Christoph Heusgen, Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations at a Press Conference in July 2020 at the UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: Luiz Rampelotto / EuropaNewswire / NTB
Christoph Heusgen, Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations at a Press Conference in July 2020 at the UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: Luiz Rampelotto / EuropaNewswire / NTB

Germany's UN Ambassador: Two years in a fierce battle for human rights

Forge alliances, stand up for human rights and put pressure on big powers. This is the advice to Norway from its German predecessor at the Security Council.


Germany is a heavyweight in the UN system, including in the Security Council, despite not being a permanent member. Germany has been a Council member every eight years since the end of the Cold War, and has been a partner in important UN negotiations, like the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Christoph Heusgen is Germany's Permanent Representative, or Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. For two years, he was an outspoken and visible diplomat, representing Europe's most powerful nation in the world's most powerful body. Before moving to New York, Heusgen served as the foreign and security policy advisor to

FN-ambassadør Christoph Heusgen (med briller, stående) markerte Tyskland sterkt som medlem av FNs sikkerhetsråd i 2019-20. Da dette bildet ble tatt i april 2019 var det imidlertid daværende forsvarsminister Ursula von der Leyen som ledet ett av møtene mens Tyskland var rådets president. Ved siden av henne sitter FNs generalsekretær António Guterres. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/NTB
FN-ambassadør Christoph Heusgen (med briller, stående) markerte Tyskland sterkt som medlem av FNs sikkerhetsråd i 2019-20. Da dette bildet ble tatt i april 2019 var det imidlertid daværende forsvarsminister Ursula von der Leyen som ledet ett av møtene mens Tyskland var rådets president. Ved siden av henne sitter FNs generalsekretær António Guterres. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/NTB

Chancellor Angela Merkel for 12 years.

During his last meeting in the Council on December 22nd 2020, Ambassador Heusgen's Chinese counterpart wished him «good riddance», a brutal and rather undiplomatic way of expressing relief that he was on his way out the door.

Ambassador Heusgen claims the reaction proved Germany's criticism against Chinese and Russian human rights violations had an impact.

Germany strongly supported Norway's candidacy to the UN Security Council, and both countries see Norway's tenure in the Council as a continuation of Germany's work on a number of priority issues. In this interview with the Norwegian publication Bistandsaktuelt, Ambassador Heusgen offers experience-based advice to the new Nordic member of the Council.

Read also our main topic story (in Norwegian) on Norway in the UN Security Council: Her er temaene der Norge kan gjøre en forskjell and an interview with Norway's foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide: - Vi tør å si ifra

Russia and China will not change

Q: Germany passed the baton to Norway in the Security Council on New Year‘s Day. The two countries have basic values in common, like defending human rights and supporting multilateral cooperation. Given your two years in the Council, how difficult would you say it is to stand up for human rights in the Council now?

Heusgen: First of all, I want to say that cooperation with Norway has always been very close, between Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Chancellor Angela Merkel, our Foreign Ministers and our ministries, but it also holds true for us in New York. During our time in the Security Council and in the run-up to Norway's membership in the Council, we worked very closely together. You have a wonderful Ambassador and other colleagues here at the delegation, with whom we have close relations.

For us it is good to know that Norway is in the Security Council, since the basis of Norwegian foreign policy is a rules-based international order, the promotion of multilateralism, and human rights, which is very important for us as well.

The positive thing for Norway is that it will be easier to work with the United States due to the new administration. During Germany's two years in the Security Council, it was not only Russia and China that were often in violation of international law. Respect for the United Nations and resolutions that had been previously adopted by the Security Council was not a very high priority for the former US administration, to say the least. With the new Biden administration, I think it will be easier.

But I do not think that Russia and China will change their policy, therefore Norway will have to defend human rights and counter the new narrative that is presented, in particular by China, where human rights are not at the forefront. China looks more at the whole of society and marginalizes individual rights. It is therefore very important that Norway speaks out, and I am optimistic that they will do that.

«In the absence of the United States standing up for a rules-based international order in the UN, Germany was in the lead confronting Russia and China on a number of issues.»

Form a coalition, work together!

Q: Germany is a big power, particularly in economic terms, and China has an interest in cooperating with Germany. Don't you think it is much harder for Norway to stand up to China and others in the Council for human rights than it was for Germany?

