BERLIN — When Christoph Heusgen was appointed Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York City in 2017, there were critical comments by foreign policy experts and journalists in our country. They voiced doubts about whether Heusgen, who had been serving as security and foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel from 2005, would be the right choice for this top diplomatic job, particularly regarding Germany’s tenure on the Security Council for the 2019-2020 term.
The critics argued that such a behind-the-scenes string-puller would have problems with working in such a public position, dealing with the tough negotiating styles of the permanent members of the Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Contrary to these apprehensions, Heusgen, 66, showed a remarkable performance representing Germany in the Council. From the beginning, he left no doubts that Germany would commit itself to strengthening the Council as a multilateral institution. Heusgen’s commitment focused on three aspects: the working methods, the thematic issues and, most important, the conflict-mediation and peacekeeping activities of the Council. Heusgen’s ambassadorship in New York City — including enduring the epicenter of the Covid-19 virus for several months last spring — ended in June, and he heads back to Berlin after a few weeks’ sightseeing in the city with his family. He said he’d like to see the Statue of Liberty.
As to the working methods, Heusgen called on his colleagues to take the principles and rules of the Council more seriously to make the debates more authentic and interesting for the world watching by public webcast. In March 2019, he asked his colleagues to stop reading aloud their prepared speeches and instead start a more earnest discussion of the problems on the agenda of each meeting.
At the beginning of Germany’s rotating Council presidency, in April 2019, he put an 18-inch-high Thuringian wooden hourglass on his desk in the Council to remind his fellow members to keep track of the recommended speaking time limit of five minutes (he added 30 seconds more for the sand to fully drop). In the same meeting, he told the UN Secretariat people who assist Council sessions to open the curtains on the full-length windows of the Council chamber facing the East River. The curtains had apparently been closed for more than 50 years for safety reasons.
On the German mission’s Twitter account, he pressed home his intention behind the symbolical curtain opening: “Transparency & openness to broader @UN membership & civil society are crucial not just symbolically, but also in practice for credibility & legitimacy.”
If we take the reactions of his colleagues to these measures as proof of Heusgen’s success in increasing the efficiency of the Council, he has done well. Most of his colleagues welcomed his changes with appreciative comments, except for the Russian and Chinese diplomats, who were apparently irritated by the creative symbolic gestures of the Council newcomer.
As for the thematic issues, where Germany in previous tenures successfully put forth substantial resolutions on topics such as women, peace and security and climate change and security, Heusgen faced considerable resistance from his American colleagues this time around. The Trump administration was not at all interested in extending the Council’s approval on both topics. Germany nevertheless invested much energy to reach some preparatory gains for potential improvements in the future on the topic of climate change and security.
Yet Heusgen has impressed diplomats and journalists even more by his perseverance and moral clarity regarding the wide-ranging international conflicts the UN contends with; above all in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria.
Heusgen and his team invested a lot of effort and tenacity to keep the political processes going in the above-mentioned conflicts and to establish new negotiation formats. His fellow elected members, called the E10, as well as the British and French UN ambassadors, roundly praised Heusgen’s commitment to multilateralism.
Many observers were impressed in particular by the moral clarity shown by Heusgen in July 2020 in his persistent fight — with his Belgian Council counterpart — to keep border crossings into Syria open for humanitarian aid supplies to get in. After several draft resolutions were rejected by Russia and China to renew the cross-border mechanisms, Germany and Belgium, the penholders on the agenda item, realized that the two veto holders would agree only to one crossing. In his speeches during the negotiations on the final resolution, Heusgen spoke with remarkable frankness, blaming his Russian and Chinese counterparts for failing to ensure that lifesaving aid would reach Syrians who needed it.
He repeated his criticism once more in a statement from the two penholders in the Council on Dec. 16, 2020, saying: “Two permanent members of the Council have consistently disregarded the humanitarian principles . . . , have prioritized their support for the Syrian authorities over the humanitarian imperative.” (The single cross-border mechanism is up for a renewal vote on July 8.)
Heusgen has demonstrated that when the Security Council is unable to act efficiently, it is important to call on UN member states to adhere to the basic norms of international cooperation and humanitarian principles laid down in the UN Charter and, most of all, to abide by international law. Heusgen has done a good job as Germany’s UN ambassador.
This is an opinion essay.
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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).