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International Relations

Germany leaves UN Security Council

A pair of abstentions dominates the world's view of Berlin's two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. But supporters say Germany also raised several important issues.

Just a few weeks ago, the world watched spellbound as the UN bodies debated whether Palestine should be recognized as a non-member observer state. Germany abstained on this important issue in the Middle East conflict, and received praise from many quarters for its decision.

At the end of 2012, Germany's two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council comes to an end, and the country will once again be a regular member of the United Nations. Along with the praise, Germany was also criticized for its actions during its time on the Council, such as its conduct in dealing with the uprising in Libya.

A bomb explodes in the distance in March 2011 in Libya
Photo: KHALED ELFIQI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Germany abstained from a vote to create a no-fly zone over Libya

The foreign policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, took stock of Germany's performance in a DW interview. "I believe that the German government has certainly tried to put issues on the agenda that would not otherwise be in the spotlight, particularly that of children in armed conflicts," he said. UN Ambassador Peter Wittig and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also put climate policy on the agenda and attempted to pursue a modern policy for Afghanistan.

It was the fifth time in the history of the United Nations that Germany has had a voice in the Council's decisions on world peace and international security. Berlin's power, however, was limited, as the non-permanent members do not have veto rights, and must vacate their seats after two years. The actual decision-making power lies with the permanent members: Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States.

Germany abstains

Germans remember two decisions, more than anything else, when it comes to summarizing the two-year term. On March 17, 2011, the Security Council voted on a resolution intended to accelerate the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. While all Germany's Western allies voted for air strikes, Germany abstained - along with Russia, China, Brazil and India.

UN-Sicherheitsrat berät über die humanitäre Situation in Syrien am 30. August 2012.Copyright: UN
via Nina Werkhäuser, DW Hauptstadtstudio

The Security Council serves as the global arbitrator on many issues of war and peace

"I believe that the decision by the German government to abstain here and to vote in the same way as countries like Russia and China was not helpful," Mützenich said. "It addressed neither the issue of Germany's responsibility in this conflict, nor the continuing development with regard to an important question of international law, namely the protection of individuals."

Despite the negative headlines, the foreign policy spokesman of the conservative Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) parliamentary group, Philipp Missfelder, said he saw no reason for concern.

"I think overall it's very good that we've ironed out this little wrinkle," he said. "There is no doubt anywhere that Germany stands up for its alliance partners, as can be seen in Turkey with the Patriot missile system. We are a faithful and loyal partner in the alliance."

UN decisions based on domestic policy

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the UN Security Council
Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GettyImages

Foreign Minister Westerwelle raised important issues at the Security Council

For the Munster-based political science professor Sven Bernhard Gareis, the decision to abstain had to do with unclear agreements. "Ahead of the debate and this decision we had, of course, established that participation using military means was out of the question, and that no one would make the case for a military solution to this issue."

Until the last moment, Gareis said, it seemed that the US would adopt this position. The United States' change of heart came the night before the vote. "As far as domestic policy was concerned, Germany had already committed itself on this issue," he told DW. "I think that then, from the point of view of domestic policy, it didn't want to backtrack."

Solidarity and criticism

In addition to the Libya issue, the UN General Assembly's vote on granting Palestine status as a non-member observer state dominated the public's view of Germany's role on the UN stage.

Germany could have demonstrated its solidarity with Israel by voting against the proposal, but instead politicians in Berlin chose to abstain. A vote for the Palestinian petition would have been a slap in the face to Israel, while a vote against it could have been regarded as a show of support for Israel's settlement policy, which Germany opposes.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a letter requesting recognition of Palestine as a state as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The vote to grant Palestine UN observer status was another from which Germany abstained

"To Israel we clearly showed that yes, we bear a very particular responsibility, and we see ourselves in close friendship with the state of Israel and the Israeli people," Gareis said. "But it was also made clear that the settlement policy pursued by the current government under Prime Minister Netanyahu is seen by the German government as a major obstacle on the road to a two-state solution."

Permanent impermanence

Germany could become a non-permanent member of the Council again in a few years. However, experts agree that it is unlikely to obtain a permanent seat.

Any such reform of the Security Council would, in addition to the unanimous approval of the five permanent Council members, require the approval of two thirds of the General Assembly, and a new charter would have to be ratified by two thirds of UN members.

"I always tell my students that I will not see a reform of the Security Council during my career that ends with new permanent members - whoever those members might be," Gareis said.

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