Heusgen: What is important, and that is why I mentioned the United States, is that Norway is not alone. In 2019 Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his French counterpart established the Alliance for Multilateralism. The idea is that we have to stick together, work together and stand together to promote human rights. Norway should work very closely together with likeminded countries in the Security Council. Now you can count on the United States, you have Ireland there and Estonia, which was very outspoken on human rights and international law in its first year in the Council. We have Great Britain and France. My advice would be to form a coalition in the Security Council and work together. Norway can make a difference that way.

In the absence of US, we stood up

Q: In a very tense meeting at the Council on Syria on December 16th, you said that «the Russian Federation contributed to the suffering and killings of Syrian people» by supporting the Syrian regime. The Russian ambassador responded to you by saying that «Germany‘s representative is a cynical person who uses double-standards». In your last meeting on December 22nd, the Chinese representative bluntly told you: «From the bottom of my heart: Good riddance». He was happy see you leave the Council after you had appealed to China to release two Canadian nationals imprisoned in China. How did you react to these confrontations?

Heusgen: We stand up for our values, and we see that Russia and China very actively have been trying to undercut human rights and create their own narrative.

When it comes to Syria, Russia is a strong supporter of Bashar al-Assad, meaning a strong supporter of a regime that uses chemical weapons against its own population, and imprisons, tortures and kills hundreds of thousands. In this situation, you have to speak up. Germany was very clear and called a spade a spade.

When you attack China on their treatment of the Uyghur minority, in which hundreds of thousands are put in detention camps or used for forced labour, you have to speak out. When human rights violations are at such high levels, and when for instance Russia is undercutting the chemical weapons convention, you have to speak up. It was very clear to me that I should do that, and I got a lot of support.

In the absence of the United States standing up for a rules-based international order in the UN, Germany was in the lead confronting Russia and China on a number of those issues, and the reaction showed that our interventions left a mark and had an impact.

Listen to the humanitarians

Q: You say it is important to stand up for human rights and for principles. But getting things done and achieving agreement on resolutions mostly involves compromises. Would you say that a watered-down resolution is better than no resolution at all or a vetoed resolution?

Heusgen: You always have to keep the fate of the people in mind. Germany and Belgium were the co-penholders for the so-called Syria humanitarian file, which involved securing the UN border crossing points that allow humanitarian aid to go into Syria. Neither Russia nor China wanted to allow these crossing points, because in their view they undermine the sovereignty of Syria. They argued that the Syrian government is in charge, therefore Syria should decide whether aid comes into the country and how to distribute it.

We argued that Syria does not control the area covered by the cross-border aid, and we wanted the population in dire need to have access to humanitarian aid. We oriented our position according to requests from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other humanitarian actors before we put our draft resolution on the table. We did not present a compromise, but rather a proposal that was the best for the population from the perspective of the humanitarian organizations. Russia and China vetoed these resolutions twice in July 2020 while all the others were in favour.

Russia and China would have preferred that we had gone in with some sort of compromise from the outset in order to avoid demonstrating to the outside world that it was Russia and China creating huge problems for aid organizations and being responsible for the suffering of people. In the end, with all the pressure that we had built up, we got a solution the humanitarian organizations said they could live with. They got an extended period of time, i.e. one year starting last July, during which time they could deliver aid through the one remaining most important crossing point.

I think it was necessary to put as much pressure as possible on Russia and China, so that in the end we got a solution which allowed the humanitarian aid organizations to continue their work. It was not ideal, but people in the northwest of Syria maintained access to the life-saving aid.

My advice to Norway is to talk to all the aid organizations, see what they need, and then present that to the Council. It was very important for us to stay in constant contact with humanitarian actors, UN-organizations and NGOs, listen to their needs and to closely cooperate with the elected ten members of the Council, so that our positions were united.

Norway and Ireland will have to insist

Q: So you recommend that Norway and Ireland, as co-penholders for this year's renewal of the resolution for humanitarian corridors in Syria, do the same. It seems like Russia is pretty adamant about removing this cross border mechanism. Do you think it is realistic to have a renewal of the resolution in July this year?

Heusgen: It is difficult to say. Russia and China are always referring to the sovereignty of Syria. That is their tactic. They don't care about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions.

So the question is how you can build an alliance with the other countries and the NGO community and build up pressure. Developments in Syria will also be very important. The Russians regularly argue that all aid has to go through Damascus, including to the area of Idlib, where aid is now coming through the cross-border mechanism. So far, we have not seen any change. It is not possible to get aid through from Damascus.

Norway and Ireland will have to insist on the continuation of humanitarian aid getting in from the outside through the UN.

