Perceptions of Norway’s term on the UN Security Council are predominantly positive. However, communication about what has been at stake in the past two years has been somewhat lacking.
Between Christmas and the New Year I had a video conversation with Kenya’s UN Ambassador Martin Kimani in New York about how African countries view the war in Ukraine. When the interview was over, he added:
“Norway has used its two years on the UN Security Council well. More Norwegians ought to be aware of that.”
Kenya sat alongside Norway on the Council. The two countries cooperated closely,
and the ambassador elaborated on what he felt were Norway’s assets:
“The Norwegian delegation are better listeners than others. Diplomacy is about understanding where people are coming from, and then contributing to the resolving of conflicts.” Kimani pointed out that Norway, whilst upholding principles, managed to combine them with practical solutions to save human lives. “Norway is the most pragmatic of all European countries. Your experience with peace diplomacy has made you highly sensitive to the necessity of understanding the position of others”, Kimani said.
Kimani himself has been highly praised for his conduct in the Security Council, particularly in the many meetings on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
A number of achievements
Kenya’s appreciation of Norway is supported by Richard Gowan, UN Director of the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). He told me in December that he felt Norway had done a good job as a Security Council member up until the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year. However, referring to the fact that Norway had, for example, seen through a renewed mandate for the UN operation in Afghanistan which had been threatened by a Russian veto, he added that “the strength of Norwegian diplomacy has been most pronounced since 24 February”.
That happened in March, immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, when all communication between the veto powers the United States and Russia, had been severed and the climate of cooperation in the Security Council was at an historic low.
In July 2022, Norway and Ireland further managed to renew a mandate to send emergency aid to four million people in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. They successfully repeated this at the 11th hour: on 9 January the Security Council unanimously agreed to renew the mandate again. The fact that both Russia and China voted for the Syria resolution that week, instead of abstaining or, in a worst case scenario, vetoing it and thus halting the life-giving emergency aid across the border from Turkey, was astonishing. Their agreement is said to have been a result of negotiations led by Norway and Ireland right at the very end of their membership period on the Security Council.
Gowan has told the Norwegian newspaper VG that Norway accomplished a great deal on the Security Council. Like Kimani he points out that Norway acted pragmatically and constructively, and managed to cooperate with China. As an example, Norway and China agreed to propose a ceasefire during battles between Israel and the Palestinian organisation Hamas in Gaza in May 2021. At the time it was Norway’s ally, the United States, that put a stop to issuing a statement from the Security Council while the fighting was going on.
There remains a question of whether the praise from Gowan is a result of ICG receiving funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Or whether the warm words from Kimani are an attempt to secure more aid from Norway. No, I really don’t think so.
During the past two years I have followed countless meetings of the UN Security Council, both on the UN’s own TV channel, and in the actual chamber during one week in December. An active body of observers consisting of journalists and commentators have communicated the work of the Council on Twitter and in other fora, and my impression from these sources is that Norway has done well and has managed to make a noticeable impact. I am not going to rule out the possibility that I have allowed myself to be influenced by the professional Norwegian diplomats in New York who have talked up their own achievements, but below are some of my observations:
UN Ambassador Mona Juul is a celebrity in the UN environment, thanks to the role played by her and her husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, when Norway facilitated secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993. She seems to have had access to most spheres and does not appear to have been negatively affected by the fact that her husband had to resign as Director of the think tank the International Peace Institute. That happened prior to Norway becoming a Security Council member, following revelations that he had received money from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Juul appears slightly awkward, her spoken English hesitant. This may actually have been an advantage for Norway. A European diplomat at the start of Norway’s period on the Security Council commented:
“She does not come across as patronising, which many Western diplomats often do.”
Juul has acted with great authority on the Council, not least during the almost 50 meetings which have been held on the war in Ukraine. In every meeting she has strongly condemned Russia’s warfare, and not shied away from confronting the Russian Ambassador, whose permanent seat was next to that of Norway.
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre did the same in a meeting of the Council in September, when he challenged Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia is threatened by NATO.
Less of a squeeze between superpowers
One of the predictions I and others made before the Security Council period was that Norway would end up in a squeeze between two mighty veto power members. Thanks to external circumstances this turned out to be less of a squeeze than expected. Joe Biden beat the UN sceptic Donald Trump at the polls and became US President, making the most important UN member a natural ally in the defence of human rights and democratic values.
The pandemic put China more on the back foot than we have seen in the UN in recent years, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Norway out of a possibly tricky balancing act with our neighbour in the East. Now, in the safe company of our closest allies, the only thing to do was to condemn Putin’s reckless war.
