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We need to get it right in the Middle East, but everybody has to play ball, says Germany’s UN envoy

Germany’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Christoph Heusgen. (AFP/File)
Germany’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Christoph Heusgen. (AFP/File)
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24 Dec 2020 12:12:37 GMT9
24 Dec 2020 12:12:37 GMT9
  • Germany’s two-year term at the Security Council ends on Dec. 31, 2020
  • Conflicts in Libya, Syria and the JCPOA were high on Germany’s agenda

Ephrem Kossaify

NEW YORK: He famously brought an hourglass into the Security Council to encourage members to have frank conversations instead of reading their capitals’ statements. Despite daily conflicts, he is known to call a spade a spade.

And when Germany’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, entered the press briefing room, a rare sight occurred: Journalists, both in person and those who were zoomed in, beamed at him with undisguised gratitude for the openness he exhibited toward the media over the past two years.

The man not only believes that transparency with “our counterparts, the journalists” is a fundamental, universal principle, but also puts that creed into action, constantly bringing into the limelight news and elements of the Security Council machinery that otherwise would remain behind closed doors.

With Germany’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council coming to an end on Dec. 31, Heusgen looked back on two years of intensive diplomacy.

“We came to the Security Council to work as a fully engaged member,” the leading envoy said.

“We used this period to defend the multilateral system, the rules-based international order; to work for the respect of international humanitarian law and human rights law. And we have followed that playbook from the very beginning and until the last day.”

The guiding principle that emerges from Germany’s history books, said the ambassador, is that conflicts should be resolved not by force but by the rule of law.

“A second leading rule for us is to take a wider, more comprehensive view of security: Not only (tackling) mere conflicts but also their root causes.”

Germany’s mandate, which ranged from the Berlin conference on Libya and a new political mission in the Sudan, relentless advocacy for open humanitarian channels in Syria, and investment in the Middle East peace process and the Western Sahara, also saw efforts to bolster the Non-Proliferation Treaty along with tireless endeavors against sexual violence in conflicts, and for stronger participation of women in peace-building and leadership.

Of all the conflicts on the Security Council agenda in which Germany has cooperated, Heusgen singled out his country’s work on Libya. He said that a new start was made at the January 2020 Berlin International Conference, which was held in Berlin at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Chancellor Angela Merkel to support UN peace efforts and “to move from a military logic to a political one.”

The aim was to reduce external influence and thus enable an intra-Libyan political process under the auspices of the UN.

The Security Council then adopted Resolution 2510 endorsing the outcomes of the conference.

A nationwide cease-fire is now in effect in Libya. Since early November, 75 Libyans have been negotiating in Tunis on the country’s political future and elections are planned for December 2021.

Asked by Arab News to share the single most important insight on the Libyan conflict, Heusgen underscored the need for the UN as a convening power: “(It is) key that you convene (not only) all the parties on the ground, but also potential spoilers or supporters from the outside.”

He emphasized the importance of appointing a UN Libya envoy, after Bulgarian diplomat Nickolay Mladenov told Guterres this week that he will be unable to take up the role due to “personal and family reasons.”

Acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams will continue in the role, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief’s spokesman, said.

Mladenov was due to replace Ghassan Salame, who stepped down as the UN Libya envoy in March due to stress.

The German envoy expressed his wish that Williams would eventually stay on and accept the role.

Also high on the German mission’s agenda was the humanitarian situation in Syria. “We have fought hard to keep aid flowing into the country,” Heusgen said, an issue not without its own controversies in the Security Council.

The US and Europe support continued cross-border aid, but Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish-controlled northeast brought complications. Ankara, along with Assad ally Russia, wanted to add a crossing into Turkey’s new “safe zone” and eliminate another that brings aid to the Kurds.

As co-penholder with Belgium, Germany conducted long and tough negotiations to extend the cross-border resolution (2165) thus ensuring access for deliveries of life-saving food and medical assistance.

“Syria’s stability is absolutely in our interest,” said the envoy.

“We have to try to get it right, to a point where Syrian people feel at home, where you have constitutional reforms, and free and fair elections.

“This is the direction we want to go, and we will push the parties to go (with us). But everybody has to play ball.”

For Germany, disarmament and arms control are also central foreign policy goals, especially regarding nuclear nonproliferation.

In April 2019, Germany put nuclear disarmament back on the Security Council’s agenda for the first time in over seven years as a priority of its month-long presidency.

Together with Algeria, Germany currently serves as co-president of the so-called Article IVX process, which actively supports the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty’s entry into force.

Asked whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran deal — in limbo since the US withdrawal in 2018 — needs an ancillary to get back on its feet, Heusgen said: “There will have to be intensive talks. There is a willingness to return to the JCPOA. We have heard that from the Biden administration, but this has to be formalized.”

He added: “The Biden administration is very careful in resisting all attempts to enter negotiations with partners. They want to wait until Jan. 20 (Biden’s inauguration day.)”

On the question of Palestine, Heusgen reiterated special envoy Mladenov’s optimism about the achievability of the two-state solution, emphasizing the Palestinian need for a contiguous country that is not separated from Jerusalem.

He said President Donald Trump believed that by cutting funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), he would motivate Palestinians to give up their refugee status, integrate in neighboring countries and forgo their desire to return.

“That is not going to work,” said Heusgen. “Palestinians don’t want it and the countries don’t want it.”

Germany has been a Security Council member six times.

With its five permanent members and 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms, the UN Security Council is the only UN body whose decisions are binding under international law.

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