led military strike against the Gadhafi regime in Libya. Germany abstained from that vote and was widely criticized for doing so.

There are several potentially contentious issues facing the Security Council this year as well. In the coming weeks, the escalation on the Turkish-Syrian border could develop into the next major crisis, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having announced his intention to launch a military offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria. The buildup of tanks and other materiel in the region is already underway. If Erdogan does in fact attack the Kurds -- who received significant support from the West in recent years in the fight against Islamic State -- then the Security Council would be faced with a thorny dilemma: What sanctions and countermeasures should be employed in response? Germany, too, would have to take a stance on the issue.

The Security Council is able to pass internationally binding resolutions that must be enacted everywhere in the world, with military force if necessary. No other body on the planet has that power. It must only be united enough to assemble nine yes votes without a veto from any of the five permanent members.

But agreement is difficult to come by, particularly on the most important issues, and disagreement is frequently enough to make the body impotent -- often with horrific consequences. The war in Syria, for example, was frequently addressed in the Security Council, but little came of it. The council has also proven unable to stop the ongoing violence in Yemen and South Sudan in addition to the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Many Different Hells

Dag Hammarskjöld, the legendary second UN general secretary who died in 1961, once said: "The United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell." It is a sentence that can be found on the wall not far from the Security Council chamber, and many of those who took jobs with the organization in the hopes of making the world a better place walk by it every day. But they all know that the world is still home to many different hells.

In the case of Myanmar, it is primarily the Chinese who block decisions, with the country uninterested in seeing the Security Council take any action against the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya, a situation for which "ethnic cleansing" appears to be the most accurate description. Beijing is afraid that the world body's attention would then shift to its own treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans.

If anything, Russian President Vladimir Putin is even more blatant in wielding his country's veto power. Syria is extremely important to Putin, much more important than it is to the West. It is the conflict zone where he defends his country's claim to still being a superpower. The result is that the Security Council has been blocked from taking any meaningful decisions that might alleviate the suffering in Syria.

And then there is the America of Donald Trump. "We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism," he announced to the UN General Assembly in September. Trump sees multilateralism merely as a trick to weaken the United States.

When Washington's then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced her resignation last fall, she said: "It was a blessing to go into the UN with body armor every day and defend America." She made it sound as though she had been engaged in armed conflict.

Such is the situation: China is becoming more confident, Russia is still stubborn, and the U.S. can no longer be relied on. These are difficult times for those on the Security Council who are interested in beating back the flames of hell.

From his office, Christoph Heusgen looks out over the East River. On the opposite shore, the huge red letters of a digital clock can be seen, counting down what's left of Trump's term in office. But Trump is just one of the problems that the council must deal with. Another is its own antiquated structures, which reflect the world as it looked at the end of World War II.

A Fundamental Reform

Two abbreviations, P5 and E10, represent the strict class structure that defines the council: On top are the "permanent five," while below them are the "elected 10." Heusgen would like to work toward greater cooperation between the two groups. "I always say to the P5, you should actually be interested in the E10 becoming more involved because these countries are legitimized by way of an election. You should be prepared to share power to increase the Security Council's legitimacy."

Even better, though, would be a fundamental reform of the council. Germany has long insisted that the Security Council be expanded and that it receive a permanent seat along with Brazil, India and Japan. In his appearance before the General Assembly in September, Foreign Minister Maas said: "We should stop beating around the bush and finally start real negotiations on Security Council reform." Just a few days ago, he reiterated that the body needs to better reflect the world's power structures than is currently the case.

To prepare for its role as a member of the council, Germany was given observer status for a time, allowed to sit in one of the red chairs located on the periphery at a respectful distance from the inner circle of seats occupied by active members.

On this particular day, the situation in Ukraine is on the agenda, and before things get going inside the chamber, the ambassadors from eight European Union member states, including Heusgen, issue a joint statement outside. The representative from Britain, Karen Pierce, speaks into the microphone, expressing the group's "concern regarding the degraded humanitarian situation in the conflict area" in the eastern part of Ukraine. The statement also urges Russia to put a stop to the elections planned for the two separatist areas of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Later, in the chamber, two UN experts report on the catastrophic supply situation in the separatist areas before the 15 members read out their positions. The only thing up for a vote on this day is a procedural question which, in accordance with council rules, cannot be vetoed. The result is seven no votes and seven abstentions, an absurd display of politics that will have no consequences whatsoever. The elections in Luhansk and Donetsk will take place as planned a short time later.

For the Europeans, the vote was something of a test. Initially, it looked as though Russia would be isolated, but the seven abstentions, led by China, revealed the bitter truth: When it comes to human rights, the Security Council is deeply divided.

Destructive Thinking

Nevertheless, French UN Ambassador François Delattre speaks with passion about the UN's future. "We believe in the United Nations more than ever," he says. "With their help, we must try to establish partnership relations among the great poles of the world, Europe being one of them." Should that not happen, he says, the world will revert ever further into the old manner of thinking that focused on spheres of influence. "And we as French and Germans know how destructive that kind of thinking was in our shared past."

