July 1, 2020

A Tense Atmosphere in Foreign Relations: Estonia’s First Months As a Non-permanent Member of the Security Council

Raigo Paljula
The videoconference on 8 May devoted to the end of the Second World War was a serious challenge for Estonia. It was led by foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu.
The videoconference on 8 May devoted to the end of the Second World War was a serious challenge for Estonia. It was led by foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu.

The pandemic made its mark on Estonia’s presidency of the UN’s top body.

Estonia has been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for almost half a year. From a foreign-affairs perspective these have been eventful times, and geopolitical tensions have been growing. During our membership, the UK left the EU; US president Donald Trump presented his Middle East peace initiative; all countries were paralysed by the global pandemic; the hostility between the US and China has deepened; and our greatest ally has faced its most severe street riots in recent times. It seems unbelievable that all these events could fit into the past six months. They have set the pace and tone for Estonia’s membership of the UN Security Council, the arena of the world’s crisis diplomacy.

Estonia’s first month on the council was accompanied by anxiety: the US drone attack in Iraq that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the subsequent shooting-down of a Ukrainian civil aircraft by Iran. Although these events drew no response from the Security Council, among other reasons because Iran surprisingly and swiftly took responsibility for the shooting, they were warning signs of tensions that lay ahead. Immediately thereafter a complicated discussion took place over the extension of the cross-border mechanism for humanitarian aid to Syria. Russia and China were firmly opposed. To prevent the worst possible scenario for the Syrian people—interruption of aid supplies—the Council acquiesced in a bitter compromise and a tactical victory for Russia. The term of the humanitarian aid mandate was reduced by half, and two border crossing points were closed. This compromise was the lesser of two evils for the Syrian people. The renewal of the same resolution is again on the agenda for July, and tense negotiations are expected once more: Russia is sticking to its intention to serve the interests of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and to end the provision of humanitarian aid, while Assad wants to direct all such aid through Damascus and regulate it himself.

The first two months of Estonia’s membership were also dominated by an intensified search for a solution to the Libyan civil war. On 19 January, German chancellor Angela Merkel held a conference in Berlin, where agreement was reached on an all-encompassing plan to resolve the conflict, including a promise to adhere to the arms embargo and a lasting truce. For four weeks in February, with Germany presiding, the Security Council discussed a resolution on Libya, with the intention to approve what had been agreed at the conference and pressurise the parties to adhere to the agreements. Unfortunately, the resolution was not approved unanimously, because Russia remained neutral. To date the situation in Libya has steadily worsened: the measures set out in the resolution are not being kept and the conflict continues to escalate. The fact that Russia (a permanent member of the Security Council), took clear steps towards increasing its military presence in Libya certainly plays a part in these developments.

February was unusual due to several events that caught public attention. The tone for the month was set by the Middle East Peace Process and Donald Trump’s proposal, as well as by the intensification of military activity in the Syrian province of Idlib. Palestine wished to make its countermove public and send its message to the world through the UNSC. To this end, at Palestine’s request Tunisia and Indonesia (both non-permanent council members), submitted a draft resolution for discussion. Discussions over the text were intensive. Surprisingly, a day before the council’s plenary session, Palestine withdrew the draft, despite the presence at the session of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine. It is speculated that this was due to a combination of predicted weak support in the vote and financial pressure from the US. The goal had been to obtain 14 votes in favour, while a US veto was certain. The drama of the situation is illustrated by the unexpected removal of Tunisia’s envoy; according to the media, Tunisia’s president had been inadequately informed of the details surrounding the submission of the resolution. Despite these background tensions, the EU members of the council were able to agree on a joint press release at the brink of the session.

The process of taking the province of Idlib in Syria resulted in numerous official and unofficial meetings. It is unfortunate that, because of Russia, the Security Council remained silent over the tragedy. The council was unable even to agree on a call regarding the humanitarian situation and the truce. Estonia considered it important to try to exert public pressure towards ending what was happening in Idlib. Together with the other EU member states, we made a proposal to discuss the escalating situation in Idlib at a special session of the council. Estonia, the US, the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic and Tunisia made a démarche to the Secretary-General supporting his more forceful intervention to achieve a truce in Idlib.

The discussions and events in February led to a particularly frequent need for cooperation and coordination amongst the EU members of the Security Council; February may well have seen the largest number of joint press releases in UN history, several of them at Estonia’s initiative. These public messages reflected issues we wanted to emphasise. For example, it was important to us to take a public stand on the Minsk Agreements and to point to transatlantic aspects of the Middle East Peace Process.

