“The exciting thing is: no day is like the other.”

24.07.2020 - Interview

Federal Press Office interview with Christoph Heusgen, German Ambassador to the UN in New York

Does the Corona pandemic make your work more difficult? What have you done to meet this challenge?

Ambassador Heusgen at the Security Council in 2019
Ambassador Heusgen at the Security Council in 2019© picture alliance / Photoshot

A definitive yes. But first, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the metropolis of New York City especially hard. Many people even in Germany recall the images of empty streets and extremely overcrowded hospitals. Compared to then, New York City is doing quite well now. This is why a moderate and gradual loosening of restrictions is now possible.

All of this, of course, affects the work of the United Nations. Since the middle of March, the Security Council and the committees of the General Assembly have held only virtual meetings. But overall, the transition has worked quite well.

What is clear, however, is that virtual meetings cannot replace in-person discussions and negotiations – the essence of diplomacy. In the medium-term, we will need to meet again in real life. Of course, while observing all health and safety measures. Last week, we held the first physical meeting of the Security Council at UN headquarters in four months. That was a special moment, which happened at Germany’s initiative during our Security Council presidency. We are working on making these personal encounters happen more frequently again.

How is you team structured?

My colleagues at the Permanent Mission work in thematic teams. For example, there is the political department which covers everything from human rights to peacekeeping to sanctions issues to the crises and conflicts in Libya, Syria, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Mali, Venezuela, and North Korea. I’m just giving a few examples; the department covers the entire spectrum of regional issues. In the political department, there is also the press team which answers reporters’ questions on all different topics and keeps the public informed. The economic department deals with humanitarian aid, climate and security, sustainable development and budget and personnel issues. The Security Council team brings everyone together who works on the Council’s agenda. The expertise of employees from all parts of the German government comes together at the German House. Most come from the Foreign Office but also the BMZ, BMVg, BMU, BMWi and BMF, but we also get support from local hires. And such a team of course cannot work without those who literally keep the place running: administration, drivers, security personnel. Overall a very diverse and well set-up Team.

How exactly do you work? (Is it only meetings where you negotiate? What does the typical day of a Permanent Representative look like?)

The work mainly consists of appointments, discussions, meetings, resolution negotiations. Internally with my team or with other member states or UN representatives. In smaller and larger configurations. Publicly and behind closed doors. Also, high-ranking guests, press briefings and briefings for civil society. The exciting thing is no day is like the other. The topics and problems are too varied, and the Security Council’s Agenda is always set by current crises and conflicts!

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its political work are quite removed from most German citizens. Why should they be interested? Why are the two year non-permanent seat on the Security Council and Germany’s current presidency of the UNSC so important?

It’s correct that New York and many international crises and conflicts seem far away. But it should interest everyone because it affects everyone! Crises and conflicts in this world are not something we can observe neutrally from afar. Germany strongly advocates for peaceful conflict resolution, international law and multilateralism. The United Nations was founded 75 years ago after the end of the 2nd World War. It was founded in the conviction that international problems can only be solved together. New York is the only place in the world where all states can hammer out solutions together. This is often a tedious process. But there is no alternative.

Let’s take Libya where a bitter conflict has raged at Europe's front door for nearly a decade, causing so much suffering. One driver of this conflict is outside actors delivering arms. Germany is the chair of the Sanctions Committee for Libya. Of course, in this role, you cannot immediately reconcile the sometimes strongly divergent interests of the various parties to the conflict. But the German government, together with the United Nations, started a political process with the Berlin Conference which has at least brought the different sides to the table and prepared negotiation mechanisms. This is the only chance for a lasting solution.

Or another example. When people in the Lake Chad region lose their livelihood due to climate change and are forced to leave their ancestral lands, they encounter a local population elsewhere and compete for resources. This then becomes a security matter. Whether people can lead a dignified and safe life in their own countries or must move to Europe or elsewhere affects us directly.

In the Security Council, you can place such topics on the international agenda, and the UNSC presidency offers particular flexibility.

Has the German presidency of the Council of the EU changed the focus?

