August 22, 2019

Estonia’s Options in the UN and the Security Council

UN Security Council membership increases interest in Estonia around the world.
UN Security Council membership increases interest in Estonia around the world.

The Security Council demonstrates the desire for cooperation between countries

September 1991 marks the first and so far last time Estonia has been on the UN Security Council’s agenda, when the Council adopted resolution 709 recommending that Estonia be admitted as a member of the UN.1 This is actually a very good sign. As fate would have it, or maybe as an ironic turn of it, Romania—later our rival for election—was a member of the Council at the time resolution 709 was adopted. Estonia joining the UN was undoubtedly an important event on the way to restoring our independence, but the focus was already directed elsewhere, for there was a need to join more exclusive clubs like the Council of Europe (1993) and the European Union and NATO (2004).

Estonia’s activities in the UN were intended to support, to the best of our abilities, our case for joining the EU and NATO. True, not much was expected from Estonia’s diplomacy to contribute actively to resolving global issues, and we ourselves had significantly limited our opportunities in the UN by being the only one of the newly independent countries to refuse to join the (in our view) Yalta-like Eastern European Group, which also had Russia as a member. Almost all countries belong to one of the five UN Regional Groups—Western European and Others, Eastern European, Asia-Pacific, African, and Latin American and Caribbean. Positions in the UN are usually distributed and elected according to groups, pursuant to the geography of international relations. However, Cyprus belongs to the Asia-Pacific Group while Israel is in the Western European Group. Estonia’s intention was to join the West, but that did not bother our Baltic neighbours. Eventually it became clear that there would not be any post-Cold War reform of the regional groups and we were not even wanted in the Western European Group because an increase in members would inevitably lead to more competition for positions within the UN system. The decision to join the Eastern European Group was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 2003, and we joined in the spring-summer of 2004, at the same time as we joined the EU and NATO. Kiribati, in the Pacific Ocean, is the only country not to belong to any of the UN regional groups.

Membership of the EU and NATO meant that the relationships between European countries slowly started to change to quasi-foreign policy, though not quite into a domestic matter. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy put the neighbourhood both to the east and to the south on the agenda, while NATO’s ongoing agenda was, in the context of the war against terror, burdened with geographically more distant topics―the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa, and so on. Additional opportunities arose for cooperation with other international organisations, including the UN. A clear example is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement in September 2003 about the handing over of credentials to US president George W. Bush by new ambassador Jüri Luik, with the main focus on Estonia’s imminent membership of NATO. The statement also mentioned that the previous meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell “focused on the discussion regarding the Iraq situation, and among other things, the Secretary of State explained the US’ proposals included in the UN Security Council’s new draft resolution”.2 It was therefore only natural that in the spring of 2005 our Minister of Defence, Jaak Jõerüüt, proposed that Estonia should apply for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council.3 “I am convinced that Estonia must pay more attention to what is going on in the UN and be more active there as well. We cannot act adequately as a country by forgetting or ignoring international law,” he wrote, having just returned from being the ambassador to the UN. “I think that Estonia should apply for a rotating position in the UN Security Council. This is achievable in the next decade and the period lasts for two years. Such an application would indicate Estonia’s maturity as a state,” added Jõerüüt. At the same time, he recommended that defence spending be increased to 2% of GDP and the establishment of a centre for defence studies. Estonia’s candidacy was established in October 2005. Romania launched a competing bid a year later, having just finished its fourth term on the Security Council (2004–5). True, there was no active campaigning in the years immediately after the candidacy was announced, and three years later only eight votes of support had been gathered out of the 128 needed (six from Europe, one from the Americas and one from Africa). The real basis for success was established during 2017–18. The number of international contacts and the level of support for Estonia achieved as a result of the campaign was unprecedented.

Opportunities for small countries to stand out as members of the Security Council have been criticised mainly on two grounds: first, that being one of the ten non-permanent members means having to take the permanent members’ right of veto into account, and second, that they may not be ready to get involved in Security Council issues. In 2016, there was a serious public debate on this in Estonia. Security Council membership was seen as an overwhelming burden, primarily because of the permanent members’ right of veto, which in turn cripples the substantial amount of activity of the Security Council and does not permit resolutions to be found to conflicts or prevent crimes against humanity from being committed. The latter is a serious criticism and does indeed derive from disagreements between the permanent members.

