Feature | Estonia's first year on the United Nations Security Council

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Estonia at a meeting of the United Nation's Security Council. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On January 1, 2020 Estonia became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (ÜRO Julgeolekunõukogu) for the first time. ERR News looks back at Estonia's first year.

The United Nations Security Council's (UNSC) primary responsibility is maintaining international peace and security. It has 15 members - five permanent and 10 non-permanent - and each member has one vote.

A non-permanent member post lasts for two years and brings Estonia "unprecedented visibility and experience" on the world's stage.

Rules-based international order, human rights, and cybersecurity are Estonia's priorities while sitting on the UNSC and while that might be enough for any first-time member, Estonia also had to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic while raising issues of regional security such as the protests in Belarus and the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Eastern Ukraine.

Speaking about the first year on the council, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations, Ambassador Sven Jürgenson said that 2020 "has been quite a year" and that no one could have prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"But we overcame it, as did other Council members and we adapted to our new reality. I would say that this would be one of our biggest takeaways from last year – the Security Council is a body that is constantly changing and members must change and adapt with it, otherwise, the body would lose credibility," he said.

Estonia's ambassador to the UN, Sven Jürgenson. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The pandemic also gave Estonia the opportunity to highlight its reputation as a "leading digital state in the world" and Jürgenson said the country "set a high bar for virtual meetings".

Priorities for 2021 include Estonia's second Presidency of the Security Council in June, usually one of the busiest months. Estonia's first presidency took place in May 2020. This year, discussions will focus on cybersecurity and the situation of children in armed conflict.

"Our guiding principles as a member of the Security Council are to protect human rights and ensure accountability for crimes committed, base our actions on international law, and stand for multilateralism," he said.

Additionally, Estonia and Norway will have "penholderships" on the Afghanistan file and with France on the authorizations to inspect vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

"Penholdership means more responsibility and a greater role for a Council member. We have to be honest brokers between parties and keep the Council´s focus on the topics. For an elected member such as Estonia, it's a great privilege to be in that position as not many elected members have such an opportunity," Jürgenson said.

"Of course, as an EU nation European security is a topic we will keep high on our agenda as we did in 2020."

On Tuesday, outgoing Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said the are plans for Estonia to apply for the next UN Security Council membership for 2050-2051.

The government needs to endorse the decision to apply for membership before an application can be submitted. 

Read ERR News's feature about Estonia's priorities on the UNSC here.

The year in numbers

  • Estonia has convened seven informal Security Council meetings, six of them via video.
  • The team has attended 425 meetings in total this year.
  • The Security Council adopted 58 resolutions in total this year.
  • The Security Council jointly negotiated 45 press statements.
    With like-minded countries, we have composed and made 31 joint press statements.
  • Estonia's Permanent Mission to the UN in New York has a staff of 22 with additional support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tallinn. 

A list of achievements for Estonia's first year on the UNSC can be seen at the bottom of this article.

Researcher: 'Overall, Estonia has done well'

Researcher Piret Kuusik speaking on ETV's broadcast "Otse uudistemajast". Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Piret Kuusik, a researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and ICDS, said Estonia's turn on the council has been an "immense opportunity" and has given the country the opportunity to highlight its strengths and experience.

Overall, Estonia's first year on the UNSC has been successful, she said: "It is one part of our foreign affairs that has been relatively untouched by Estonia's domestic politics. So, one can really see Estonia's classical "small but active foreign policy-making" in play."

The UNSC is dominated by its large five permanent members - U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France - and despite their disputes, Estonia still managed to raise the topics of Belarus and cybersecurity.

"Pessimists will say that this is nothing, those who are positively minded will say that Estonia has done the best it can," she said.

Read more analysis from Kuusik below and see what she expects from Estonia's second and final year on the council.

ERR News: What has being a member of the UNSC done for Estonia's reputation and Estonia's (and the wider region's) policy goals?

Piret Kuusik: Overall, the chance for a small state such as Estonia to take part in global affairs at this level is an immense opportunity.

For one, events have highlighted Estonia's foreign policy goals and its strengths. Events in Belarus allowed Estonia and the region to stress the importance of international law and maintaining peace in Europe.  Naturally, the active role taken by Lithuanians is of importance. Additionally, I think Estonia's savviness as a digital nation in a time of corona has grown its reputation. Estonia's fairly smooth transition to digital meetings set the standard for future meetings and events at the UN.

Secondly, I think Estonia's foreign policy is indirectly shaped by UNSC membership. Such international experience forces Estonia to consider the world from different perspectives and teaches Estonia how big states act in the world. In the Baltic region, countries tend to be very self-centric, so such experience will shape our policies and policy-making for a long-time to come.

Finally, my impression is that by being active and trying to take part best to its capabilities, Estonia has shown that it is fit to take part of global affairs. Despite, its size, Estonia adds value and is a reliable partner.  

Has Estonia made an impact at the UNSC?

To begin with, the overall health of the UNSC is not in good order, and thus the question of how to assess the impact comes up immediately.  

The UNSC is run by the permanent members first and foremost. The last four years have shown that when the P5 is not in a collaborative mood, then the non-permanent 10 cannot really do anything spectacular either.

