MACROSCOPE: Germany on the Security Council - The Score at Halftime

Germany approaches the second half of its term on the UNSC. What has it achieved? And what comes next?

Author: Richard Gowan (UN Director, International Crisis Group)

Overall, German diplomats can be reasonably satisfied with the first year of their term, although it has not been an easy ride. Germany has been an ambitious Council member, with a clear agenda to promote a rules-based international order and human rights. It has also fostered better European cooperation at the UN, and found itself playing an unexpectedly prominent role in debates over how the UN should support Sudan’s transition to civilian rule. 

But Germany’s level of ambition has sometimes caused it trouble. 

The United States came close to vetoing a German resolution on fighting sexual violence in conflict, claiming that it endorsed abortion. Permanent Representative Christoph Heusgen -- who has a reputation for unusual plain speaking in UN debates – infuriated China by leading criticisms of Beijing’s repressive tactics in Xinjiang in a closed Council meeting this summer. 

Here are the highs and lows of Germany’s term to date, and predictions for what comes next.


German successes

Germany’s overarching theme in the Security Council has been strengthening the rules of multilateral cooperation. In this vein, it used its presidency in April to (i) launch a “Humanitarian Call for Action,” demanding greater respect for international humanitarian law; (ii) promulgate a council statement supporting the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT), which is up for review in 2020; and (iii) table a resolution on preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict. 

Although the latter initiative ran into considerable opposition from China, Russia, and the U.S. (see below), this effort to promote rules-based cooperation was well received by the wider UN membership. At a time when the Trump administration has been dismissive of multilateralism, Germany’s commitment to international cooperation appeals to what one European ambassador calls a “silent majority” of diplomats who retain some faith in the UN.

Germany has cannily coordinated its defense of multilateralism with France and the other European members of the Security Council (Belgium, Poland, and the United Kingdom). Prior to 2019, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Ambassador Heusgen signaled that forging a stronger EU identity in the council would be a priority. There has been progress on this front. 

Taking advantage of the fact that France’s Security Council presidency in March immediately preceded Germany’s, the two powers declared that they would run a “joint presidency,” cooperating especially closely on humanitarian matters. Germany has also frequently coordinated with its European partners on joint statements by the “EU5” Council members on issues including Israeli-Palestinian relations and Syria, a practice that Sweden initiated in the council in 2017-2018.

German, French, and British diplomats have additionally released a series of “E3” statements, addressing not only the Iranian nuclear file (a longtime area of cooperation for the trio) but also North Korea’s regular missile tests in breach of past UN resolutions. The E3’s willingness to call out Pyongyang has risked irritating both the U.S. and China, and to a lesser extent the other EU members of the Council. Washington has wanted to minimize diplomatic spats with North Korea at the UN this year, to avoid upsetting its nuclear talks with the DPRK, and has only grudgingly supported the E3’s initiatives. China is opposed to any new UN penalties on Pyongyang, meaning that the E3’s joint positions have little practical effect. Belgium and Poland have argued that E3 coordination splits the EU5 into first and second-class categories.

Nonetheless, Germany’s cooperation with France and Britain on Iran and the DPRK has been a useful way for the three powers to show that they continue to cooperate on foreign policy despite their disputes over Brexit. The UK has been a keen participant in both E3 and EU5 coordination.  While Brexit is now certain to take place on 31 January, Berlin could still use the E3 (or perhaps a new “EU4+1”) format to coordinate with the UK in the Council in 2020.


An opportunity for Berlin in Khartoum?

Given the rifts in the Council over issues like the DPRK, EU coordination on such high-stakes crises may only have limited substantive results. But Berlin has had an unexpected opportunity to influence policy in another trouble spot – Sudan – this year. This is partly a matter of luck. 

In late 2018, the UK offered Germany the chance to be “co-penholder” (effectively joint diplomatic coordinator) for Security Council discussions on Sudan. British diplomats admit that this was another goodwill gesture aimed to show that they could still be good partners despite Brexit. But it suddenly became more important when the Sudanese military overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in response to protests in Khartoum in April of this year.

In the wake of Bashir’s fall, Germany and the UK were initially unable to persuade other Council members to engage seriously with events in Sudan, due mainly to Chinese and Russian opposition. But after the African Union negotiated a transitional government and a road map to civilian government in Khartoum there has been a little more space for Berlin to act. German officials have been particularly focused on talks on how to maintain a UN advisory presence in Sudan – replacing the peacekeeping operation in Darfur, which is winding down – to help channel support to the transitional authorities and monitor risks of new conflict. 

British diplomats, initially skeptical about their German counterparts’ knowledge of African affairs, now say they are impressed with their partners. It would be wildly premature to categorize Sudan as a German “success” at the UN, but it is an opportunity for Berlin to contribute to crisis resolution in a country that (for reasons relating to migration, humanitarian concerns, and regional security) Berlin wants to stabilize. Sudan’s transition still has a long way to go, but Germany has a found a worthy cause to pursue at the UN.


