Press Conference: Ambassador Wittig on Germany's tenure at the Security Council
(Press Conference: Ambassador Wittig on Germany's tenure at the Security Council - near-verbatim transcript)
Thank you very much for joining us this morning. Germany’s tenure at the Security Council is coming to a close and we thought this would be a fitting opportunity to wrap up our two years in the Council. Let me first make some general remarks and later go into the specifics and Q & A.
Germany’s membership coincided with some remarkable change in the landscape of international diplomacy: what was called the "Arab Spring" at first - the momentous changes in the Arab world - dominated the last two years in the Security Council. It dominated our work, both in capitals and here in New York. It also brought the Security Council back to the limelight of international diplomacy, of international relations - and it shaped the perception of the Security Council and the United Nations at large.
We, the German government, took those events in the Arab World very seriously, right from the start. We realized - and had no doubt - that the upheavals would have a fundamental impact on the stability and the security in the region. So our approach in dealing with this momentous change in the Arab world here was based on two beliefs:
Number one: The earlier the Council acts, the better. We shouldn’t wait until the death toll becomes unbearable to have the international community get engaged. From our point of view it falls within the mandate of the Security Council - and is indeed an obligation -- to prevent crises from deteriorating into major threats of peace and security. And for this purpose, the Security Council has a full box of tools. We believe the most effective way to use these tools is to employ them at a very early stage. This is why, together with our partners, we pushed right from the inception of those crises for an early and sustained engagement of the Security Council – be it in Libya, be it in Yemen or be it in Syria.
And the second point on our approach is the regional factor: The region matters. We have insisted on a strong involvement of regional actors – be it the League of Arab States, be it the Gulf Cooperation Council. Their expertise, their influence and their knowledge are crucial for a long term sustainable solution to any crisis. And indeed, we have seen the Arab League emerging as an important political factor in those momentous events in the Arab world. We have been advocating for a more active interaction between the Security Council and the UN and the League of Arab States. You might remember that in September of this year, when we had the Presidency of the Security Council, we managed to get an agreement on a Presidential Statement that clearly upgraded the cooperation of the Security Council with the Arab League, something that met a very positive echo, especially in the region.
The Council has not only been dealing only with the conflicts in the Arab World. As you know, among other items on the agenda, Iran, DPRK, the African conflicts have kept us busy. Forgive me if I don’t run through all of them, but let me highlight one issue and that is Afghanistan: We were in the lead on the Afghan file in the Council. We helped to assist the foundation of the so-called "decade of transformation" that was spelled out at the Bonn conference a year ago. One of our priorities the UN was to actively promote a stronger, more forward-looking orientation of the UN mission UNAMA in the field - and that's why we helped to bring about the "UNAMA review" to prepare UNAMA for the challenges in the future.
Germany also chaired the Taliban and Al Qaida Sanctions Regimes. Sanctions are a very important tool of the Security Council and we engaged in a serious examination of the sanctions policy. We asked ourselves, of course together with our partners: Is the sanctions regime of the UN still universally respected ? Is it fully implemented? Do the sanctions, especially in the realm of the counter-terrorism, do those sanction tools respond to the changing nature of the terrorist threat ? Do they correspond to what we want to achieve - and to what is the political purpose of the sanctions, that is prevention?
And we came to a couple of conclusions that were translated into decisions. I just name two of them, which we believe are landmark decisions:
First, we separated the Al Qaida- and the Taliban- regime and created two different Committees - which I chaired. This made the sanctions, the Afghanistan-related sanctions much more responsive and nimble and gave the government of Afghanistan a much more significant role in the sanctions regime. And this has found a very positive echo in Afghanistan: now Afghanistan is seeking a stronger role in this sanctions regime and has in the meantime submitted suggestions of delisting individuals - the idea here is to facilitate the political process of reconciliation in Afghanistan.