Keeping the World’s Attention On the Breach of International Law in Ukraine and Georgia

In February, Russia proposed at short notice to mark the fifth anniversary of the Minsk Agreements with an open meeting of the Security Council. Estonia and the like-minded countries influenced the tone of the meeting by proposing the invitation of a rapporteur on the humanitarian situation in the Donbass. By so doing, we created a space for the discussion of issues we considered important. The result was that calling the meeting did not serve the purpose intended by Russia, as voices in support of Ukraine predominated in the speeches, and the vociferous support of Russia’s usual allies was absent. At Estonia’s instigation and initiative, the EU members of the Security Council issued a joint press release on the Minsk process prior to the session.

On 6 March, at Estonia’s initiative and again with the support of like-minded member states, an unofficial session of the council took place on human rights in the Crimea. This was the first meeting organised by Estonia since becoming a member. The room was full, and many UN member states not on the council spoke in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, calling on Russia to end its occupation of the Crimea. Russia left the session after delivering an accusatory speech, but it stood alone in its criticism as none of the other speakers supported Moscow’s position. The meeting was a success, and helped bring Russia’s serious infringement of human rights to the public’s attention.

In May, the month of Estonia’s presidency, and as a response to the session we had organised, Russia called an informal meeting on the Crimea, intended to justify the annexation. The format of such special sessions allows the initiator both to chair it and to choose the rapporteurs. Nevertheless, Russia’s event fell through, as there were only seven speakers—an unusually low number, given that all UN member states had the right to the floor—and not a single message was voiced in support of Russia. Estonia, the US, and the UK publicly boycotted the meeting.

Estonia’s Initiatives Prior to New (Working) Conditions

In March, the Security Council was able to work at its usual rhythm for only a few weeks. Before the closure of the UN due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Estonia was able to initiate two important topics. On 5 March, a historic meeting took place in the council: the first time the issue of cyber-attacks was raised in relation to a specific case. Estonia, the UK and the US condemned the extensive cyber-attacks organised by Russia’s military intelligence against Georgia in October 2019. After the session, the Estonian ambassador read out a joint press release issued by the UK, the US and Estonia. The majority of Security Council members condemned the cyber-attacks and expressed concern over their dangerous repercussions, emphasising the importance of states acting responsibly in cyberspace. On 6 March the first session organised by Estonia took place, exploring the human rights situation in the Crimea (see above).

(Video) Diplomacy in the Era of Covid-19

Due to the pandemic, UN headquarters was closed in March, and diplomacy moved to video screens in home offices. At first, sessions were kept to a minimum, and attempts were made to organise video meetings. Step by step, the workload approached that of physical sessions and by May, when Estonia held the presidency, we carried out our agenda to the full.

At the onset of the crisis, Estonia proposed a joint press release by the Security Council on Covid-19. China, which was president at the time, disagreed and stated that a press release was unnecessary, given the uncertainty about the pandemic’s influence on international peace and security. This claim broke down in a matter of days due to the tragic events and the rapid spread of the virus. The potential effect of the pandemic on the security situation became clear: it causes the greatest suffering in poorer societies as well as those already embroiled in conflict. For example, over 50% of physicians have fled Venezuela. In Syria, government troops continue to bomb hospitals. Because of years of civil war, Yemen’s health system is non-functional. Libya is in a similarly fragile situation, just outside Europe. Clearly the spread of the virus severely increased suffering in societies with very weak medical systems and no one yet knows the nature and extent of the consequences.

At the end of March, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called for global ceasefire, and it seemed obvious that the Security Council would support this with its statements and legal power. France and Tunisia made an amendment to the draft resolution, which called for a humanitarian pause in conflicts and gave the Secretary-General the mandate to issue regular reports to the council. There was a feeling in the air that, besides France, no permanent member of the council was interested in united action or a public reaction. Negotiations wore on.

In parallel, Estonia began making efforts to call a session of the Security Council on the pandemic. At its initiative, at the beginning of April nine members of the council met for the first session on Covid-19. The Secretary-General spoke at the session, reporting on the situation with respect to adherence to the global ceasefire. After the session, only laconic messages were issued to the press, and to date this has been the council’s only united public communiqué on the pandemic.

May: Training in Video Diplomacy for Estonian Diplomats

In May Estonia presided over the Security Council. This was a presidency by video, but just as intense as the foreign-policy era in which we are currently living. It was also a period of tragedy, since the coronavirus continued to devastate New York, and at the end of our presidency mass demonstrations took over the streets of the city (and elsewhere in the US). Our diplomats in New York chaired sessions from their living rooms. Daily and family life melded together with the “backstage” of foreign policy. This was a historic month, and it was a complicated ordeal for many of our diplomats (and their families) in New York.