Here, I refer to the lack of US engagement with the Council, the withering position of the UK due to Brexit, China's and Russia's obstructive efforts. In addition, the working methods of the Council have become digital and this is naturally affecting the diplomacy-making as well.

In these circumstances, I think Estonia has done the best it can by raising issues of importance in the UNSC - Belarus, for example - and trying to play an active role in the negotiations. For example, Estonia was pro-active at the beginning of the corona crisis in trying to reach a consensus among the members. It has raised the question of cybersecurity for the first time in the Council format and made efforts to highlight the importance of human rights and international law.

Pessimists will say that this is nothing, those who are positively minded will say that Estonia has done the best it can.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu addressing the United Nations Security Council. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

If I am to choose which of these is most relevant, then I say cyber. For two reasons:

1) it is a "new" security threat and UNSC ability to handle new threats is one of the criteria's of its success. Practice has shown that bringing new topics to the table is difficult. I agree that nothing concrete has been achieved, but opening the discussion is already an achievement.

2) Rules on how to govern the cyber realm will have the most long-lasting and wide impact for the future. As said, the rules are not set, but the discussion has been opened one form or another.

What do you expect Estonia to do in its second year on the UNSC?

Cyber continues to be one of the most important topics. I am not sure how much progress we will see, but I am sure that Estonia will try to push cyber and the governance of the cyber realm in every corner that it can.

Secondly, together with Norway, Estonia will be the penholder for the Afghanistan file. I would not underestimate the coordinators' role as they have the right to propose Council meetings, resolutions, joint statements and drafting. Estonia took part in the Coalition Forces operations in Afghanistan and Estonia has first-hand experience in the country. I think it is good that Estonia has a chance to engage with the same topic, but from a different viewpoint.

Thirdly, it is yet to be seen how changes in the US administration and London getting its focus back will affect the mood in the UNSC. An active US and goal-orientated UK may stir up the life in the Council. Alternately, they may ignore the UNSC multilateral platform and prefer to work in bi- or tri-lateral formats. If Estonia can get the U.S. and UK on its side, then its impact will be bigger as well. Or alternately, Estonia will be invited to join initiatives, then it also will have a greater impact in its second year. 

Finally, in foreign affairs, we are hostages to events and based on Estonia's activity in 2020, then I think that Estonia will try to actively find a role for itself in any situation. My reading from the UNSC team in Estonia is that they want to use these two years' to their maximum and gain as much experience and say as possible.

Overall, I think that Estonia is doing well. It is one part of our foreign affairs that has been relatively untouched by Estonia's domestic politics. So, one can really see Estonia's classical "small but active foreign policy-making" in play.

Main accomplishments: Year one 

President Kersti Kaljulaid raising the UN flag at Kadriorg on January 1, 2020, the date Estonia took up its UNSC non-permanent seat. Source: President's office

ERR News asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about Estonia's achievements during its first year on the UNSC.

Here's what the ministry said:

We have successfully kept the focus on European security issues.

At two formal meetings, we discussed events in Belarus and at the informal meeting of 4 September, we gave the floor to the people of Belarus, focusing mostly on the human rights situation in Belarus, and inviting Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to speak. The meeting was a success and was viewed nearly 50 000 times on social media.

In March, we convened an informal meeting on Crimea, and in August, we raised Russia's actions against Georgia, recalling the 12th anniversary of the start of Russia's aggression in Georgia. In November, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh emerged and we managed to address the question promptly with European countries at the Security Council after an escalation of the situation on the ground.

We were trailblazers in the era of virtual sessions.

We were quick to adapt to the crisis and set a new standard for organizing virtual sessions. The excellent technical quality of special events organized by Estonia has solidified Estonia's reputation as a leading digital state in the world. We also contributed to making the work of the UN Security Council more transparent – we often invited the entire family of UN member states to attend our sessions and made sure the sessions could be watched live and were available for watching later.

We have contributed to the success of Estonian companies – thanks to us, our partner for holding virtual sessions, the Estonian company Global Virtual Solutions won a UN tender and has cooperated with the UN representations of other countries.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) remotely addressing an informal meeting of the Estonian presidency of the UN Security Council. May 22, 2020. Source: Government Office

We have maintained the close cooperation of European countries in the Security Council.

The presidencies of Belgium, Estonia, France and Germany were dubbed the European Spring in the Security Council. Joint statements have also been a good way of sending out a message and reaching the parties of conflicts. In February, when Estonia headed EU cooperation, EU countries at the Security Council made a record number of statements.

We have raised awareness of emerging threats, including in cyberspace.

Estonia's ambition was to hold discussions among Security Council members over cybersecurity to arrive at the common understanding that international law also applies in cyberspace.

At a Security Council meeting in March, Estonia together with the United States and the United Kingdom officially raised the cyberattacks against Georgia in October 2019. It was the first time specific cyberattacks were officially discussed at the Security Council.

We were also pioneers with our informal meeting on 22 May: the Security Council had previously not discussed the stability of cyberspace as a separate subject. The main takeaway of the meeting was the conviction of Estonia and many other countries that cyberspace was not different from other domains where international law is applied.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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