And the second measure that is a landmark concerns the Al-Qaida regime. Here we strengthened the role of the Ombudsperson. We introduced much-needed fair and clear process elements into the sanctions regime in order to ensure the universal respect for this regime and other regimes. We believe that this Ombudsperson process, and I am speaking here for my country, could be a model for other sanctions regimes. We tried to animate and initiate a discussion on sanctions policy and this is an important part and we hope this will continue.
Chairing those sanctions committees, those anti-terror-committees, gave us a good opportunity to advance essential elements of German foreign policy: the fight against terrorism and the protection of human rights. Human rights are indeed at the heart of German foreign policy. That is why we were happy that we could be responsible for one subsidiary body of the Security Council, the "Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict" .This is the only human-rights related humanitarian body that the Security Council has.
Here we accomplished a couple of things, first in July last year: we managed that the Council adopted a resolution adding a trigger that guaranteed that those armed groups that attack schools and hospitals be added to the "name and shame"-list of the Secretary-General. That was an important step to enlarge the protection agenda of "Children and Armed Conflict". This year, during our presidency in September, we focused once again on this protection agenda and particularly highlighted the need of accountability of the so-called persistent perpetrators, those armed groups, those individuals that persistently violate the rights of the child.
Now, this a human rights and humanitarian agenda that I thought was very important in the Security Council. We worked in strong partnership with the civil society, this was something very gratifying. There are a lot of well-qualified, very knowledgeable NGOs acting in this field and they are complementing what states should do in certain areas.
One more thing that is close to our heart is the climate change agenda. This is something I am personally proud of having achieved: a Presidential Statement last year that - for the first time - stated that climate change is a potential threat to international peace and security. We put climate security on the map of the Security Council and that's not, as we see it and others, that is not a small achievement in the context in which we are operating.
Let me sum up our approach to conflict resolution over those two years:
First, as I said before: we believe that whenever conflicts arise, the international community, especially the Security Council should act early on. We are staunch advocates of a preventive diplomacy. The later we act, the harder it gets. Syria is a very clear and, if I may say so, depressing showcase in this regard.
Second: solutions have to be build on regional expertise, local and regional players need to be involved. There won’t be any sustainable solutions against the regional actors.
And third: human rights and accountability are no obstacles to peace but they are necessary requirements for any durable and stable conflict solution.
Now a very final word on how we tried to conduct our work: We are Europeans, we are convinced multilateralists, so we have pursued a partner-based policy in the Security Council, with a strong emphasis on cooperation, we tried to be as transparent as possible and to build confidence among the various groups in the United Nations.
Germany of course remains beyond the time at the Security Council an important contributor to the maintenance of international peace and security. When we were elected to the Council two years ago, we wanted to create an added value for the wider membership. It is of course not for us to make a final judgement, but we did our best to make that happen, myself and my very able first-grade staff that I had. We tried our best to add value to the work of the Security Council. So, let's leave it at that and I am happy to take your questions."
[Q. on Syria]
Wittig: "I indicated that we are frustrated that the Council could not act earlier, when it had the chance to prevent a disaster that was unfolding before our very eyes. There were a couple of forks in the road, draft Security Council resolutions on the table - and of course we belong to those who regret that the Council could not find unity to prevent this crises from deteriorating. But we have to look ahead. We see some movement in Syria on the ground. We see some movement in getting a unified opposition to become the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Some days ago the Friends of Syria acknowledged that a national coalition is the representative of the Syrian people. So we have a strong interlocutor now and we hope that - also with the help of Mr. Brahimi - we can make headway in initiating a political process of transition. Now there are of course some prerequisites for that to happen. We feel a certain movement on the ground to the detriment of the Assad regime. We look forward to discuss this again in the Council once Mr. Brahim decides that it is the time to come back to the Council."
