Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Britain’s Plan for the UN Security Council Presidency: Forget About Brexit


Karen Pierce of Britain and Riyad Mansour of Palestine at the UN
Ambassador Karen Pierce of Britain in the Security Council with Riyad Mansour, center, Palestine’s envoy to the UN, May 15, 2018. Britain’s theme for its Council presidency is the effects of conflict on ordinary people, not a controversial issue. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

While Britain struggles to find an orderly way to exit the European Union after several years of attempting to do so, the country will highlight how other world problems affect ordinary people in its role as Security Council president in November. That focus definitely means avoiding the subject of Brexit!

Britain, which has been in a stalemate for more than three years over its decision to leave the European Union, feels pressure now more than ever to define its foreign policy post-Brexit, as the deadline to leave has been extended to Jan. 31. Discussing that topic openly, however, is not happening much at the United Nations.

Undoubtedly, the British mission to the UN, based in New York City, wants to help safeguard against meddling in its general election at home, on Dec. 12, so the mission is not going to talk publicly about actions embroiling the British Parliament or negotiations on Brexit in Brussels. To stay away from discussing its own sensitive politics, Britain appears to be using the Council presidency to concentrate on other countries’ problems.

Nevertheless, Ambassador Karen Pierce did say in a media briefing (below), that British diplomacy at the UN is not “in any way hindered by anything, to be absolutely honest.”

For November, Britain wants to remind the UN that civilians are the people most affected by conflicts across the world, hence its theme of the month: how international peace and security impacts ordinary citizens. To follow this focus, the Council just met — albeit privately — about the use of chemical weapons against civilians and hospitals in Syria and provided a follow-up session on women, peace and security. The Council will also be briefed on the G5 Sahel force in West Africa, Somalia and other problems in Syria.

In addition, it will hold consultations on Yemen, where a fragile peace agreement concerning the south of the country has recently been signed.

Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, is not scheduled to attend Security Council meetings this month.

While Theresa May, the former prime minister, said last spring that Britain wanted out as a guarantor on the Cyprus issue, the Council is holding another private meeting — on Cyprus — on Nov. 25, the same day that UN Secretary-General António Guterres plans to meet with Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders in Berlin. The goal is to have the two Cypriot leaders sign a memorandum of understanding to restart negotiations on the future of the island.

David Clay, the political coordinator of the British mission in New York, whom PassBlue interviewed for this column, refused to comment on Britain’s role in any new negotiations on Cyprus by the UN. (Britain has military bases in Cyprus.)

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they step into the role of Council president and highlights important data about their countries, including their carbon-emission levels and maternal death rates. These data can signal a country’s commitment to improving domestic policies on social and economic conditions and its support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, the maternal death rate for Britain was 10 for every 100,000 women, according to the latest data, from 2015. By contrast, the rate of the United States that year was 26.4/100,000.

This column follows others on the US, Bolivia, China, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany, Ivory Coast and Russia, among others.

The interview has been edited and condensed and includes information from Ambassador Pierce’s media briefing on Nov. 1 and previous interviews with her for PassBlue.

To hear the interview for this column, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, at Apple Podcasts, Pod Paradise, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, TuneIn, iTunes, Patreon or Google Play.

Britain’s Ambassador to the UN: Karen Pierce
Ambassador to UN Since: March 2018
Languages: English, Japanese
Education: London School of Economics (master’s degree in international strategy and diplomacy); Cambridge University (M.A. in English)
Her story, briefly: To know more about Ambassador Pierce, read our profile of her as Security Council president in 2018; our exclusive interview about how she dashes style with diplomacy; and our audio segment of this interview. Since she was not available for an interview, PassBlue met with David Clay, the country’s political coordinator since 2016. Before being posted in New York City, he worked in Egypt and Libya.

Here is what he said:

Ambassador Pierce told the media on Nov. 1, 2019, that Britain’s focus for the month is how international peace and security affects ordinary people. Why is it important for Britain to remind the UN of this issue; do you think it’s too-often forgotten? I think that the people should be at the core of what the UN does. And I think we will want to re-emphasize the importance of the UN’s role in serving the people during [our] presidency.

How is Britain going to emphasize how ordinary people are affected by conflicts? One way that we will do this is through the briefers, who will be part of the meetings [in the Security Council], making sure that we bring to the fore the voices of civil society.