As a symbol of the French-German present, there are two model Airbus jets on the windowsill of Delattre's 44th-floor office. He hopes that Germany's return to the Security Council will once again lend Europe a "stronger voice on the world stage." Delattre is well aware of all the arguments consistently presented for why that won't happen and knows that it has become difficult to make progress on many issues. The demands have become immense, he says.

"An unprecedented number of crises, 20 or more" are constantly competing for space on the agenda. The architects of the UN, he says, assumed "four or five concurrent crises," not more. Speaking in front of the General Assembly in September, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the UN threatened to become a "symbol of powerlessness," just like the League of Nations that preceded it. He called on UN member states "to forge together a new model."

Despite everything, Delattre says, a commitment to the UN is worth it, with North Korea being the best example in his estimation. In response to the Pyongyang regime's missile and nuclear weapons tests, the Security Council tightened sanctions against the country on three separate occasions in 2017. Resolutions 2371, 2375 and 2397 are "a game changer," Delattre believes, ultimately forcing North Korea back to the negotiating table.

The sun slowly begins slipping behind the Manhattan skyscrapers and the ambassador's next appointment looms. But there is one thing he wants to address before ending the discussion: UN reform. "The enlargement of the Security Council is a question of highest strategic priority for France." He emphasizes every single word in the sentence.

In addition to Germany, Brazil, India and Japan, he believes that Africa should also receive permanent representation, the continent that Macron raved about in front of the General Assembly, saying it was home to "the most fervent champions of multilateralism" today. The pressure to reform will only get bigger, Delattre says as he heads for the door -- and a bit of his optimism seems to remain behind in the room after he has left.

The year 2018 was not a good one for the Security Council. After its failures in Syria, it also failed to put an end to the violence in Yemen, where millions continue to suffer amid shelling, famine and disease.

Continuing Slaughter

But the Saudis, who are a primary driver of that conflict, are heavily supported by the U.S., Britain and, to a lesser degree, France -- the three most powerful Western democracies on the Security Council. In spring 2015, the council made the momentous decision of passing Resolution 2216 with 14 yes votes to allow Saudi Arabia to head up a military coalition for the purpose of crushing the Houthi uprising in Yemen. It marked the beginning of the slaughter that continues today.

Former British Foreign Minister David Miliband, who has been president of the aid organization International Rescue Committee for the last five years, is sharply critical of Resolution 2216. He says it provides justification for war but no path to peace. For years, there was no new resolution pertaining to Yemen, in part because of Britain. In the Security Council, responsibilities are divvied up as so-called "penholderships." The penholder for a specific region drafts plans and leads the discussion. Britain is the penholder for Yemen.

The diplomat who is responsible for Yemen in New York rejects Miliband's critique. If it had been possible in 2015 to predict how the situation in Yemen would develop, she says, "then we would probably have formulated the resolution differently." Why, though, did Yemen go unaddressed by the council for years? As pen holder, the British could have done something about it. Was London merely afraid of displeasing a rich and powerful ally?

"We should not confuse activity with action," the diplomat replies. Britain, she insists, is deeply committed to avoiding the same mistakes in Yemen that had been made in addressing the conflict in Syria. "There were many resolutions on Syria, but none had any real effect." Only the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi substantially changed the situation. There is now a new Yemen resolution aimed primarily at improving the food supply situation in the country. But it is not a path to peace.

A few floor's above the British diplomat's office, there is a gigantic portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld hanging on the wall, with the Swedish diplomat Carl Skau working at the desk below. His country's Security Council membership came to an end on Dec. 31 and the ambassador is now well aware of the effect a non-permanent member can have. "My impression is that we were able to have more of an influence than we expected," he says.

At Sweden's request, the Security Council focused in a January 2017 discussion on the deleterious effects of climate change on the security situation in the Lake Chad region in Africa, paying particular attention to consequences such as impoverishment, flight and the growing threat of terror. A short time later, the council passed a resolution aimed at protecting the civilian population.

Skau says that the resolution marked the first acknowledgement that climate change also poses security questions "in a country-specific situation." Sweden immediately took advantage of the opportunity to anchor similar understandings in negotiations over countries like Somalia and South Sudan. Skau is confident that the Germans will build on that achievement.

Patient Defense of Principles

The European idea that only international law can guarantee lasting peace continues to survive in the Security Council, an idea that is reflected in each new resolution. And each resolution is an attempt to counteract despotic rule, to battle the flames of hell on earth. For as long as there is no better institution, it is not naïve to defend the council against blanket criticism. International law, after all, is rooted in the patient defense of principles.

That is also true for crises that do not receive as much attention. Almost two-thirds of the decisions taken by the Security Council in 2017 pertained to Africa. There is no other continent where the United Nations has a greater presence, which is also a function of the fact that it is frequently the case that none of the five veto powers have specific interests there.

Resolution 2439, for example. It was designed to improve the protection of humanitarian and medical aid workers who are seeking to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus in Congo. Ethiopian diplomat Biruk M. Demissie sees the resolution as a great success. Ebola, he says, isn't just a dreadful epidemic in the region, it is also a threat to peace and security. "As a member of the Security Council, we have the responsibility of representing all of Africa," Demissie says. He is pleased that the Germans are also now members.

The expectations are significant, and not just in Africa. Now, the Germans just have to answer the question as to what role they want to play on the world stage.

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