In the case of Syria Germany has exposed itself as a would-be great power

The German UN Ambassador agitating against Russia and China

by Karin Leukefeld

In case you want to learn something about German and European foreign policies towards Syria, you should follow-up the UN Security Council debates. The Security Coucil is the UN’s highest political decision-making body, in which five states – Russia, China, France, Great Britain, the USA – are permanent members having the right to veto, whereas another ten states take a seat for two years as non-permanent members. Germany has attended the Security Council as non-permanent member until the end of 2020 starting in 2019.

Most member states make an effort to take their tasks seriously given the great significance of the Security Council. They behave deferentially and appeal to the solidarity and unity of the Security Council in order to find solutions for the many international wars and crises. The so-called P3 (Permanent 3) France, Great Britan and the USA ever more frequently perform some non-dignified spectacles. In case a debate does not take the direction desired by Western capital cities, the UN ambassadors act in allotted roles in order to manipulate or frankly offend those who hold deviating views. In that case the debate is no longer about the matter but about how to degrade the contrahent, expose and hinder him, obstruct his cause. The P3’s favourite target of such endeavours has been Russia in particular since the beginning of the Syrian war.
  “To increase the pressure on Russia, if it does not surrender the regime, as we hoped for, we should go on with what we have been doing so far”, reads a protocol by the “small Syria-Group” that came to light after their meeting on 11 September in Washington, it had taken place on initiative of David Satterfield, state secretary for Near-East issues in the US State Department. “We have to emphasise Syria’s terrible humanitarian situation and Russia’s involvement in the bombing campaign on civil objects,” the British minute taker had written.
  At that time the USA, Great Britain, France and Saudi-Arabia and Jordania were members of the so-called P3. Shortly afterwards the group took on German and Egypt as new members. This knightly accolate might explain the behaviour of Germany’s representative and his deputies when it comes to debating Syria in the UN-Security Council. “Germany’s man”  at the UN is Christoph Heusgen who had been Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy consultant and international crisis manager for 12 years. In 2017 he changed posts and became ambassador at the United Nations in New York. Heusgen and his deputies never miss an opportunity to denounce “Russia’s complicity” in Syria.
  The latest example is the 8764th Mee-ting of the UN Security Council on 5 October 2020 in New York.

A lesson in diplomacy

“Progress in the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” was the issue on the agenda – in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution 2018. Ms Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, was invited to deliver her report. The Russian Federation holding the chair in October had also invited José Bustani, first director-general for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  One would not agree with that, the British UN ambassador Jonathan Allen declared in an objection. “The United Kingdom, together with Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United States of America, would like to raise an objection to the briefer,” Allen said. Someone to speak about the “progress in the eli-mination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme […] must be relevant to and knowledgeable of the topic under discussion.” Neither of these is the case with Bustani, although he is a distinguished diplomat, Allan said. While he had left the OPCW many years before the issue of Syrian chemical weapons was discussed in the Security Council, he was unable to “to provide relevant knowledge or information”. Therefore a procedural vote must be taken about the proposed briefer.
  What followed was a 20 minutes crosstalk on the question whether José Bustani was qualified to speak or not. Great Britain, France and Germany negated the right of the Russian ambassador Nebenzya to issue the invitation. Bustani had been invited by the chairman of the Security Council who was entitled to do so in accordance with rule 39 of the Council’s provisional rues of procedure. The British-French-German rejection front, however, attacked the chairman as representative of the Russian Federation. Nebenzya repeatedly had to switch roles from chairman of the Security Council to UN ambassador of Russia. This was provoked ever and again with great pleasure by the ambassadors of Great Britain, France and Germany.
  The Chinese UN ambassador Geng Shuang defended the chairman’s decision as being legitimte and declared that he did not understand the British proposal. “Mr Bustani, former director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has rich experience, unique insights and knowledge of the working methods and procedures of the OPCW”. Furthermore Mr Bustani was very knowledgeable about the chemical weapon issue and was therefore definitely qualified as a briefer about the topic. The Security Council in the past had frequently invited speakers to give briefings who had not been merely as professional as Mr Bustani was. United Kingdom’s behaviour was regrettable, said Geng Shuan. He proposed to take a procedural vote on the British proposal.
  Great Britain however stressed that the chairman had invited Mr Bustani and so this invitation should be put to the vote. Either he withdrew his proposal or he needed 9 votes to back the briefer.
  The Russian chairman, UN Ambassador Wassili Nebenzya proposed a vote on the phrase: “Who is opposed to Mr José Bustani briefing today’s meeting?” The British ambassador objected. The Russian Federation had invited the speaker und should hold a vote on who agreed to this invitation.
  The Chinese ambassador criticised that Great Britain and the others were provoking the Chairman. In his role as the President of the Security Council he had the right to invite a speaker. If there should be a vote it had to be on Britain’s proposal.
  The French UN diplomat Nicolas de Rivière referred to the “standard format” for dealing with the topic. According to the latter the Security Council dealt with the issue of Syrian chemical weapons every month and everbody was happy with that. Russia had organised Arria Formular meetings outside the Security Council with invitees whom it choses. Mr Bustani could well speak at that meeting. In the Security Council, however, Russia would have to put to vote the question whether one wanted to hear Mr Bustani.
  The German UN ambassador Heusgen reminded the Russian Chairman of an event in the year 2018. At that time Russia had prevented the Security Council’s meeting about the topic “Human Rights in Syria”, in which the High Commissioner was to speak about human rights. “That was a scandal”, Heusgen said. And now it was to turn the tables.
  The Chinese ambassador finally reproached Great Britain and the others to apply “a double standard”. Why is it that other briefers can be invited, but not Mr Bustani? Great Britain and the other colleagues “simply do not want to listen to differing views. They say that they are objective and fair, but that is simply not the case“.
  The chairman Ambassador Nebenzya put the matter to vote: Three representatives decided in favour of Bustani as briefer (Russia, China, South Africa), six against (USA, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia) and six abstained. (Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Indonesia, Niger, Tunesia, St Vincent and the Grenadines). José Bustani was disinvited, a scandal.