By May, the council’s daily agenda had become as full as when it was in physical session. The background to and tone of the discussions was the global pandemic and ongoing disagreements between the US and China. During its presidency, Estonia continued to maintain discussion of the pandemic’s impact on security. With Germany, we attempted to pull the resolution out of a dead end by offering a compromise proposal, but this did not receive support. We kept the topic in the council’s discussions in other ways: we organised a meeting between the Secretary-General and the council on the ceasefire and invited the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The high-level discussion we organised in May on civil defence provided a separate forum on the effect of the virus on the population of conflict regions. President Kersti Kaljulaid spoke for Estonia. The other honorary speakers were Liberia’s former head of state, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and ICRC president Peter Maurer.

Our presidency showed that an elected member of the Security Council can have a clear impact. We directed discussions and set the priorities. We talked about history and also made history: the virtual sessions organised by Estonia during the crisis were of the same quality as a television programme, which was the achievement of an Estonian entrepreneur and attracted attention and high praise globally.

While in ordinary circumstances sessions would have taken place at UN headquarters in New York, during the state of emergency we led two special sessions from Tallinn. In one case we divided the work with New York: foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu led the discussion on cybersecurity from the Kultuurikatel (Tallinn Creative Hub) and Ambassador Sven Jürgenson from his home in New York. In the best possible way, we impressed our colleagues with the quality of our organisation and the number of participants. By using the technological platform of an Estonian entrepreneur, we hopefully also played a part in the company’s international success. Perhaps in the future the quality of virtual sessions of international organisations will be similar to what we demonstrated during our presidency. Several diplomats from other states expressed this hope.

Through the session we organised on 8 May in memory of the Second World War, the message on our history and lessons learned from it rang out globally: national boundaries should not be shifted arbitrarily and every country must have the right to make its own foreign- and security-policy decisions. During the discussion on cybersecurity we shattered a Security Council myth that it was not a real or classic security topic.

At the end of our presidency we witnessed a new level of escalation in the tensions between China and the US. On the last day of our presidency in closed session, the UK and the US raised events in Hong Kong as an off-agenda item. Tensions increased around the fact that Hong Kong was not officially on the agenda. There was a danger that China would block the approval of the agenda—the entire plan for the final session chaired by Estonia. Following heated negotiations, the session did take place and positions on Hong Kong were expressed.

In June we handed the baton of the presidency to France, and in July it will pass to Germany. The fact that the Security Council will have been led by three European states in a row has come to be referred to as the European Spring. Together we have set the goal of keeping the security impact of Covid-19 on the agenda and maintaining regular discussions on this topic. Led by Germany, we are preparing for discussion on climate and security in July. The primary goal here is to increase the Secretary-General’s competence in this field, allowing him to make regular presentations on the topic to the council.


Estonia’s first half-year at the heart of crisis diplomacy has proved that elected members of the council do wield influence. They can be trailblazers, initiating discussions and setting the tone. A large part of the Security Council’s work is public. This makes it a forum for public diplomacy and communication; nearly half of the sessions are open and can be followed live on the internet or watched later. This is a unique opportunity for Estonia to spread its message. People listen to us and Estonia’s views are quoted.

Secretary-General Guterres has been a visible leader in the crisis and his messages have been clear. It is unfortunate that, to date, the Security Council has not been able to back him up or use its authority in support of the call for a global ceasefire. The council’s silence during the greatest crisis of our era illustrates both the growing antagonism between the great powers and a gap in global leadership. However, it is unreasonable to point the finger at the UN as an organisation; international organisations consist of and depend on their members. Today it is clear that the great powers lack a collective will and vision for the joint management of the current health crisis. Historians will need to examine whether and to what extent making compromises in the Security Council was impeded by the absence of physical meetings and diplomatic backroom discussions.

Video diplomacy has come to stay at the UN for a while. It is doubtful whether all the world’s heads of state or government can travel to be present at the traditional opening session of the General Assembly in September. The UN Secretariat is looking into ways of conducting video meetings with all member states, as well as introducing a system of e-voting. Solutions and decisions are in the hands of the member states, but there is no common will to effect a UN digital revolution. As always, progress in cooperation between countries is measured in years rather than weeks. Estonia’s contribution as presiding state was intended to be a goal-setter and to inspire: the depth of our digital footprint will be measured by historians in the future.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.