One issue related to how conflict affects the general public is the alleged use of chemical weapons on citizens in Syria. Why did Britain keep the meeting (on Nov. 5) with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) private but allowed some countries to observe and speak? How will a closed meeting advance the cause of UN transparency? When we were looking at the format for this meeting, there were a couple of things we had to bear in mind. Firstly, we wanted to promote an interactive and frank exchange with the DG [director general of the OPCW], and sometimes having meetings in the open chamber does not necessarily encourage a frank, interactive exchange. But at the same time, we did feel that it was important that there was a degree of transparency in how we were approaching it. So we wanted to find a format that would allow other UN member states to observe the meeting, and in the case of Syria, to speak at the meeting should they wish to do so. The regular format for the Syria chemical weapons meeting is usually in closed consultations, but we thought because the DG was there, we wanted to shift the format to provide that extra level of transparency.

On Nov. 25, the Security Council will meet on Cyprus, where the UN has had a peacekeeping mission for decades. Cyprus is an issue close to Britain, as a guarantor to a peace process. A few months ago, however, your previous prime minister, Theresa May, said that Britain wanted out as a guarantor. Why? I’m not going to comment on the government’s position on the issue of being a guarantor. As far as the Council meeting is concerned, we are examining how it will work with the meeting with the [UN] secretary-general [in Berlin], and we want to find a way for the Council to support the secretary-general and his discussions with the parties.

So Britain’s presidency is happening while your country is at a serious turning point internationally, given the uncertainty around your exit from the European Union. Without going into great detail, can you describe how Brexit is affecting your foreign ministry now and what it means for the future? Personally, I think it’s a very exciting time to be a British diplomat. There’s lots going on politically; there’s an election going on in the UK [Dec. 12], so I’m not going to make any comments on Brexit. But from the perspective of the UK mission in the UN, I think there’s lots to be excited about. And we have a great leadership at the mission with lots of ambition for the UK, its role in the UN Council and in the UN more broadly.

Your country’s potential exit from the European Union means that Britain no longer has to abide by Article 34 of the European Union Charter, which means Britain is not required to speak as part of the European nations on the Security Council about politically related problems or agenda items. Are there specific issues that Britain may find challenging to speak about alone rather than as a member of the EU? It’s a difficult question; I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I would point to. It’s obvious we don’t quite know what the future relationship with the EU is going to look like. So it’s quite hard to answer the question. But I think there’s a lot that we currently cooperate with the European Union. And I think, in the future, if we do leave the European Union, then that will continue to work extremely closely with our European colleagues across the whole range of business, including the Security Council.

In September, a UN report said that Britain, the US and France may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen by arming and providing support to the Saudi-led coalition, which has starved civilians as a war tactic. How does Britain balance its economic and political relationship with Saudi Arabia, considering its poor record on human rights in its own country and military attacks on innocent people in Yemen? The relationship with Saudi Arabia is a long and very important one for the UK. Obviously, economically, but also politically, so I think what that relationship enables us to do is to have frank and honest conversations with Saudi Arabia about a range of issues, and certainly including [Jamal] Khashoggi. But also we have a very deep dialogue with them on the situation in Yemen. Obviously, Yemen is something that we’re going to be discussing during our presidency of the Security Council in a couple of weeks’ time. [Nov. 22] We continue to be very, very supportive of the efforts of the [UN] special representative, and we’ll look for opportunities during our presidency to underline that. There’s no military solution [but there], needs to be a political solution. And Saudi Arabia will be an important part of any political solution in Yemen.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech in the UN General Assembly in September, about artificial intelligence, was so fascinating for so late at night. (He said, for example, “Your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese”). What did you think of his remarks and was the  British mission involved in writing it? And why did Johnson talk about technology when there are so many other issues he could have talked about? I don’t think I’m revealing any state secrets when I say, the prime minister writes his own speeches. And so that was very much the perspective of the prime minister. And I think that you can choose a range of different approaches for speeches to the General Assembly. And I think, to be memorable, I think often, yes, focusing on a particular subject can actually be a more effective way to make a difference than covering a broad range of issues.

Country Profile
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: Boris Johnson
Foreign Affairs Minister: Dominic Raab
Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy headed by the prime minister
Year Britain Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the permanent-five Council members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Current Closest Allies on the Council: Europeans, US, Peru and Kuwait
Population: 66.4 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union (pending), Group of 7 (G7), Group of 20 (G20), NATO, Commonwealth
Adult Literacy Rate: 99% (2014)
Maternal Death Rate: 10 per 100,000 (2015)
GDP per Capita: Britain: $39,720; world: $10,172 (2017)
Emissions (tons of CO2/year): 5 (world average, 5)
Total Contributions to UN Operating Budget (rounded): $127 million (2019), the 6th-largest donor to the UN
Total Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Budget (rounded for six-month interim amount): $386 million, the 4th-largest donor of the permanent members of the Security Council
Contributions to UN Funds and Programs (rounded): $3 billion (2018)
Electric Power Consumption: 5MWh (world average: 3mWh)

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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Britain’s Plan for the UN Security Council Presidency: Forget About Brexit
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