[Q. on DPRK]
Wittig: "You know that the Council came together after the rocket launch. We had a preliminary discussion, agreed on some press elements. We made very clear that we strongly condemned the launch. We believe it’s a violation of international obligations and Security Council resolutions. We also think it’s a regional provocation. We expressed our sympathy to the people of Japan, South Korea and the adjacent countries. We spoke out in favour of a strong reaction, a strong message of the Security Council. We advocated for a resolution imposing additional restriction on DPRK to make it clear that the international community does not tolerate such a violation of international law. Now, we are in the beginning of a longer process and there are some talks outside the Security Council. The Security Council is seized with the matter. At this point of time I would rather hesitate to predict what the outcome of those contacts will be. Again: Most members of the Council - and we are among them – want a strong reaction in form of a resolution that sends the right message to Pyongyang."
[Q. on Mali]
Wittig: "Indeed, the crisis in Mali is part of a wider challenge in the Sahel region. There are some multifaceted crises and the trafficking of arms is one important aspect. It’s a terrorist threat, it is a big humanitarian threat, there are political challenges and everything added up in the case of Mali to become a worrisome political crises.
The Security Council is engaged. In the wider context: we had this discussion a couple of days ago on challenges to the whole Sahel region and we are engaged now, the negotiations on a resolution are ongoing. There is a consensus in the Security Council on the urgency to act. Nobody contests that. There is a wide consensus on the need for a strong political track - a road map that has to be devised by the authorities in Bamako -, on negotiations with the North and eventually on an authorization of a military option that should serve to underpin the credibility of a political solution. So this two-pronged approach is very much part and parcel of the main stream opinion in the Security Council.
Those negotiations are continuing. They have been complicated somewhat by the latest events in Mali. Also here we have a great deal of agreement in the Council that the military should not abuse its influence to intervene in the political life. Those recent events have not helped but rather complicated the situation. But I think the sense of urgency will prevail and I’m hopeful that we are making headway to adopt a resolution on Mali rather sooner than later.
There is a strong awareness that the situation in Mali has wide-ranging regional implications. There’s a strong sense that terrorist affiliated groups in the North can contaminate the whole region and this is part and parcel of our sense of urgency that we feel and the responsibility of the Security Council to act."
[Q. on AlQaida sanctions committee]
Wittig: "We had this discussion outside the committee. We organised a couple of events in the German House in order to discuss this and wider questions of sanctions regimes. I pointed out in my statement that the tool of sanctions has to be kept up to speed, has to respond to the changing nature of the threat and to the rule of law. Mr. Emerson has written a rather critical report on the AlQaida sanctions regime as far as the rule of law elements as well as clear and fair procedures elements are concerned and we had a controversial discussion with him. You might remember that there was an exchange on views also between the Ombudsperson and Mr. Emerson. The committee itself has not been seized with this question that you mentioned. It has never been relevant in our concrete discussion.
You know that the system of the Ombudsperson works now in a very thorough way: Petitioners seize the Ombudsperson, she then spends usually months in evaluating the case and then presents the reports to the Security Council. Those reports are confidential and this is why I cannot speak about the contents of these reports."
[Q. on SC reform]
Wittig: "You might know that the Security Council reform is not discussed and not decided upon in the Council. It is a matter of the wider membership of the General Assembly, where this is a topic of discussion. But of course reform issues come up in the Council. They mainly concern the working methods. We had some exchanges on the working methods that included the question of penholder ship - which country should be in the lead of certain files -, that concerned the questions of the chairs of the subsidiary bodies and other issues. So that was quite a lively discussion.
You know that my country belongs to those who think that the Council should be adapted to the world as it is today. I think we are in the mainstream of those countries who think that the Council is in need of a thorough reform. It should go beyond a cosmetical reform. It should entail a change in the representation: we believe that the emerging nations of the South should have a major saying in a new Council and the large contributors to the UN as well. We consider ourselves a driving force for this discussion and at the same time we are pragmatic: we want to contribute to the camps leaving their entrenched positions. We are result orientated. We want to see rather sooner then later change to happen and that requires a sense of compromise, a sense of realism and pragmatism. I think we have that and we will - beyond our time in the Council - be working for a durable reform of the Council."