Norway had an early success, we did the groundwork

Q: Norway has taken over the chairmanship of the North Korea sanctions committee from Germany. It is regarded as the most demanding of the 14 committees overseeing UN Security Council sanctions. Although the sanctions against North Korea have been decided unanimously by the Council, there are frictions among the permanent members and others. Can you describe these frictions that you saw close-up in the committee?

Heusgen: I am happy that Norway is chairing the committee. It is indeed perhaps the most active and relevant sanctions committee. In 2017-18, before Germany came into the Council, you had an agreement between the permanent five members after North Korea tested missiles and advanced its nuclear programme in such a way that alarmed everybody. The consensus led to strengthened sanctions.

Now, with growing confrontation between China and the United States, the life of the sanctions committee has not become easier, quite the contrary. It was not always easy as the chair to get consensus in the committee. These committees work in such a way that if you want to change or implement anything, you need a consensus, and that was not easy. But we did achieve a couple of things, one was that we got an agreement to shorten the time period for the approval of humanitarian aid. When an NGO wants to send humanitarian aid to North Korea and applies for approval by the committee for an exception from the sanctions, it is now a question of only a couple of days for the answer.

The problem is that North Korea does not allow aid to come in right now. I hope that will change.

The other achievement was a result of Germany and Norway working together. Russia, China and the United States disagreed over many years on the interpretation of a certain norm with regard to delivery of oil products to North Korea. We put a lot of pressure on the Russians and the Chinese to finally agree to a conversion rate between tons and barrels, and I referred the question several times from the committee to the Security Council itself. This conversion is needed in order to be able to survey the maximum amount of oil products which can be imported to North Korea under the provisions of the sanctions regime. At the first meeting of the sanctions committee led by Norway, Russia and China finally agreed to the issue, so Norway had an early success and we were happy that Germany laid the groundwork for this solution.

Sanctions have to be maintained

Q: Is it hard to strike a balance between keeping the pressure on North Korea and taking into consideration the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people?

Heusgen: One thing has to be very clear: The fact that the population is in such a dire situation is exclusively the responsibility of the North Korean regime, which has closed the country and spends a huge part of its gross national product on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, instead of feeding the population. But as the international community, we want to see that the population does not suffer, and that they do get access to basic humanitarian support. Norway and Germany share this view. That is why we have been pushing to make it easier to send humanitarian aid into the country.

At the same time, as long as North Korea does not comply with the international rules, the sanctions regime has to be maintained. I do not see an alternative.

«One thing has to be very clear: The fact that the population is in such a dire situation is exclusively the responsibility of the North Korean regime,»

We know North Korea is cyber active

Q: Chairing the committee is an extremely demanding job, with a lot of bureaucracy involved. The panel of experts working with the committee have also said that the North Koreans are behind cyber-attacks on Council members. Is that something you can confirm?

Heusgen: We have not experienced that as a member state or as a committee. But we do know that North Korea is active in cyber space, has stolen millions of dollars in cyber-attacks and tries to circumvent sanctions.

Climate pressure will change course

Q: Climate change as a threat to international security is a topic that was very dear to Germany. During your presidency of the Council in July 2020, you organized a meeting on climate change. China, Russia and the United States at the time did not support your view. With a new administration in Washington more in line with the German and Norwegian view on this topic, do you think the dynamics in the Council will change when it comes to climate change as a security threat?

Heusgen: There is already a very strong dynamic. We put the issue of climate change and security at the top of our agenda, and we were glad about the broad support we received. We drafted a strong resolution on climate change and security and how to mitigate climate-related security risks. In total, 10 out of 15 member states of the Council joined our initiative.

Now with the new US administration, the American view on climate and security has changed, and therefore the dynamic will get even stronger. Great Britain holds the presidency of the Council in February. They too will put climate change and security on the agenda. Britain will host the next climate summit in Glasgow, so they have an interest in bringing the topic to the Council.

We are happy that Norway and Ireland, the two European countries that have succeeded Belgium and Germany, are willing to continue to work on this topic and to lead the informal expert group that Germany founded together with Niger in the Council. I am optimistic that the dynamic will be there and that pressure will turn from the United States towards Russia and China.

Q: Which two countries were in line with China, Russia and the United States last year on the climate question?

Heusgen: Indonesia and South Africa were more neutral. They did not join the group of 10. We did not put the resolution to a vote because clearly it would have been vetoed, so we shelved it to be revisited as soon as conditions improved.

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