Hannes Richter

A Turbulent Time

Hannes Richter
A Turbulent Time

Top Photo: Peter Jankwitsch in the UN security Council on March 19, 1973.
UN Photo


Austria's Entry into the UN Security Council (1973-1974)

By Peter Jankowitsch

When Austria first entered in 1973, the Security Council was a vastly different body compared to the Council it is today. The five permanent members, still split by the conflicts of the Cold War, did not dominate the work of the Council as much compared to the time after the newfound solidarity from 1989 onwards.

Thus, nonpermanent members, particularly if they where leading voices in a still powerful Non-Aligned Movement, such as India or Yugoslavia, carried a lot more weight than they do today. Austria could therefore take an active part in the work of a Council that still dealt constructively with world crises like the conflict in the Middle East, in which the United Nations acted as a major player. In an effort to overcome a dangerous stalemate and encourage negotiations between the parties, Austria proposed deliberations on peace in the Middle East in the Council.

The core of the proposal was a calendar of operations, modeled on a successful process in Austria’s conflict with Italy over the South Tyrol. The October (aka Yom Kippur) war of 1973 shattered these hopes and Austria, along other members of the Council, was faced with the need to work for a rapid termination of hostilities that threatened to involve the two superpowers.

A first objective was the conclusion of a cease-fire, whose conditions where negotiated outside the Council by the United States and the Soviet Union. The proposal was rapidly endorsed in one of the many night meetings of the Council, against the violent protests of China, which had not been involved in the negotiations, but finally decided not to veto it. To make the cease-fire hold, UN Peacekeeping Troops had to be rushed to Egypt and Austria was one of the countries providing a contingent. As none other was available at the moment, the sizeable Austrian UN Peacekeeping contingent in Cyprus (as part of UNFICYP) was flown to Egypt overnight.

At the time, I was congratulated by Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Joe Tekoa, saying pointedly „Welcome to the Middle East.“ The subsequent Austrian presidency of the UN Security Council during the month of November 1973 was spent exclusively with political efforts to keep the cease-fire in place.

This task was incumbent on myself as the president of the Security Council, holding meetings and contacts behind the scenes, and avoiding open Council meetings that might have stoked the flames of conflict by rhetorical exercises. I therefore held only a short single public meeting to appoint the commander of the new UN force in Egypt. By the way, the second Austrian month of presidency at the Security Council, initially foreseen for 1974, was in the end barred merely by the alphabet, since newly elected member “Cameroon” had changed its name into “United Republic of Cameroon”.

Within the United Nations, there was a strong feeling that now a new conference on peace in the Middle East should be called under UN auspices. While all the non-permanent members of the Security Council rallied to vote on a resolution to this end, the permanent members of the Council remained skeptical. The resolution was finally adopted by ten votes with five abstentions, those of the permanent members. T

his may have been the first time in the history of the Security Council that a resolution was adopted without the support of any permanent member. The Conference met in December 1973 in Geneva, but after its formal opening by the Secretary General of the United Nations, it was rapidly adjourned, failing to accomplish any further work.

The second major crisis Austria had to deal with arose in the summer of 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus that, for many years, had been torn by ethnic conflict. After members of the Austrian peace keeping troops had been killed by Turkish forces, Austria called a special meeting of the Security Council to condemn this act and called for respect of international law. This situation continued to occupy the work of the Council, despite the lack of interest by Turkey to abide by its resolutions.

Besides the perennial Middle East issues, the problems created by the apartheid regime in South Africa and the illegal Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia were also constantly on the agenda of the Council: Shortly after Austria had taken its seat on the Council, the acts of aggression of the Smith regime against Zambia prompted the Security Council to send a mission of some of its members, including Austria, to Zambia to investigate and report to the Council. The role Austria had thus accepted was highly appreciated in many African capitals.

Austria also showed its strong opposition to the policies of apartheid pursued by South Africa in these years and took an active part in Security Council debates in the matter. However, Austria chose not vote in favor of South Africa’s suspension from UN membership, in contrast to other non-permanent members, in order to uphold the principle of universality of the organization. The biennium of Austrian membership in the Security Council also included other historical moments in UN and European history.

In 1973, the two Germanys, i.e. the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, were both admitted to the United Nations by a Security Council vote, which Austria supported. This period also saw one of the rare UN Security Council meetings outside headquarters, when it met in Panama City upon the invitation of Panama to deliberate on the future of the Panama Canal. Austria voted in favor of a resolution demanding the return of the Canal to Panama, which, however, was vetoed by the United States.

When Austria first joined the Security Council, many voices feared that a permanently neutral country would find it difficult to support certain Council resolutions that demanded to take a clear position. In the end, Austria abstained on only two occasions. In the course of many debates, Austria always cast its vote in a clear and principled manner, based on the respect for international law, the right of self-determination of nations, or negotiated settlement of conflicts. The membership in the Security Council strengthened Austria‘s position in the world community and helped to create a vast capital of sympathy and understanding in many parts of the world.

Thus, Austria found it easier to recruit support when Vienna was proposed as a venue for important UN Conferences, eventually becoming a host country of one of the UN’s world headquarters. As a member of the Security Council with a high standing in the United Nations, Austria and her representatives found it easier to establish contacts with other UN members, including the big powers of these days. The Security Council to which Austria first belonged from 1973 to 1974 was also different in its working methods and approaches, contacts being more direct and not through numerous committees and working groups as is the case today. Ambassadors often met on a daily basis and on short notice, which was not always easy as communication technology was not as well developed as it is today.

Sometimes one would travel with a little radio to hear the news as there were no mobile telephones. Another difficulty were transatlantic telephone calls to get instructions on an impending vote in the Council. Sometimes, the Austrian foreign minister was woken up to that end in the middle of the night, owing to different time zones.

During the time of Austria’s membership, strong and colorful personalities were working in the Security Council’s midst, like Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, who later became Secretary General of the United Nations; Lazar Mojsov of Yugoslavia, who later occupied highest positions of state in his country; Huang Hua, who gave a strong voice to the Non-Aligned China that had just being reinstated at the UN and later became Foreign Minister in Beijing; or Samar (Tino) Sen of India. The friendships created at that time across continents and cultures were set to last for a long time, enriching myself and ultimately benefitting Austria.


Dr. Peter Jankowitsch is a former diplomat and politician. Among his many public functions, he served as Austrian minister for foreign affairs (1986-87), vice-minister for European integration and international cooperation (1990-92) and chief of cabinet of Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970- 1972). He held numerous ambassadorial posts, i.a. as Permanent Representative to the UN in New York (1972-1978).