With Germany’s double presidency – July in the UNSC and from July to the end of the year in the Council of the EU – the focus has become clearer: from the outside on Germany but also from Germany on the world. We have immense responsibility in shaping the international agenda and mediating wherever possible. Here In New York this means in particular, and this was our mantra even before our membership on the Security Council, that we advocate for a strong European voice. An alphabetic coincidence is the reason why in May, June and July three EU member states (Estonia, France and Germany) held the presidency in a row, all this following Belgium’s presidency in February. We are coordinating especially closely during this “European Spring.” However, both in New York and Brussels, dealing with the COVID-19 crisis is the main focus.

Which new topics have you put on the UNSC agenda? Where has Germany set the tone? What has Germany achieved so far in the Security Council? What are your plans for the remaining months of your membership?

I already mentioned the topic of climate and security. Now in July 2020, during Germany’s presidency, we are bringing this question, which had already been a focus during our Security Council presidency in 2011, back to the Security Council. That no tangible progress has been made on this issue in the UNSC since 2011 shows what a thorny issue it is. Under these conditions, it is an important step to direct the attention of the international community on this issue which will be key in the future. Fortunately, the vast majority of the 193 UN member states considers it an important task to anchor the topic of climate and security on the UNSC agenda.

I want to give one more example. In many conflicts, the systematic use of sexual violence against women, girls and also boys is a terrible weapon of war. During our last presidency in April 2019, we were able to adopt a resolution which for the first time placed survivors of these crimes in the focus and paved the way for ensuring the perpetrators are brought to justice.

We have also placed systematic human rights violations on the agenda and convened the first UNSC debate on the significance of human rights in peace missions. That was a tough job, but we are convinced that everyone must respect human rights, in particular the United Nations since it has active peace missions in numerous conflict and post-conflict regions.

Furthermore, Germany has taken on added responsibility in the Security Council for protracted conflicts such as those in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and North Korea. For example, a new special political mission which German proposed with Great Britain will accompany the fragile political transition process in Sudan. In Afghanistan, we and our Indonesian partners are responsible for ensuring UN support for the country continues on the basis of the resolution for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

What kind of agreement do you want on climate and security and why?

Our goal is to enable the UN to inform the Security Council early on about tensions resulting from climate change which have the potential to lead to armed conflict. That’s why we have repeatedly put the topic on the Security Council’s agenda in order to create the foundation for future work in the Council on climate and security. During the high-level debate, our like-minded partners, also the broader UN membership, were able to formulate their expectations to the Security Council. The results will be recorded in a summary by the chair on behalf of the 10 like-minded UNSC states. In the future, this debate will then be a reference point. Furthermore, an informal expert group on climate and security composed of Security Council members is being established to create a contact point at the working level for the Security Council’s regular work on this topic.

What contribution do you personally make? What do you do in your private life in New York to protect the climate?

One example. Last year when I visited a public school in the Bronx as part of an exchange program with the City of New York and spoke with the youth about my work, I was impressed by the enthusiasm which the students showed when asking about Germany’s commitment to climate protection. Promoting climate protection among the younger generations is something close to my heart.

Privately, I use my bicycle as much as possible to get around New York. And despite the sometimes tropical heat in New York, I don’t always turn on the AC even in the summer.

Germany advocates for the rules-based international order. What does that mean exactly?

The international system is coming under heavy pressure from many sides. For example, the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court, climate agreements, the World Trade Organization, massive abuse of human rights, the nuclear agreement with Iran and the annexation of Crimea. We cannot accept this. We want international organizations like the United Nations to be fit to take action. For us, the rules which everyone has agreed to uphold must be respected. This is what we advocate for. This is our foreign policy compass. This is the guiding principle of the Alliance for Multilateralism which Foreign Minister Maas brought to life with his French counterpart and many other states around the world.

Due to massive resistance from Russia and China, only a compromise could be achieved on cross-border aid in Syria. Only one border crossing remains open to deliver aid to the people in the north of the country. Why was it not possible to negotiate for more? To what extent was the Syria resolution a setback for the work of the UNSC? What motivates you and the German team after days like this?

First, the result that there will only be one border crossing is not the result that we and our co-penholder Belgium wished for. This is also true, by the way, for the eleven other Security Council members who supported us during the intense negotiations, supported our efforts to achieve as much humanitarian access as possible and voted on our side for the people in Syria.

