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High hopes for Germany's UN Security Council membership

Michael Knigge
September 25, 2018

International expectations are high after Germany's bid for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council won overwhelming support earlier this year. But fulfilling them all could prove tricky.


As another potentially contentious and high-drama UN General Assembly kicks into high gear this week in New York's Turtle Bay neighborhood, there seems to be at least one issue that most diplomats and outside observers present can agree on: Germany's upcoming membership in the UN's most elite club, the Security Council, is a good thing.   

"People are looking forward to having Germany in the Security Council. That is clear," said Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU's ambassador to the UN.

"We are huge supporters of Germany and we have a strong strategic partnership with Germany," said Fatima Kyari Mohammed, the African Union's ambassador to the UN. "Their nomination to the Security Council was quite brilliant, for lack of a better word."

Fatima Kyari Mohammed, the African Union's ambassador to the UN
Fatima Kyari Mohammed, the African Union's ambassador to the UNImage: DW/M. Knigge

"Germany is an important country, it is one of the top UN contributors financially, so it has a lot of say. We would like for it to use it," said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch.

Voice for multilateralism

The strong backing for Germany's Security Council membership reflects overwhelming support for the country's bid back in June, when it received 184 out of 190 cast ballots.

It also reflects a view by many in the international community who see Berlin as, if not an outright counterweight to Washington, at least an essential voice for multilateralism and international cooperation, which are widely believed to be under threat in the age of Donald Trump.

That's because, under the president's leadership, the US has chartered a course that could be described as hostile to the United Nations. It exited the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated by key UN members, supported by a UN Security Council resolution and overseen by the UN's nuclear energy agency. It left the UN's Paris climate agreement, the UN's cultural organization, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council. And earlier this month it stopped its financial support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN and harsh critic of the organization, may have best summed up the administration's stance vis-a-vis the UN when he was asked recently at an event at a conservative legal group why Washington wasn't leaving the organization. He quoted Jeanne Kirkpatrick, another former US envoy to the UN who had said: "Because it's not worth the trouble."

The UN headquarters in New York
The UN headquarters in New YorkImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Jansens

Germany, while repeatedly emphasizing its willingness to work with the US wherever possible, has also repeatedly made clear that it is prepared to push back against Trump administration actions or policies it views as going against its principles or interests. Washington's exit of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord are examples of key areas of disagreement between both countries, as is the "America First" agenda espoused by the Trump administration.     

Countering Trump

"We cannot hide the fact that we have areas of disagreements with the Trump administration," said Almeida, the EU ambassador to the UN. "But at the same time we need to reach out to the United States administration and find areas of common work."

"I think this is what I have been seeing from the German government, and I think this is the right approach," he added.

EU Ambassador to the UN Joao Vale de Almeida
EU Ambassador to the UN Joao Vale de AlmeidaImage: DW/M. Knigge

Germany, according to AU envoy Mohammed, has already been countering some of the Trump administration's ill-advised stances. "I think Chancellor Merkel has been very vocal about it," she said. "And so our expectations are for Germany to strengthen and underline the importance of the multilateral system."

Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch's UN expert, said that it is extremely important for big and powerful countries like Germany to push back against the very dangerous signals that Trump and his administration are sending the world, particularly on human rights issues such as press freedom.

"The Putins, the Erdogans and the Dutertes — they are watching," Charbonneau said. "And they are seeing the green light when you have the president of the most powerful country in the world saying that journalists are public enemy No. 1."

Lowest common denominator

Though many UN members and stakeholders can broadly support Germany's nuanced stance, as well as three key issues that the country intends to focus on during its two-year Security Council tenure — crisis prevention, combating climate change and promoting human rights — things get more complicated when one looks at the details, and beyond Trump.

Though the EU naturally views Germany's Security Council membership as a strengthening of the bloc's influence in the council, Charbonneau would prefer for Berlin to view it as primarily a national seat.   

"One of the things we would like not to happen is for Germany to sort of treat this seat as looking at it as an EU seat first and not a German seat," Charbonneau said. Pointing to human rights issues in such EU countries as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, he said the European Union had become quite divided and Germany had been a moral leader on a number of human rights issues, such as accepting displaced people and treating them humanely.   

"It has been at odds with a number of European countries," Charbonneau said. "We prefer it that way. We don't want see a lowest common denominator situation."

If Germany could pull other countries up on human rights issues, not just in the European Union, but on the Security Council, too, Charbonneau said, he would consider this a big success.

Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch
Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights WatchImage: DW/M. Knigge

Moral leadership

Charbonneau cited a recent meeting on peacekeeping at which the Russian ambassador argued that human rights considerations had no business in peacekeeping missions.   

"This is what Russia and China are pushing at the UN," Charbonneau said, adding that Germany needs to lead efforts against that idea, both in the Security Council and in the budget committee, where Moscow and Beijing are trying to defund human rights posts.

Charbonneau conceded that it would be very difficult to push back against major powers such as Russia and China and, when necessary, even against traditional allies including the US or certain EU partners, but he said it would be critically important.       

"For all the time I have been following the UN for the better part of two decades, this is definitely one of the most difficult times," Charbonneau said. "We need moral leadership, and if Germany can provide that it would be great."

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