Why was José Bustani not allowed to speak at the UN Security Council?

Probably quite unintentionally, the German UN ambassador  had given a hint at the backgroundstory behind the P3’s (+ Belgium + Germany + Estonia) rejection front against the chairman’s invitation.
  The meeting from March 2018, which Heusgen referred to – probably after consultation with Great Britain, France and the USA – had been demanded then by France and seven other states. Russia had requested a vote on the agenda, not on the presence of the High Commissioner. The voting resulted in only 8 and not as necessary 9 votes in favour of the proposition. (France, Kuwait, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, UK, USA). Four countries voted against the meeting (Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation) and three countries abstained (Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia).
  Completely in agreement with the shortly before assembled “Small Syria Group” France had planned to put forward the topic “Human Rights” to the Security Council, in order “to accentuate the horrible humanitarian situation and Russia’s complicity in the bombing campaign on civil targets”, as they had agreed upon in the protocol. In March 2018 it was about the region south of Damascus. There, the armed militias (Jaysh al-Salam, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Rahman Legion, Tahrir al-Sham, Free Syrian Army and Jaysh al-Ummah) in the Eastern environment of Damascus (Ghuta) had come under hard pressure, and their withdrawal was negotiated. The civilian population was evacuated out of Douma and other suburbs. After they had consented to their withdrawal to Idlib Al Bab and Jarabulus situated in the northern environment of Aleppo near the Turkish border, a quarrel broke out allegedly within the Jaysh al-Islam and Damascus was bombarded again.
  Since the author of this article happened to be on site, she remembers the fighting as well as the fact that the Syrian Army fired back. However, these new ambushes lasted only one day. The next day, on 7 April 2018, the disputed White Helmets declared that the Syrian Army had used poison gas in Douma.
  Syria objected to this as a lie and requested that the inspectors of the OPCW were deployed in order to examine the charges. The USA, Great Britain and France instantly blamed the Syrian Army and bombed Syria on 14 April 2018 “as retaliation for the chemical weapons attack on Douma”. Germany welcomed the bombardments. At that point of time, the OPCW team was in Beirut, on its way to Damascus.
  Team inspectors reported in 2019 that there allegedly had not been a chemical weapon attack in Douma. The cylindric barrels in which the gas had allegedly been transported, had probably been placed there by hand on the spot where they were found. They requested to be heard within the organisation to report on their examinations and the deviations in the revised final OPCW report published later. They were not heard but instead they were denounced. When their findings were published, the OPCW initiated an investigation against them.

