Every eight years, Germany joins the playing field of major powers at the United Nations. Newly elected members to the UN Security Council like Germany have to prove themselves vis-à-vis the five permanent members every time anew. In the midst of political quarrels about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the daily management of peace operations, the attention on the core purpose of the Council, to maintain international peace and security, gets lost all too easily. Germany should thus strive to strengthen peace processes and mediation efforts through the Security Council.
Germany is an unusually resourceful non-permanent member
Non-permanent members of the Security Council only have limited influence. The veto power of China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA is not the only reason for that. Those countries also possess continuous experience in the negotiations, issues, and countries that shape the Council’s agenda. In this game of major powers, smaller members might at most be able to build bridges, improve working methods, or make small substantial suggestions.
As fourth largest financial contributor to the UN’s regular budget and, despite deficits, an important actor on the diplomatic floor, Germany needs to aim higher. In a number of countries on the Security Council’s agenda, German diplomats already play a substantial role. In those cases, the German government should use its membership in the Council as an additional diplomatic forum, whose approaches and instruments have their own benefits. Together with its European partners Germany can, for example, promote the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran, demand humanitarian access and accountability for war crimes in Syria, prepare a peace operation in Ukraine, support the negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and shape the reconstruction of liberated areas in Iraq. Germany already has a leading position in all these contexts due to its existing channels and contacts – this should be reflected in the Security Council.
Peace operations need to be guided by a political strategy
Reaching consensus among its members on the overarching political objectives that should guide its crisis management is probably the biggest challenge for the Security Council. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) already demanded in its seminal 2015 report that peace operations should always follow a political strategy. Otherwise they run the risk of being driven by military considerations, and of falling prey to the diverging interests of the conflict parties. In fragile contexts such as Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, there are incessant threats to the civilian population that can justify international protection measures, as the former UN staff member Ralph Mamiya observes. Yet without a political process, there can be no structuring priorities that could guide the strategic deployment of scarce resources and a foreseeable withdrawal of international troops.
Naturally, there are manifest reasons for the lack of political strategies in the UN Security Council. For one thing, these are genuinely difficult questions without obvious and easy solutions. Moreover, the work of the Council relies on hard-fought compromises, which result in frequently vague or complicated language. Furthermore, in some situations, such as in South Sudan, there is no functioning peace agreement that could guide the actions of a peace operation.
Germany should encourage strategic thinking in the Security Council
Germany cannot remove these structural deficits in two years. Neither does it have the diplomatic capacities to work out a strategy for each situation on the Security Council’s agenda . The German government thus needs to set clear priorities. German diplomats can encourage the Security Council to think more strategically. The more interactive and informal the discussions before the proper negotiations are, the more fruitful the latter are in many cases.
The German government could take its cue from Sweden, which, together with Peru, organized a retreat for all ambassadors in the Security Council this year. The Permanent Mission in New York can also organize events at the sidelines of official meetings and informal briefings in line with the Arria formula. This would bring the perspectives of civil society organizations of affected countries as well as experts on current mediation and negotiation processes to Manhattan. Lastly, Germany could organize a thematic debate on the contribution of the whole UN system to peace processes during one of its two monthly presidencies of the Security Council. This debate should address the limitations of the Security Council head on and tackle its cooperation with other UN entities such as special envoys, special rapporteurs, and the UN Development Program.
Using clear listing criteria for targeted sanctions
The improvement of the Council’s working atmosphere and quality of discussion aside, Germany should focus its “peace first” attention on three core instruments of the Security Council: refining targeted sanctions, the accountability of troop contributing countries, as well as the organization of more flexible visiting missions by Security Council diplomats.
The Security Council maintains 14 sanctions regimes, some of which explicitly aim to support peace and transition processes, for example in South Sudan, Mali, or Libya. Theoretically, such sanctions should not primarily punish individuals, but incentivize them to participate in peace processes in a constructive manner through travel bans and asset freezes. In reality, the restraints of those sanctions are often too slow and too backwards-oriented to actually influence mediation efforts substantially. Germany has contributed to the reform of UN sanctions since the late 1990s. As a member of the sanctions committees (and chair of some of them), it should promote the implementation of clear listing and delisting criteria in every single case.
Vetting troop contributing countries
Hardly anything is as damaging to the reputation of UN peace operations as incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), as well as a lack of readiness to act decisively to protect civilians at risk in their vicinity. Secretary-General António Guterres has already introduced important reforms in this area. Yet, German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, when asked about his plans to tackle the issue in the Security Council at a recent event in New York , could only think of the inclusion of more women in troop contingents. However, a more stringent and systematic vetting of all troop contingents regarding their previous human rights records in domestic settings, would be more important in this context. The deployment of 49 non-vetted Sri Lankan soldiers in Lebanon this year demonstrated that the current UN procedures are not sufficient.
Using its increased credibility as troop contributor in Mali, Germany should promote stronger accountability of all troop contributing countries. Based on an existing Security Council resolution, the UN secretary-general should ban states that do not sufficiently investigate allegations of sexual exploitations and abuse against their soldiers from future missions until they improve their procedures. Similarly, performance assessments of troop contingents, such as the ones requested by the Security Council for the UN Mission in South Sudan after a special review, should also be conducted for all other missions.
Make visiting missions more flexible and geared towards crisis management
German diplomats like to point out that they would prioritize conflict prevention in the Security Council. Rarely do they go into the details of the Council’s added value in political crises – and where it might be counterproductive. One important instrument for early crisis management are visiting missions of Security Council diplomats. Under the leadership of up to three members, representatives of all 15 member states fly to a region to talk to the relevant actors on the ground.
Germany should prepare and lead such a mission if the opportunity presents itself. Potential destinations could be Sudan or South Sudan, where Germany has supported dialogue and mediation processes. At the same time, Germany should strive for more flexible mission formats, which could deploy a small delegation of the Security Council and key UN officials more quickly.
Stand up for peace and prevention
A stronger focus on the promotion of peace and transition processes in the Security Council will meet resistance. China, Russia, and a number of member states from the Global South are quick to refer to state sovereignty in the context of international mediation efforts in authoritarian states. The Trump administration in the United States undermines diplomatic processes on Iran and Syria and moves to cut the budget of UN peace operations even in places where violence and conflict are on the rise as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As former colonial powers, the UK and France hold back on Cameroon, while the conflict about the Anglophone areas is escalating.
With its ambition to promote peace and conflict prevention, Germany must not shy away from conflicts in the Security Council. At the same time, it should rely on stable partnerships and frequent exchange with its European partners as well as countries like South Africa. The latter will also be a member of the Security Council from 2019 and started pursueing more multilateral solutions under President Cyril Ramophosa.
At the end of its membership in the Council, the German government should order an independent evaluation of its diplomacy around the horseshoe table. The objective: learning lessons for its next candidacy to join the playing field of major powers.