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UN: Antiwar Germany Assumes Security Council Presidency At Key Moment

  • Robert McMahon

B_y a coincidence of the alphabet, Germany this month assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council at a time when it is one of the most outspoken powers opposing military action against Iraq. There is little expectation that Germany's antiwar position will affect its handling of the traditionally neutral position of president. But during a month when crucial decisions could be made about Security Council action on Iraq, Germany may yet find itself at the center of delicate negotiations.

United Nations, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The presidency of the UN Security Council passes to Germany this week, giving it a seemingly effective platform to press its antiwar position on Iraq.

But the powers of a council president, which rotates monthly among permanent and elected members of the chamber, are limited. Experts on UN affairs say that, especially on an issue as serious as Iraqi disarmament, Germany can be expected to clearly distinguish between its national and ceremonial roles.

The current German government is a "red-green" coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party. It was re-elected by a close margin in September and was seen by many as gaining an edge by campaigning strongly against the U.S. threats of war against Iraq.

Two weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said at UN headquarters that Germany would not support military action against Iraq.

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix issued a tough report last week saying Iraq did not seem committed to the UN disarmament process. Fischer responded days later, saying it was important to give the inspection process more time. "It is important that we remain in the decision-making process in the Security Council and stick to Resolution 1441, which means, most of all, support the work of weapons inspectors," he said.

But as Security Council president, Germany will be conscious of its responsibility to make sure the deliberations of the council are as fair as possible, said John Ruggie, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University and a former top adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Ruggie told RFE/RL the highly regarded German UN mission, headed by Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, can be expected to run the presidency in a neutral and judicious manner. "Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder has a number of domestic political issues on his hands, but I don't think that has anything to do with the professionalism of German diplomats at the UN. So I don't think it's an issue of great concern."

Nearly one week before assuming the presidency, Germany had a taste of the pressures it will face. It accommodated a late request from the United States to be given time for an important presentation by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Pleuger was contacted by U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte just hours before President George W. Bush announced in his State of the Union address that Powell would be presenting proof on 5 February to the UN Security Council that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction.

David Malone is president of the International Peace Academy and an expert on Security Council affairs. He told RFE/RL that in addition to setting and adjusting the agenda, council presidents have other important duties, such as serving as spokesman to the media and acting as liaison with nongovernmental organizations and the UN Secretariat.

Germany, Malone said, may find the Security Council this month moving in the direction of approving a resolution authorizing military action at a time when it has already left itself the option of voting "no" or abstaining on such a measure. But it should not affect the functioning of the council, Malone said. "Ambassador Pleuger will doubtless be very careful to separate his roles as council president, favoring consensus and agreement on key resolutions, from [his role] as Germany ambassador, in which I'm quite certain he'll defend forcefully the positions that Chancellor Schroeder has outlined in recent months," Malone said.

Malone, a former Canadian diplomat, said it's widely understood that the debate in the Security Council will unfold at two levels. Most important will be discussions among members of the permanent five veto-wielding members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- as well as talks within that group between France, which is most vigorously against military action, and the United States and Britain, which are pressing the council to consider the "serious consequences" threatened in the November resolution calling for full compliance by Iraq with inspectors.

On a secondary level, the 10 elected members of the council, which Germany joined last month, are important in terms of the votes that they individually can provide to one side or another in the debate among the permanent five, said Malone. "When the permanent five is divided seriously or tactically on an issue, the elected members start becoming a lot more important to them. That being said, on this particular issue, nose-count efforts tend to suggest that Britain and the United States should be able to get the nine affirmative votes they need as long as there's no veto and the veto questions will be discussed amongst the permanent five."

As of last week, only nonpermanent members Spain and Bulgaria were seen as supportive of the U.S.-British position, although council members share broad concerns about Iraq's attitude toward cooperation with arms inspectors. This week's meeting with Powell, which Germany's Fischer will chair, will be attended by at least 11 foreign ministers from Security Council states.

Some news reports have said the evidence presented by Powell will be composed of numerous small clues about Iraqi weapons programs based on intercepted communications, satellite photographs of the movement of weapons materials, and documents.

Ruggie, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the administration will need to show significant new evidence to convince the council that force is justified. "If Powell shows up and simply repeats what the U.S. has already said at great length, that will land like a lead balloon. And so he has to have stuff that's different and new and consistent with the interpretation that the U.S. has been pushing," Ruggie said.

Germany will consult with council members today about the council's program of work for February and will present it to reporters tomorrow. There are already plans for a briefing by Blix and the head of the UN's nuclear regulatory agency, Mohammad al-Baradei, set for 14 February, that will signal whether Iraq has begun to show the proactive cooperation they say has been lacking.