Bustani: Concerned about the OPCW

The OPCW investigation in Douma and its official final report was exactly what José Bustani wanted to talk about. Having served as the first director-general of the OPCW from 1997-2002 he may also be called its architect in a way. “Following a US orchestrated campaign in 2002”, Bustani had been removed from his post not long before the invasion of Iraq by the USA and their allies in 2003, as he explained in a statement at the UN Security Council: “… ironically [for] trying to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention.” “I took immense pride in the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of its inspectors”, Bustani said about the OPCW. “No state party was to be considered above the rest and the hallmark of the organisation’s work was the even-handedness with which all member states were treated regardless of size, political might, or economic clout.”

But now it seems that these very standards have been “severely compromised, possibly under pressure from some member states.” For him as former director-general “... the circumstances surrounding the OPCW’s investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on 7 April 2018” were “… of particular concern”. “These concerns are emanating from the very heart of the organisation, from the very scientists and engineers involved in the Douma investigation.” In the autumn of 2019 he had been invited to a meeting with one of the inspectors involved, where eye-witness accounts and evidence had been presented. What he had seen and heard on that day had been so disturbing that he had gone public with a statement immediately, Bustani recalled in his angry speech at the UN Security Council. He and several other figures from various countries had demanded a public hearing of the inspectors involved in the Douma investigation. The OPCW had not responded to the increasing controversy regarding the Douma final report. Rather the organisation chose to dig itself in “hidden behind an impenetrable wall of silence and opacity, making any meaningful dialogue impossible”.
  Bustani emphasised: “The work of the Organisation must be transparent, for without transparency there is no trust. And trust is what binds the OPCW together.” The Brasilian diplomat then addressed his successor as director-general, Fernando Arias, directly:

“It would be inappropriate for me to advise on, or even to suggest how the OPCW should go about regaining public trust. Still, as someone who has experienced both rewarding and tumultuous times with the OPCW, I would like to make a personal plea to you, Mr Fernando Arias, as Director General of the OPCW. The inspectors are among the organisation’s most valuable assets. As scientists and engineers, their specialist knowledge and inputs are essential for good decision making. Most importantly, their views are untainted by politics or national interests. They only rely on the science. The inspectors in the Douma investigation have a simple request – that they be given the opportunity to meet with you to express their concerns to you in person, in a manner that is both transparent and accountable.”

This should be the minimum that they can expect, Bustani said.

“At great risk to themselves, they have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation, and it is without doubt in your, in the Organisation’s, and in the world’s interest that you hear them out.”

The inspectors did not claim to be right in all points, they just called for a fair discussion.

“As one Director General to another, I respectfully request that you grant them this opportunity. If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and in the integrity of the investigation, then it has little to fear in hearing out its inspectors. If, however, the claims of evidence suppression, selective use of data, and exclusion of key investigators, among other allegations, are not unfounded, then it is even more imperative that the issue be dealt with openly and urgently.”

Bustani concluded expressing his confidence that the OPCW was capable of self-correction.

“The world needs a credible chemical weapons watchdog. We had one, and I am confident, Mr Arias, that you will see to it that we have one again.”

So much for the speech by José Bustani. But why would the United Kingdom France, the USA and Germany not listen to this? Because the statements of the inspectors suggest that the pressure and intimidation they were subjected to came directly from at least one of these states, even by sending a delegation to OPCW headquarters in The Hague. “They did not introduce themselves but threw a brochure on the table and said: This is the Douma report, if you want to know what happened there just read this”, recalls “Alex”, one of the inspectors who was present at the meeting in October 2019 in which the author of this article participated. As is the third largest financial contributor to the OPCW and a member of its executive council until 2021 Germany was bound to notice the intimidating behaviour and the pressure on the inspectors of the Douma team. Still they stay loyal to the “permanent 3” – despite knowing better, one might suppose. Why?


Back again to German diplomacy in the UN Security Council. The chairman ambassador Nebenzya used his national function – as permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations – to read the report of José Bustani aloud after the report of disarmament commissioner Izumi Nakamitsu.
  British UN ambassador Allen formally protested. The chairman had proven his disdain for the members of the Security Council, he alleged, by inviting a speaker whom the majority did not want to listen to. When he (the chairman) had “ignored the decision of this council”, “it is perhaps not a surprise that Russia chooses to ignore the rules that it wants others to abide by”, Allen polemicised.
  France and the US both criticised Russian UN ambassador Nebenzya in the usual harsh manner before they commented on the report of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu.

