Speech by Ambassador Wittig on the Transformation of the Middle East

The Transformation of the Middle East: Challenge and Response of the International Community

Jan 19, 2012

(Check against delivery)

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here. I thank the Woodrow Wilson Center for this kind invitation.

Among the most frequent questions being asked when talking to journalists at the UN are: What do you expect of 2012? What do you think will drive the agenda of the Security Council over the course of this year? The subtext of these questions very often is clear and short: 2011 was momentous, so you better expect 2012 to be that as well.

One of last year's lessons certainly was: don't try to predict anything – you'll surely be wrong. So today, I won't try to predict anything, but instead focus on the impact the Arab Spring had on the agenda of the Security Council so far, on the impact the Council had on the Arab Spring and finally - instead of any prediction - on what needs to be done in 2012: I will argue that the spirit in which we tackle the challenges ahead will be decisive for peace and security – in the region and beyond.

In January 2011, we were taken by surprise by the demonstrations in Tunis and Egypt. Today, we all understand that those demonstrations signified the beginning of a new, far reaching development in the region. But it wasn't clear from the outset.

It is true, however, that we had some indications for the events to come. The first Arab Development Report - published already in 2002 - for example stated: "The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of [...] Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab States. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development." And it goes on to say: "[...] people's aspirations for more freedom and greater participation in decision-making have grown [...]. The mismatch between aspirations and their fulfillment has in some cases led to alienation and its offspring apathy and discontent. Remedying this state of affairs must be a priority for national leaderships. Moving towards pluralism [...] needs to become a priority for Arab countries."

Nevertheless, only few observers, if any at all, saw the Arab Spring coming. The scope and depth of the upheaval was a surprise. This is one of the reasons why the international community's response was - and I would say: unfortunately still is - rather slow, hesitant and haphazard.

The Security Council is no exception here. In the first weeks and months of 2011, the Council had not publicly touched on the developments in Tunis or Egypt at all. It just wasn't on the agenda.

But why is it that newspapers - over weeks - ran extensive coverage from Tunis to Cairo, including analysis on the possible regional consequences - and the Council didn't even mention it?

One reason certainly is that quite a number of UN Security Council members adhere to an orthodox political doctrine: the Council shouldn't get involved in so-called "internal affairs" of UN member-states, it shouldn't "interfere". For them the Council has to go by the textbook of classical conflict only, i.e. unless there is a manifest transnational crisis there is no mandate for the Council. Surely not for action, but very often not even for consideration.

It was German Foreign Minister, who, in a Security Council debate on "Development and Security" in February 2011 touched on the latest developments in Egypt - the resignation of President Mubarak - and said: "The proud people of Egypt deserve to enjoy the peaceful transformation of their society. It is up to the Egyptian people to determine who will lead their country. They must be given the chance to do so now." It was one of the very rare occasions that any member of the Council addressed the actual developments. The Council as a whole remained silent. On Tunis. On Egypt. On the Arab world.

Qaddafhi changed the dynamic of the Council. His ruthless brutality and the scores of his victims led to the defection of the Libyan delegation to the UN. They made a dramatic plea for the Council to act – and to refer the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court. Paired with the unexpectedly strong role of the Arab League it created a call for action that no Security Council member could resist. The violent crackdown on peaceful protesters wasn't an internal affair any longer.

On February 26, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 1970, including one of the most profound sanction regimes against a national leadership ever established. But the adoption of resolution 1970 was a landmark decision not only in the sense that the wind of Arab change had finally reached the shores of Turtle Bay. It was a landmark decision in one more aspect: it contained the unanimous referral of the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court. Even the US, China and Russia actively supported the referral. This was a first. Unfortunately it tends to be overshadowed by the discussion of the resolution that was to follow on March 17: 1973.

Through resolution 1973 the Security Council authorized the use of all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya, accompanied by a further tightening of sanctions, thus taking them to an unprecedented level.

No Council member opposed the adoption of resolution 1973. But with the abstention of five of its members the Council's hidden fault lines came to surface. These fault lines were hidden but well known. They run, in a nutshell, between those who follow the orthodox doctrine of non-interventionism and those who argue on the basis of the responsibility to protect. But until the adoption of 1973 these fault lines were barely affecting the Arab World. For the Council and the Arab world, 1973 was to become a defining moment in the year 2011.

Resolution 1973 and the ensuing debate shed light on one more aspect of the Council: the increasing cohesion among the members of the so-called BRICS countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. All BRICS countries were members of the Council in 2011. Their co-ordination seemed to extended far beyond questions of economic policy. In the debate of 1973, the democracies from the "Global South" argued more or less along the same lines as Russia and China. This alignment culminated in a tragic climax on October 4, when Russia and China vetoed a European draft resolution on Syria - and managed to make India, Brazil & South Africa abstain on a very basic call for an end to the violence there.

But before talking about Syria, allow me to briefly touch on Yemen. Already in January, Yemen saw the first demonstrations inspired by the events in Cairo and Tunis. But although the explosive potential of Yemen – just think of AlQaida and the pirates off the Yemeni and Somali coast – is more or less well known, there was little appetite among Council members to take up the issue. Our early – and at that time pretty lonely – German efforts to put Yemen on the agenda of the Council were driven by the concern about regional repercussions of a protracted conflict there.