However, it is clear that using the veto is not always the first choice of permanent members, who try not to reach the stage of vetoing, even if just to preserve the Council’s prestige. Many issues on which a permanent member would obviously use a veto will therefore not even get to a decision or, if they do, only for the purpose of putting the opposing side in the dispute into an uncomfortable position. Two conditions must be met for substantive decisions to be adopted in the Security Council: at least nine members must vote in favour and none of the permanent members can be against. For example, in 2018 the Council adopted 54 resolutions (28 related to Africa and a dozen to the Middle East), while three were vetoed (by Russia in relation to Syria and Yemen, and by the US in relation to unrest in the Gaza Strip). However, most  resolutions were adopted unanimously.

On average, two or three resolutions are vetoed each year but, for example, between May 1990 and May 1993 no vetoes were applied at all. This expresses well the spirit of the CSCE’s 1990 Charter of Paris,4 which states that the era of confrontation and division had ended and a new era of democracy, peace and unity―basically a world order marking “the end of history”―had opened, at least for Europe. Alas, this promising period in the post-Cold War world ended with Russia’s veto over Cyprus in May 1993. Of course, the international community demands that use of the veto be limited, but progress on reforming this matter is extremely slow. Thus, the more extensive rights of the permanent members must be taken into account and, by studying the playing field to the best of our ability, issues that are important for us must be included on the agenda by acting as a wise influencer―to borrow an expression from social media―of international processes.

Lauri Mälksoo, professor of international law at the University of Tartu, has pointedly commented that “Estonia is a late arrival in the UN, showing up when the ‘meetings have already started long ago’”.5 The timing of its arrival on the Security Council is indeed rather unfortunate. It is a period of dissolving structures and changing relationships. International agreements have started to lose their universal foundations; some―such as the INF Treaty―are losing their effect and validity, while others, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, have been caught up in political whirlwinds. The institutions are weak―just recall the goings-on at the Council of Europe. Ongoing conflicts will be joined by new ones, but the old ones show no sign of being resolved. The US has begun to refer to this as the “era of great-power competition”, which, of course, cannot pass without having an effect on the activities of the UN Security Council.

For the purpose of enhancing our competence in topics on the Security Council’s agenda, Estonia has in recent years increased its dealings with countries that are distant from us both geographically and ideologically. Since 2013, Estonia has been formally represented at the African Union, and during the campaigning period more active relations were established with every country in the world. The smallness of our embassy network can be compensated for by the establishment of new information channels. In 2017 non-resident diplomatic relations were established with South Sudan, and last year with Chad and Sudan, in the case of the latter barely ahead of this year’s developments there. Of the Security Council’s several dozen committees and working groups, each of the recently elected five non-permanent members must chair two or three; the newcomers’ choice is limited in geographical terms to the Sanctions Committees dealing with the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Lebanon, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, and a number of topical working groups. For example, our predecessor, Poland, currently chairs the Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan sanctions committees.

Now for a few words on the issues that will be accentuated during Estonia’s UNSC membership. It is in Estonia’s interest that a world order based on rules and international law remains strong. Relying on the principles of international law also establishes a solid framework for purposeful activity in the Security Council. This means that opinions and views must be based on the UN Charter, previous resolutions and agreed norms, even in controversial matters such as conflict-resolution (including the Middle East Peace Process, Syria, Ukraine and Georgia) and the use of force.

The first topic to stand out is cybersecurity Estonia has been promoting this for at least the last ten years, and there is thus an expectation that Estonia will bring a deeper understanding of international cybersecurity, which is also based on international law, to the Security Council. Estonia is the birthplace of the “Tallinn Manual”, which examines the applicability of international law in cyberspace and on which many countries have relied when forming their views. We have enough experience to tackle this topic at a policy-making level in various organisations, including the UN.