German frustrations

In contrast to this tentative progress on Sudan, German officials have been repeatedly frustrated by their inability to engineer significant Security Council action on other crises

Libya has been a particular headache. The Libyan situation deteriorated in April, during Germany’s presidency of the Security Council, when Field Marshal Haftar (the de facto ruler of the east of the country) launched an offensive to oust the UN-backed government from Tripoli. The U.S., apparently supporting Haftar as the most viable power-broker in Libya, refused to back either a Security Council resolution or even a statement on the crisis.

Haftar’s offensive failed to capture Tripoli, and Germany has tried mitigate the ensuing violence in Libya, offering to convene a conference on the situation in Berlin. But the U.S. refusal to back early UN action on the crisis was symptomatic of recurrent frictions between Germany and the U.S. in the Council this year. These came to a head in April over a flagship German resolution on combating sexual violence in conflict – a priority for Berlin – which Washington threatened to veto because it included a reference to “reproductive rights” that Republicans, including Vice President Pence’s advisers, saw as an endorsement of abortion.

The German resolution was already controversial. China and Russia had insisted that Berlin should drop a reference to a new international legal mechanism to target those using sexual violence as a weapon of war. Even Berlin’s European allies and NGOs focused on women, peace, and security issues felt that the draft text was too long, and worried that a U.S. veto would undermine the existing UN consensus on fighting sexual crimes. When Washington threatened to use its veto, German diplomats initially briefed that they were willing to risk this threat, assuming that the U.S. would back down in the end. But the Americans did not budge, and Germany agreed to cut the contentious language to get resolution 2467 adopted. 

Despite this fuss over its adoption, the German resolution strengthened the normative framework for addressing sexual violence in conflict. Yet this episode showed how German officials cannot circumvent the rules of the Council that vest most power in the hands of the P5. 

Ambassador Heusgen and his team have frequently had to calculate if and when to offend the P5, and they remained willing to take more risks than most elected Council members. In June, Heusgen joined the U.S. in raising Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang behind closed doors in the Council, seriously upsetting Chinese diplomats (Germany and other Western countries have followed up with further criticisms of China in the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, compounding the offense). In September, Germany, Belgium, and Kuwait took on Russia over Syria, tabling a resolution demanding a ceasefire by Russian and Syrian government forces in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib. The Russians vetoed this with Chinese support, although they reduced military operations in Idlib at around the same time. 

At times, Germany has run into trouble with P5 members over apparently trivial issues. Also in September, China threatened to veto a routine resolution prepared by Germany and Indonesia renewing the mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan because it did not contain a complimentary sentence or paragraph on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. (Some diplomats say that Germany’s wish to include some strong language on climate-change-related security threats was also a sticking point). The Chinese compromised relatively quickly on this point. But it seems probable that Germany’s second year on the Security Council will be marked by further tensions with the P5. What can Berlin hope to achieve?


Navigating the Security Council in 2020

Heading into its second year in the Security Council, Germany has signaled that one of its main priorities will be to address climate change and security issues. There is a precedent for this.  During its last stint on the Council in 2011-2012, Germany engineered a council statement on addressing climate change (S/PRST/2011/15) that remains the basis for the body’s discussions of the topic today. In the interim, many UN members, notably including China, have become more open to talking about environmental causes of conflict, so it is natural that Berlin should return to the theme. Many German civil society groups would like to see a strong UN resolution outlining the ways climate change fuels conflicts that could inspire greater efforts to tackle carbon emissions. 

This is dangerous ground. American officials have indicated that they will not accept any Security Council resolution or text containing the words “climate change” next year (although less direct language about environmental factors might be acceptable). The Trump administration, set to quit the Paris agreement in 2020, is likely to treat any German proposal on the issue in the Security Council just as brutally as it treated the 2019 text on reproductive health. Berlin will probably have to trim its ambitions and aim for a limited and carefully-worded resolution – perhaps authorizing more environmentally-focused analysis by UN political officers – if it does not want to run into another big showdown with Washington.

Environmental activists might argue that it is better to call out the U.S. rather than bow to its preferences.  But it is worth keeping in mind that if President Trump loses the 2020 election, a Democratic administration could take office in 2021 with a new focus on climate issues. In that case, Germany’s successors on the Security Council (which will include two of Canada, Ireland, and Norway, all like-minded on environmental issues) could achieve more in this field than Berlin can now. Germany may be best advised to aim for limited climate wins in 2020. 

In the meantime, Berlin has a concrete – and possibly short-lived – chance to make a more concrete contribution to assisting the transition in Sudan in its remaining time on the Council, and across the UN system more generally. Some of the most widely-respected recently-elected members of the Council have earned credit for helping manage specific crises. Australia and Luxembourg engineered a significant series of agreements at the UN in getting humanitarian aid into Syria in 2013-2014. Sweden helped broker a limited ceasefire in Yemen a year ago.

Germany can follow that example if it is willing to invest in Sudan, guiding Security Council talks on the future UN presence in the country (which would optimally provide political assistance to the new authorities and support AU mediation efforts) while linking this to financial aid to the struggling economy through other parts of the UN, EU, and World Bank. Berlin did not expect to spend its Security Council term focusing on Sudan. But it might be one crisis where Germany can use its time on the Council to make a substantial impact.  

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