In light of the Russian/Chinese blockade – there were early signals that the Russian side might not support the cross-border humanitarian aid mechanism at all anymore – it wasn’t entirely surprising. It’s really sobering, even devastating. I criticized Russian and China in the Security Council often for acting based only on political calculus in a purely humanitarian issue. This goes against the spirt of the UN Charter and is not good for the Security Council.

At the same time, we’re relieved that at least one border crossing was extended for 12 rather than six months especially since it is one from which a large portion of the aid from Turkey was being delivered. This was anything but a given. We fought hard over weeks, sought advice from UN aid organizations and were guided by the situation on the ground. We were also able to prevent the conditions for humanitarian aid workers on the ground from worsening further.

What motivates the core team which worked on this important issue? The nature of the task: making a contribution to help save lives.

Some have criticized the UNSC as a “toothless tiger.” Do you share this assessment? Why and how could the Council be reformed in your opinion?

The Security Council should in fact be reformed. The current composition no longer reflects the realities of the world. If the Security Council is important to us, we should strengthen its legitimacy. The 54 African countries, for example, do not hold a permanent seat. But also other actors are not properly represented. As part of the G4 interest group – Germany, Brazil, Japan and India – we are seeking to reform the Council. There are countries, however, which have held up these efforts. But we will stay on top of it!

China is also more aggressively asserting its interests. In addition to the new security law for Hong Kong, it is expanding its influence especially in the South China Sea without resistance. How should we handle this emerging big power? What options do we have without having to draw red lines?

China is systematically expanding its influence within the UN system, also by occupying key positions. In some areas, for example human rights, it is increasingly questioning established multilateral principles. It is worrying that China is increasingly voting alongside Russia against international consensuses like maximum access for humanitarian aid for needy Syrians in the north of the country. As Germany, our task, here at the Security Council in New York and beyond, is to convince other states that it is in their interest to strengthen multilateralism and respect and promote human rights. Even against pressure from China and other countries.

Will Germany be able to pass on its topics to a successor?

With Ireland as an EU member state and Norway as a NATO/Schengen member, two especially close European partners in the Western Group will follow. Especially on topics like climate change and security and the participation of women, which Germany advanced during its Security Council membership, we can pass on the baton without worrying.

You have been a diplomat for 40 years. How often have you moved? What is something you have just recently learned?

Often! Honestly, I couldn’t even give an exact number. Regarding your second question, overall, I’ve been able to learn a lot over the decades of my diplomatic career. Important experiences were of course working for various foreign ministers, the EU Foreign Minister and especially the twelve years I served as the foreign policy and security adviser to the Chancellor. Being the German Ambassador to the United Nations is something very special. Working at the UN on-site was initially something new for me, I was able to witness Germany’s election to the Security Council after a successful campaign and am now able to represent our country here.

How has diplomacy changed over the decades? Where is it heading?

Diplomacy has gotten faster! The change in communications technology over this period has advanced diplomacy greatly.

And diplomacy has, fortunately, become somewhat more feminine. But we have to get to the point where we promote the potential of men and women equally, at all levels especially management positions. The first steps have been taken, but we’re still a long way from being finished.

Fake news and disinformation have always circulated. As a diplomat with many years of experience, how do you view the current situation? Does it have a new quality?

You said it. There have always been attempts to spread fake news and disinformation. What is new is that social media has increased and diversified the ways to spread it. This doesn’t make it easier to counteract it. Fortunately, there are just as intense of efforts to do so. Recently, the United Nations initiated a campaign called “Verified.” Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is key to provide people with clear, reliable and trustworthy sources of information.

I want to give another example. Russia and China in particular regularly spread the misinformation that EU sanctions and Security Council sanctions are responsible for causing humanitarian crises around the world. This isn’t something you can leave unchallenged and uncorrected. Germany is the second largest humanitarian donor in the world. Furthermore, EU sanctions are targeted, for example against individuals of the Assad regime in Syria who are responsible for the death and suffering of thousands. Humanitarian goods are exempted from EU sanctions, and we take all efforts to ensure such aid reaches the people on the ground. To counteract such disinformation, the EU recently started an information campaign in several languages including Russian. I think this is incredibly important.

Do you have any negotiation tips you can give to future diplomats?

Listen and never break off the line of communication. Take clear positions and advocate for them, use clear words. And most importantly, always stay curios and openminded.


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