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German UN Association Turns 60

German ambassador to the UN
Germany's UN ambassador, Peter Wittig, center, flanked by Nabil Elaraby of the Arab League, left, and Michael Link, Germany's deputy foreign minister, right, in January 2012. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

BERLIN — Germany’s history as a member of the United Nations was complicated from the start. Its first step as a member began in 1973 with two German nations, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (which was the Communist state). Their induction as separate countries under two different names happened only after a series of treaties were signed and ratified in the early 1970s between the Federal Republic of Germany on the one side and Russia, Poland and the German Democratic Republic on the other. It also occurred only after the four allied powers, the United States, Russia, Britain and France, agreed on a power-sharing arrangement in Berlin, creating a political détente in Europe.

Once the treaties were ratified, the superpowers gave up their vetoes against the two German states’ attempts to join the UN as full but separate members. Yet political engagement by the Federal Republic of Germany at the UN began as early as the 1950s, when it joined all specialized agencies of the UN system and kept permanent observer missions in New York and Geneva. It also worked as an observer in numerous subsidiary organs of the world body.

Everything changed when reunification of the two countries occurred on Oct. 3, 1990, and the designation “Germany” came into being at the UN. Since then, Germany’s role has developed as an active player on geopolitical issues like peace-building, peacekeeping and disarmament as it worked as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in many terms (1977-78, 1987-88, 1995-96, 2003-2004) as well as since 2011. In addition, it has sought permanent membership in the council.

Academic scholars and cosmopolitan idealists developed a steadfast fascination with UN issues early on, and in 1952, they founded the German UN Association, known formally as Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen.

Attention by the general public in Germany toward the UN, however, remained modest until the mid-1990s, when interest increased as the country’s involvement in UN peacekeeping missions grew. (It is the fourth-largest financial contributor to peacekeeping operations, about 8 percent of the department’s total budget.) The German UN association engaged Germans in the work of the UN through public lectures and brochures, and it still does so rather successfully.

In 1962, the association’s efforts were strengthened by the founding of a journal called Vereinte Nationen (German Review on the United Nations). The journal proved to be an excellent source of information in documenting UN resolutions, covering the activities of UN bodies in reports and publishing speeches and essays of politicians as well as critical comments and research findings of UN scholars. The review has gained a reputation as one of the best UN-related journals in the academic world.

From its outlook, appearances and focus, the German UN association distinguishes itself considerably from UN associations in other countries. Unlike, for instance, UNA-USA, which educations youths through its Model UN program and advocates  for UN-supportive legislation at the US Congress, the German UNA does not actively petition the government but organizes  information campaigns on diverse UN activities, like environmental protection, peacekeeping and human rights protection. Moreover, it acts as a repository for UN research and a place for academic discussions. The members recently organized, for example, expert conferences on the revision of the statute for the International Criminal Court (Germany is a member of the court) and the current role of the UN on climate change.

Reflecting the association’s academic approach, frank comments on German UN policies in its lectures, conferences and journal are rare and cautious. The association’s careful stance might be influenced by the somewhat indifferent mind-set of the German public toward the UN.

Opinion poll data collected by Gallup from 2007 to 2010 found that just 54 percent of Germans approved of the UN’s work, and 25 percent disapproved of it – slightly better than the figures for the US (42 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval). German approval of the UN is markedly lower, however, than that of such longstanding European supporters as Norway (72 percent and 12 percent, respectively) and Denmark (69 percent and 14 percent, respectively).

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This relative deficit in public interest in the UN by Germans might still be related to its late accession to the UN (1973) and its late involvement in UN peacekeeping – to a large extent not before the mid-1990s. Yet the political timidity of the German UNA does not detract from its achievements in spreading information on the world body among Germans and in helping to teach generations of scholars and diplomats about its goals, structures, failures and gains.

The value of its work lies in a reliable cooperation of UN-related scholars with UN diplomats and university teachers. It is not by chance that a renowned commentary of the UN Charter, namely the reference work, “The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary,” edited in German and English editions by Bruno Simma, a German professor of international law who worked for the International Law Commission of the UN and was until recently a judge at the International Court of Justice, has been substantially supported by scientific contributions  from members of the German UNA.

Additional resources

Peacekeeping’s New Chief Intent on Urgent Issues

Climate Change, Migrations and Few Welcome Mats

Ban’s Latest High-Level Appointments

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).

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