NEWS ANALYSIS: Some might say she’s walking into a hornet’s nest: Norway’s new Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt is in New York this week to lead the UN Security Council at a time of high conflict levels all over the world. Huitfeldt is also keen to push Norway’s own agenda while trying not to land in a squeeze between the super powers.
Norway is now halfway through the two-year membership on the Security Council that it won in 2020 after a lengthy and at least NOK 34 million campaign. Only the US, Great Britain, France, Russia and China hold permanent seats on the council. The other 10 seats rotate and currently include, in addition to Norway, Ireland, Kenya, India, Mexico, Albania, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Gabon and Ghana.
It’s been 20 years since Norway was a Security Council member, “and likely to be 20 years until the next time,” Huitfeldt stated in an address to Parliament before flying to New York. She and her colleagues in the Foreign Ministry are determined to make the best out of it, with an agenda stressing peace through diplomacy, women’s rights and protection of civilians (especially children) caught in armed conflicts.
Huitfeldt insists that Norway hasn’t been caught in predicted squeezes between the US (always deemed as “Norway’s most important ally”) on the one side and China and Russia on the other. She attributes that to Norway’s “pragmatic” approach: “There’s no point for Norway to put forth an issue and go down with the flag flying,” she told newspaper Aftenposten last month. “Our most important interest is to get the Security Council to function in difficult situations. When we sit with the gavel at meetings, we have an enormous possibility to do that.”
She could claim several victories for Norway, also last year when the former Conservatives-led government still held political control of the foreign ministry. Foreign policy is one area where there’s broad consensus in Parliament and both Huitfeldt’s Labour Party and the Conservatives share common goals that won support on the council. Among them: ensuring humanitarian aid for Syria, an extension until March of the UN mandate in Afghanistan that promotes inclusion of women and condemns terrorism, and a declaration to secure schools in areas of conflict.
Norway and Ireland could be especially pleased that their efforts to keep humanitarian corridors open to Syria prevailed, since Russia is known for opposing them. The vote was, however, unanimous and thus included Russia’s support, perhaps after some prodding by the US last year. Norway could at least get some credit for helping to secure the votes of the other council members.
Huitfeldt was also proud that Norway, former member Tunisia and China took the initiative for a ceasefire in the Middle East after new hostilities flared up between Israel and the Palestinians. The measure included another declaration of support for a two-state solution.
Norway has also sought to strengthen, in a series of Security Council resolutions, references to women, peace and security and protection of children caught in armed conflict. They include the mandates for UN peace-keeping forces in Mali (where Norway has sent troops) and Sudan.
Little progress on Myanmar and Ethiopia
Huitfeldt admits to disappointment over a lack of progress in ending hostilities in Myanmar and Ethiopia/Tigray. “I must say we haven’t achieved good enough measures” for either, Huitfeldt said, both of them areas where Norwegians have been active in peace efforts and business development (Myanmar) and ended up feeling betrayed by Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, for his efforts to secure peace with Eritrea, only to see him set off a civil war against his own people in the Tigray region shortly thereafter. The Norwegian government has never had influence over the Nobel Committee’s decisions, but has been every bit as disappointed and even embarrassed by Abiy Ahmed. Both China and Russia refused to condemn the military coup in Myanmar, however, and have been reluctant to intervene in Ethiopia.
All this, of course, is taking place while the world’s attention is glued on the tensions resulting from Russia’s troop build-up along the Ukrainian border. That set off a series of meetings last week between Russia and, in order, the US, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Huitfeldt herself admitted at a press conference late Friday that “the signals from Russia are not especially positive” after the meetings. Her comments came after hopes of any breakthrough last week were dashed, and just as Russia was sending naval vessels into the Baltic. That prompted Sweden to boost its defense and send troops to the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic, just before large military-like drones were spotted hovering over Sweden’s Royal Palace in Stockholm, other government buildings and a nuclear power plant. Ukraine, meanwhile, was subjected to a massive cyber attack that knocked out communications systems.
A world ‘plagued by instability’
“During the past year we have been witnesses to a world plagued by instability and increased tension among the super powers,” Huitfeldt told Parliament. On Friday, after the week of inconclusive meetings between Russia and the west, she told reporters in Oslo that “it’s difficult to predict what will happen, and we’re holding all opportunities open. But the first signals we have from Moscow don’t give much reason for optimism.”
When powers like the US and Russia are barking at one another, it’s often best for Norway (literally caught between them) to sit still in the boat. Membership on the Security Council offers, however, a seat around what many call “the world’s most important table” and at least a symbolically important role. Norway used its “waffle diplomacy” to win the seat and was teased last week for using “brown cheese” diplomacy upon assuming this month’s council presidency when it offered Norwegian chocolate, brown cheese and a cheese slicer (invented in Norway) as small gifts to fellow members.
Norway’s temporary seat on the Security Council also gives Huitfeldt and, next week, her boss Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, an opportunity to host two so-called “signature” events during their month-long presidency. Huitfeldt will lead two open debates on Tuesday and Wednesday this week: One on women, peace and security (stressing the need to strengthen women’s participation in political processes while protecting them against threats and reprisal) and the other on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Prime Minister Støre, due to be in New York next week, will lead a meeting stressing the importance of protecting civilians caught in urban warfare. Next Wednesday (January 26), he’ll lead a meeting about the UN’s ongoing commitments in Afghanistan. Norway is also inviting the UN ambassadors from all the current members of the Security Council to an “informal gathering” with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to discuss the use of diplomacy to ward off conflicts and peace brokering.
Huitfeldt thanked all the parties in Parliament that supported Norway’s campaign for a seat on the council, also the two that were against the effort (the far-left Reds and far-right Progress parties) for “contributing to good discussions.” She even graciously thanked her predecessor as foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservatives, “for her thorough work in bringing Norway on to the council.” She claimed the council was not working in a political vacuum.
“The Security Council is, and will always be, an arena for super power politics,” Huitfeldt said. “It can at best be tamed.” That may present Norway’s best opportunity of all.