It wasn't before the violent clashes in late May – and the bomb blast wounding President Saleh in June – that more and more members of the Council slowly agreed on our assessment that the Council needs to take up the issue - and to send clear messages to all sides of the conflict. But it still took us until October 21 to agree (unanimously) on a resolution calling for an end to the violence and for a transfer of power. We welcomed the eventual unanimity of the Council – especially given its polarization in the aftermath of resolution 1973. But we are afraid that an earlier understanding might have prevented unnecessary bloodshed.

But the situation of utmost concern was without any doubt the one in Syria. As one of the Arab "Big 4" – Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq & Syria – and strategically located in the heart of the Middle East, Syria has a role to play in all the various conflicts in the region. Think of Lebanon and Hezbollah, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Iran or the Kurdish issue.

And without dipping to much into the details of the difficult – and sometimes obscure – negotiations in the hallways of the UN, I want to highlight the second decisive moment of the Security Council's dealing with the Arab world in 2011: On Tuesday, October 4, Russia and China chose to double-veto a European draft resolution on Syria. The draft condemned human rights violations, demanded an end to the violence and called for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process. If adopted the resolution would have contained nothing more than a symbolic threat of sanctions – explicitly restricted to Art. 41 of the UN Charter, thus explicitly non-military in nature.

Although the draft received the necessary majority of nine votes, it failed to be adopted due to the double veto cast by Russia and China. And – as mentioned before – the large democracies of the South sitting in the Council – Brazil, India and South Africa – did not support the European draft, but preferred to abstain in a move closely coordinated with Moscow and Beijing.

The message sent to Syria was basically twofold: Assad could still bank on the support of his patrons. And the Syrian people couldn't hope for the international community's united support. We clearly saw this as a recipe for further violent escalation.

But the most important aspect is transcending Syria: the Council did not live up to its responsibility to maintain international peace and security. Instead it was a serious setback for all those in the Arab world who - with their legitimate hopes and aspirations - had hoped for change to come.

Some argue that it is not up to the Security Council to support internal revolutionary movements or even call for regime change. I would agree. The guiding question for the Security Council should be: How are regional peace and security best achieved?

And there it might be useful to look back at one year of Arab Spring. The widespread enthusiasm and hope at the beginning was certainly fueled by three "absentees":

- there was no "Isreal scapegoating", there was no malign reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - as we had it seen far too often before,

- there was no Muslim fundamentalism driving the events,

- and there wasn't any Western role model.

It was - in the best sense of the word - an "indigenous movement".

But over the course of the year, some parameters have changed:

- recent elections in Tunis and Egypt have given Muslim parties – and the Muslim brotherhood – more democratic representation and legitimaty.

- the Palestinian issue has gained more attention on the world stage, due to the unsatisfactory peace process and the Palestinian push for UN membership.

- the countries at the Gulf don't seem to be entirely immune against the wind of change in the Arab world. Whether some of this year's incidents develop into something more challenging remains to be seen.

So what is the way ahead, what needs to be done? The challenge clearly is to deal with an unprecedented yearning for freedom and self-determination in a fashion that provides for progress and stability at the same time.

After a year of dramatic unrest in the Arab region, the Security Council -- and the United Nations as a whole -- need to understand that their single most important tool is a political one: whenever the international community speaks with one voice it will be heard. Whenever frictions dominate the headlines, efforts for moderation will falter. This requires the political will of all members of the Security Council to accompany and to encourage peaceful change.

But we have to do more than that – also in the absence of a united Security Council:

- We should seek dialog with the moderate Islamic political parties. As my Foreign Minister recently said [FAZ op-ed]: “Islamic orientation can be linked with democratic convictions […] Islam can be compatible with democracy.” We have to carefully study the individual politcal platforms and measure the parties against their actions – our yardsticks will be their commitment to democracy & the rule of law, to pluralistic societies & religious tolerance to internal & external peace. We have to keep in mind that these parties have a broad electoral base in their respective countries – and that they perhaps offer the best chance to engage in the sustainable transformation towards plural, democratic & stable societies.

- We should not underestimate the significance of the economy. Recent events were driven by the desire of the large young Arab population that was deprived of any form of participation, be it democratic or economic. For the mostly young people in Tunis, Egypt and beyond, there simply wasn't any opportunity for a decent future. This is something we have to work on, there has to be a democratic dividend. The transformational process has to be supported on an economical level. Germany has therefore offered “transformational partnerships” with a strong focus on creating networks for jobs, education and mobility. More investment, more educational partnerships and more open markets are needed to adress the reasons why the people took to the streets: a fair share and a decent future.

- Sometimes it is little noted, but the Arab League has also embarked on a transformational process. Recent decisions on Libya and on Syria have demonstrated how much it has already changed. And here we shouldn't only focus on the potential flaws of the current observer mission to Syria. The package of decisions by the Arab League on Syria is without precedent, its political role has substantially increased. We are very supportive of this process: As often as possible, there need to be regional solutions to regional conflicts. We should work hard to strengthen and further enhance the capacities of the regional players technically on the ground but also in the framework of the United nations.

As I said at the outset, we are witnessing a new dawn for the Arab world. But it won't be achieved in just one day. It will bring serious and violent setbacks. But as with the change in Eastern Europe, I am convinced that the wind of change will not die down, and that in the long-run democratic ideals will prevail.

Freedom and democracy are values in themselves. But they will also bring economic progress and lead to more regional stability. We should do our utmost to support this wind of change substantially and continuously. It is in our best interest.

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