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Germany in the UN Security Council: The Past as Prologue

10 3 1
18.04.2019

Since the beginning of 2019, Germany holds a non-permanent seat at the Security Council for the term of 2019/2020. Its last membership in 2011/12 was overshadowed by strong disagreement between Germany and its traditional allies over the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and also initiated a broad debate about the political role of Germany on the international level in general. As political scientists usually turn to the results of the last election in order to mark the realm of expectation for the next election, a look into the history of Germany’s membership on the Council may, in a similar way, yield some insights for the current term.

How does the Council work and how are members elected?

The UN Security Council is the only organ in the UN able to pass binding resolutions. It is traditionally concerned with the protection of international peace and security, but its tasks have been growing substantially since the end of the Cold War. Topics now also cover new causes and drivers of conflict or impediments to the restoration of international peace and security and peacebuilding. Membership in the Council is a considerable opportunity to affect world politics, even though the horseshoe table in New York, to this day, mainly reflects the World’s power distribution in the aftermath of the Second World War, which has been widely criticized.[1] The Council consists of 15 members, of which five permanent members (UK, USA, France, China and Russia, the “P5”) hold veto-power, enabling them to prevent a solution from passing with a simple “no”.[2] The non-permanent members (or elected, “E10”), on the other hand, are elected to the Council for a period of two years by the General Assembly. They do not hold a veto but they still can play a relevant role, as a collective and individually.[3]

For a resolution to pass the Security Council it needs “an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members” (Article 27, UN Charter). The E10 do not have a veto but if a non-permanent Member even decides to abstain from voting, it can be seen as a way of refraining from adding legitimacy to the resolution, since its vote will not help the resolution gain the necessary nine votes. Accordingly, if less than four members of the E-10 decide to vote in favor of the resolution, it is not going to pass. Going beyond this “negative” power, the E10 also have opportunities for a positive impact. The scope of this impact depends on a number of factors ranging from traditions of foreign policy to available resources, the identification and exploitation of windows of opportunity and not least the diplomatic skills of the personnel of permanent missions. In addition to that, the relationship with the Secretary-General and the Secretariat is of crucial importance.[4]

Elected members will need to understand their contribution not only as one that benefits their national interest but the work of the Council and the UN at large. Former Council member representing Belgium, Johan Verbeke, therefore encapsulates the ideal profile as being hard-working, outcome oriented and dedicated to the issues of the Council. As initiatives within the realm of crisis management are tied to the dynamics of P5 relations, the E10 have increasingly turned to cross-cutting and thematic issues as a way of strategically gaining profile in the Council. Thematic issues can be non-traditional threats to peace and security such as terrorism, organized crime or climate change. Non-permanent members can secure a recognized leadership role regarding thematic issues especially through chairing a working group or a committee. The high-time for the E10 in order to strengthen their profile often is the month in which they take over the presidency of the council and their “agenda setting power” can be experienced in a very literal way.[5] Non-permanent membership in Council for member states of the United Nations is also a way of proving themselves on the international level and often serve as practical tests for further political ambitions. Germany’s term can also be regarded as a way of presenting itself as a possible candidate for permanent membership during its time on the Council.

Germany’s foci during past Council memberships

The current term is the sixth time that the (reunified West-) Germany is part of the Council. West Germany and the German Democratic Republic both joined the United Nations in 1973. West Germany was elected to the Council in 1977/78 and 1987/88; the GDR in 1980/1981. After its reunification, Germany held a seat in the council roughly every ten years: in 1995/96, 2003/04 and 2011/12.

German self-perception regarding its role on the international stage has changed over the years. Before reunification, East- and West Germany acted in strong accordance with their respective allies on the Council. West Germany additionally struggled with its colonial past in Namibia (former German South-West Africa) which led to a relatively strong involvement in the negotiations towards independence from South Africa. Both East and West Germany were keenly aware of the fact that they had to operate under the special context of the Cold War. This was one of the reasons why both countries did not engage substantially in peacekeeping operations for fear of getting too close to confrontation with one another in crisis situations.

Past memberships in the Security Council have been very diverse for Germany, each term characterized by a different composition of the national government, different acting diplomats, different political crises playing out in the Council as well as various thematic initiatives by Germany. Even though dedication in earlier years seemed at bit weaker than it is today, the principle importance of the United Nations was rated high by all German governments. Diplomats which were sent to New York were always high-ranking senior officials with broad experience and political skills.

To get a better overview over the past terms, similarities and differences will be briefly sketched. In terms of party politics, all three memberships have seen differently composed governments. During its first term as a reunified country from 1995 to 1996, Germany struggled with its role on the international level. Under the conservative-liberal coalition government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister Klaus Kinkel, the main emphasis in international relations was put on European integration and good relations with........

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