The western countries have worked more closely and effectively together in the Security Council in the past two-year period than they did during the Trump presidency. This has yielded some tangible results, such as an historic resolution on Myanmar which was adopted just before Christmas. It took nearly two years from the military coup on 1 February 2021 to the Security Council agreeing on a binding text supported by international law. This ordered Myanmar to stop the use of violence and release all political prisoners. This was adopted following weeks of negotiations. China, Russia and the world power India, which has also been a member during the past two years, abstained, which was nevertheless better than a Chinese or Russian veto.
The Myanmar resolution is a good example of what it is like to work on the UN Security Council: the text is by no means as strong as Norway would have liked, it is a compromise. This begs the question of whether watered-down resolutions really are of any use. A few days after the resolution was adopted, Myanmar’s imprisoned civil leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was given yet another politically motivated prison sentence. But then, on 6 January, the military junta announced the release of several thousands of other prisoners. The latter can be interpreted as a response to the UN Security Council resolution. Not even Myanmar’s junta is untouched by international pressure.
Visible in New York
Norway was an active participant in the negotiations leading to the Myanmar resolution, and has had firm opinions on everything from the civil war in Ethiopia and coups in Sudan and Mali, to climate change as a security threat. Juul has in many cases spoken to the media before and after Council meetings on these topics, something which has been much appreciated by the UN press corps.
This is in marked contrast to Norway’s demeanour the last time the country was a member of the Security Council, in 2001–2002. At that time, Norway did not make much use of the opportunity for reputation building – I personally observed this at close quarters as a press attaché at the Norwegian UN delegation in autumn 2002.
However, in the previous period the Norwegian media paid more attention to Norway’s work on the Security Council than it did this time. It is not surprising that the media prioritise reporting from the war on the ground in Ukraine over meetings in the UN Security Council, but politicians could nevertheless have done more to reach out to public opinion with a clear message about what Norway has been doing on the Council. This is the case for both governments Norway has had in the Council period.
In addition to meticulous diplomacy, the many meetings and open confrontations, Norway has, as a member of the UN Security Council, first and foremost been fighting a hard battle for our very existence. No less. The UN was established in 1945 with a clear objective, namely to prevent the repeat of atrocities such as the Second World War. The vision of peaceful co-existence, democratic progress and respect for human rights survived the Cold War and gained renewed support in the 1990s. For little Norway it was fundamental to fight for a world governed by regulation, where conflict is solved by negotiation and where land borders only change when the parties involved agree that they should.
Russia’s many breaches of international law in Ukraine pose an enormous threat to this common, global order. In addition to the drama in Ukraine we are also witnessing the decline of democracy, a fading respect for human rights, more people starving and an increase in the number of refugees. The most important thing Norway did on the UN Security Council was to play a part in counteracting these dramatic and serious trends. This is a thankless, Sisyphean task which does not result in clear political victories. But if Norway doesn’t commit resources to fight for democracy, human rights and a world governed by international law in the United Nations, then who will?
And then there’s Parliament
There is a faction in Norwegian opinion which feels that the resources spent by Norway and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Security Council have been at the expense of valuable work of nurturing cooperation with the EU, which after all is closer to home. Similar criticism was directed at Sweden, which was a Security Council member in 2017–18.
On Tuesday 17 January, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt, will report on what Norway has achieved as a member of the Security Council. She needs to state why the UN work is important, and demonstrate how it goes hand-in-hand with the diplomatic efforts towards the EU. The two priority areas complement each other. She could also point out the rather astonishing fact that as a member of the Security Council, Norway has had much closer contact with Russia than most other Western countries have since Putin invaded Ukraine. This has prepared the ground for Norway to play a part in the shaping of Europe once the war in Ukraine is over.
It is true that some of the work on the Security Council may appear to be rather futile, in particular Norway’s effort as leader of the Sanctions Committee for North Korea. These sanctions are the most comprehensive of all regimes that the UN has introduced, and of all the 15 sub-committees of the Council which monitor that sanctions are upheld, the one for North Korea is the most labour intensive. Three Norwegian diplomats have been working on the North Korea sanctions, with extremely limited opportunities to do anything about all the breaches facilitated by, among others, the veto powers China and Russia. Huitfeldt is not likely to go into much detail about the work on the sanctions committee, however she needs to make the case that this heavy administrative work has also been valuable.
On Thursday 19 January the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) will debate Huitfeldt’s statement. We can expect that Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party (FrP) will claim that the two-year period was wasted, while the other parties will give the government – and themselves – a pat on the back and say “well done”. It is twenty years until the next time, but given the current state of the world we cannot even be sure the United Nations will exist in 2041.