[Q. on veto]
Wittig: "First on your question on the veto. The veto is part of the Charta. It's part of the Security Council and you might not like the veto in specific questions, but it’s a reality."
[Q. on Palestine/double standards]
Wittig: "On the question of double standards: The situation after the decision of the General Assembly to elevate this status is serious. Positions have hardened. We have anticipated that, we have also voiced our concern that this would be the result of such a decision. But we have to look ahead and we have to work so that we find a way out of this spiral of hardening positions.
The Europeans have made very clear – for instance last Monday when the Foreign Ministers met – what they think about the decision in the wake of 29 November. They have also made clear that they would work hard to initiate bold steps to find a way back to negotiations. We know that we need some clear parameters for those negotiations. And we know that we need some bold decisions by leaders, by the protagonists, to pave the way back to negotiations. We as Europeans – and I’m answering to your questions about the perception on the Palestinian side – we have supported the Palestinian authorities, President Abbas and his government, financially and practically in many regards. And we have been one of the pillars in the state-building efforts of Prime Minister Fayyad. We will continue to do that and we will advocate a swift return to meaningful negotiations as soon as possible.
Our aim is to avoid any steps that complicate the return to negotiation. I think this is what we all work for: Paving the way to have a perspective for direct negotiations."
[Q. on Syria]
Wittig: "I have to be very clear: The responsibility for this disaster in Syria, the humanitarian disaster, the regional spill over, more than 40.000 dead, a great tragedy brought upon this country, the responsibility falls squarely on Assad and his regime. It's a clear cut case. There were many forks in the road where Assad could have changed his course and where this slaughtering could have been avoided. He chose otherwise. He will have to be accountable one day for all the crimes that have been committed in Syria. So it’s not a question of foreign intervention – you know that nobody in the Security Council has ever spoken out on any foreign military intervention, this was never an issue. We tried our very best to prevent worse from happening. It was not to be. The responsibility for that falls on the Assad regime.
Nobody in the Council ever pleaded for any kind of military intervention."
[Q. on Syria]
Wittig: "The Council could not find unity. And the reason is that two members of the Council wielded their veto and therefore the Council was not able to act in a way that we thought would help solve the crisis."
[Q. on Security Council reform]
Wittig: "Now on the issue of the Security Council reform: I made it clear in my previous answer that the reform is not decided upon in the Council but outside, in the wider membership. The discussion is continuing. The need for reform is universally acknowledged. What is lacking is a consensus or a great majority of countries that can rally around a particular model. We are in serious though difficult discussions on that. It will still take some time to make headway. As I said before: Germanyconsiders itself as a driver for reform. We see the need to have a structural reform but at the same time we have a great deal of pragmatism and desire to bring the various camps closer together."
[Q. on debt crisis]
Wittig: "The international contributions of each and every country in Europe have been remarkable in the past. We are a big donor. Consider the 27 countries together: we make up almost 40% of the regular budget and in terms of voluntary contributions it goes far beyond that. The EU-countries are a major donor to this institution. Each and every one of us is facing budget challenges and most countries rather courageously kept up their level of support in development and humanitarian aid. I can certainly speak for my country that we have not cut across the board our aid to UN. But that is a challenge, a political challenge that each and every government has to face also vis-à-vis their respective public opinion: to justify and to keep up their national development aid although the economic situation at home is deteriorating. Grosso modo we – I speak also for my country – we have not wavered on our financial contributions to this important institution."
[Q. on Mali]
Wittig: "Our approach is two-pronged with a strong emphasis on the political process. Everything that we do in Mali has to be embedded in the political processes within the institutions in Bamako and vis-à-vis the North. Then we have to have a credible military option to complement and reinforce those processes. We are about to decide about the authorization of a military option. That does not necessary mean that we authorize an early use of that military option. We certainly hope that the political track can succeed to once again unify the country. But there has to be that option and those two tracks of one approach they hopefully complement each other. The discussions for a resolution are continuing. Hopefully they can come to a conclusion rather sooner than later."