  Then German UN ambassador Heusgen took the stage and addressed the presiding Russian ambassador directly, as follows:

“Mr President, in the introduction of your long citation, you said that those who questioned the presence of Mr Bustani here, that we were bringing ‘shame and disgrace to the Council,’”

the ambassador opened his attack, which will be reproduced here as follows:

“So let me ask you, who brought shame and disgrace to the Council? Was it the 12 countries in this Council who did not vote with you, who tried to prevent a former OPCW official who was not in a position to provide relevant information today? Or was it Russia and China? […] Russia and China prevented that Zeid Al Hussein briefed the Council. This brought shame and disgrace to the Council. Who brought the shame and disgrace to the Council? Was it the 13 countries around the table who in July were in favour of opening three crossing points in northern Syria to allow humanitarian aid into the country? Or was it China and Russia, who vetoed that and, according to UNICEF, put into danger the lives of 500,000 people, including many children?
  Who brings shame and disgrace to the Council? Is it the members here who adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention, or is it Russia, which in 2018 launched a cyber-attack on OPCW in The Hague?
  Who brings shame and disgrace to the Council? Is it all the members of the international community who defend the Chemical Weapons Convention and who try to prevent that chemical weapons are used? Or is it Russia, who uses chemical weapons even on its own citizens – on Mr Navalny, on Mr Litvinenko, on Mr Skripal and his daughter?
  In your Russian capacity, when will we hear one word from you mourning the victims of the chemical attacks on the Syrian population? More than 1000 people have died. When will we hear mourning about the victims of Assad’s regime, those that the witness in the Koblenz trial described – thousands and thousands of people who are killed in the prisons of Assad, who are buried in mass graves. When will we hear mourning from you about this? When will you finally support accountability on these crimes committed by the Syrian regime and therefore allow for reconciliation in that country, which we urgently need?“

Eager as he was to attack Russia and China and blame them for all perils in Syria the German ambassador totally forgot why he was attending the meeting on that day. He did not even mention the report of High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu.
  Chinese ambassador Geng Shuang pointed that out. He expressed his regrets that Mr Bustani had been denied the opportunity to speak to the Security Council and that several countries including Germany had actively blocked him from doing so, the Chinese representative emphasised.This revealed the hypocricy shown by these countries that only want to hear what they would have to say themselves. He went on as follows:

“I must say that, in his remarks, the German representative did not raise the question of chemical weapons in Syria at all,”

so Geng Shuang went on.

“His statement consisted entirely of attacks on other members of the Council.”

The German representative had treated the Council as a venue for venting his sentiments and dissatisfaction. Such practices was not at all constructive.

“At least the representative of the United Kingdom, after expressing his disagreements, stated his position on the question of chemical weapons in Syria. If countries come here to attack other countries rather than discuss the issue at hand, how can we talk about solidarity int he work of the Council? How else can the Council play a role?”   •

(Translation Current Concerns)


Published first by: on 10 October 2020, reprint with friendly permission by and the author.

ef. Independent journalist Karin Leukefeld was born in 1954 in Stuttgart and has studied ethnology, islamology and political sciences. She has been reporting from the Extended Middle East for daily and weekly journals as well as German state sponsored radio programmes since the year 2000. She was accredited in Syria in 2010 and has been reporting on the Syria conflict since then. Since the beginning of the war in 2011 she moves back and forth between Damasucs, Beirut, other places in the Arab world and her hometown Bonn. She has published several books, such as “Syrien zwischen Schatten und Licht – Geschichte und Geschichten von 1916-2016. Menschen erzählen von ihrem zerrissenen Land” (Syria Between Light and Shadow – History and Stories 1916–2016. People Narrate about their War-torn Country.) (2016, Rotpunkt edition Zurich); “Flächenbrand Syrien, Irak, die Arabische Welt und der Islamische Staat” (Surface Fire Syria, Iraq, the Arab World and the Islamic State.) (2015, 3rd edition 2017, PapyRossa edition, Cologne). Her new book will be released soon: “Im Auge des Orkans: Syrien, der Nahe Osten und die Entstehung einer neuen Weltordnung” (In the Eye of the Hurricane: Syria, the Middle East and the Rise of a New World Order (2020, PapyRossa edition, Cologne).

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