Second, we want an active involvement in conflict prevention. This is laid down as a task for the Security Council in the UN Charter, as emphasised by Secretary-General António Guterres.6 True, the UN Charter mainly focuses on preventing conflicts between countries at odds with each other, although nowadays we mainly see internal conflicts. The components needed are a sufficient flow of information from the UN Secretariat, the distribution of the Council’s workload so that there is time to get involved in prevention, and a general political will and readiness for compromise. In the context of prevention, attention should also be paid to good governance and the protection of freedoms and rights, and to perform all this in close cooperation with the country or region involved in the crisis.

Third, during our election campaign we rightly focused on climate change, thereby emphasising our empathy with and sincere concern for the future of our planet. Climate change is not a common subject for Security Council discussion, and some even deem it burdensome; it has been discussed only four times, mainly from the perspective of conflict prevention. Although the work is still in its initial stages, a number of security risks arising from climate and environmental change have already been detected in crisis situations (for example regarding Chad, Somalia, West Africa and the Sahel region, as well as Mali and Darfur). The message taken from the latest debate on climate and security, held in January, was that there is a need for a more thorough and systematic understanding of the influence climate change has on security. The Dominican Republic and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, non-permanent members whose terms on the Council coincide with Estonia’s, will certainly be involved in all this. I believe we will find common language very easily on this issue.

Finally, a separate issue which Estonia will continue to work at is the improvement of the Security Council’s working methods. These were adopted “provisionally” in 1946, but this “provisional” arrangement lasts to this day. Thus, in its work the Council relies a lot on old practices, knowledge of which gives an advantage to the more experienced members. Discussions on Security Council reform have been going on since 2005 in the form of intergovernmental negotiations. We are looking at a complicated process, in which the permanent members mainly―some more, others less―want to see the status quo preserved. Since the agreement of all the permanent members is needed for reform in any important aspect to advance, the prospects for success seem rather limited.

So why does a tiny country like Estonia want to get involved in such high-profile international cooperation? The same could be asked of the major powers. The very existence of international organisations alludes to the fact that countries are generally interested in cooperation. However, participation in cooperation more or less restricts a country’s playing field in advancing its national interest to the maximum level of efficiency. This is actually all for the benefit of smaller countries, because restricting the actions of the major powers—even if only symbolically in many cases—creates additional playing space for the smaller ones. Thus, the UN Security Council is a good example of international cooperation: even though the differences in power and resources between the permanent members and the elected, large countries and the small, are obvious, cooperation between them is imperative for achieving legitimate results on whatever issue. This, in turn, increases the stability of international relations.

Our performance at the Security Council will bring Estonia maturity, experience, foresight and global acknowledgement. It will gain us new friends and help take relations with old ones to an entirely new level. Of the 15 members of the Council, five (Belgium,  France, Germany, Estonia and, still, the United Kingdom) belong to the European Union, which provides the opportunity for closer cooperation. Naturally, we will cooperate closely with our long-time ally, the US. The votes of permanent members Russia and China doubtlessly carry great weight. The ten elected members―in addition to the aforementioned ones, Indonesia, Niger, South Africa, Tunisia and Vietnam—try to coordinate their activities. However, there are no completely clear blocs in the UN, and alliances may vary according to the matter at hand.

If once we needed the votes of others to get elected, then now it is Estonia’s vote that is being sought. This creates new opportunities, but also places additional responsibilities on us and will certainly bring along a few uncomfortable choices. The proficiency that comes with the work to better understand the Security Council’s procedures may prove crucial in reacting to some coming crisis, even if it is only conveyed by providing good advice. This experience is worth some effort.

1 United Nations, “Resolution 709. New member: Estonia”. 12 September 1991.
2 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Eesti suursaadik USAs andis üle volikirja”. 9 September 2003.
3 Eesti Päevaleht, “Jaak Jõerüüt: Kuidas kaitsta Eestit?” 21 April 2005.
4 CSCE, “Charter of Paris for a New Europe”. 21 November 1990.
5 Lauri Mälksoo and Merike Teder, “Lauri Mälksoo: Eesti huvid ÜRO Julgeolekunõukogu liikmena”. Postimees, 22 January 2014.
6 “Can the Security Council Prevent Conflict?” New York: Security Council Report, 9 February 2017.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.