Advocates of Multilateralism, Small States Seek New Influence at UN

Small states make up the majority of UN member states, and they are among the strongest advocates for the rules-based multilateral system, yet many of them face challenges as well as opportunities in advancing their interests at the United Nations.

A May 14th meeting co-sponsored by IPI and the Permanent Mission of New Zealand to the UN launched a new IPI report entitled “Small States at the United Nations: Diverse Perspectives, Shared Opportunities.” It lays out a set of practical recommendations that can help small member states overcome some of the structural barriers to making their voices heard and to accessing vital information at the UN.

“Small states have a very proud record at the United Nations of really making a difference as negotiators, as peacekeepers, and as thought leaders,” said Ambassador Jim McLay of New Zealand at the report’s launching event. “Today, there would be no Arms Trade Treaty if it wasn’t for Costa Rica, and no International Criminal Court without Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.

Mr. McLay said that small states’ limited diplomatic resources present obstacles that other, larger states are able to avoid. In particular, small states cannot access information, have difficulty improving and expanding their teams and resources, and are often not able to communicate effectively with the UN Secretariat.

Some of the challenges faced by small states are also inherent to their small size, as noted by Heidi Schroderus-Fox, the Director of the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UNOHRLLS).

“Small states suffer from a heavy reliance on few commodities… limited natural resources, and brain drain due to lack of employment opportunities,” she said.

According to the report, access to information is one of the major challenges faced by small states at the UN. “At the same time that they are inundated with too much information to process and filter, [small states] simultaneously lack access to crucial insider information,” Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, IPI policy analyst and author of the report, said during the launch.

Addressing this “information asymmetry,” she added, can help small states manage their resources more effectively by prioritizing policy areas, or by choosing to take part in certain GA sessions as opposed to others.

One way to address this information asymmetry would be to create online resources for small and large states alike that can provide access to important information, Ms. Ó Súilleabháin said. But small states should also be encouraged to share more information and expertise among each other, she added.

All speakers agreed that due to their limited resources, small states often find it difficult to maintain the capacity of their missions through training and recruitment. As the report also notes, sometimes small states even “struggl[e] to meet even mandatory reporting obligations for treaties and Security Council resolutions.”

To address this, small states should have access to training opportunities that are better suited to their size and resources, Ms. Ó Súilleabháin said. “All small-state ambassadors interviewed for the report agreed that UNITAR [United Nations Institute for Training and Research] could be engaged on how existing and future training courses and materials could be tailored to the challenges of small states and missions,” she said.

In addition to the difficulty of gaining access to information and training, small states also face hurdles when attempting to communicate with the Secretariat itself.

“There is a lot to be done when it comes to the relationship between small states and the Secretariat,” Ms. Schroderus-Fox said. “Sometimes, it’s like being in a parallel universe: We are in the same meeting rooms, we work together, but it doesn’t really work.”

Panelists said one common difficulty was defining a small state. The report uses the Forum of Small States’ (FOSS) definition as one with fewer than 10 million people, but there is no general agreement on this. The World Bank’s definition of a small state is 1.5 million people or less.

Ambassador Caleb Otto of Palau noted that the definition of small states could be refined. “Using the World Bank’s definition of a small state leaves so many of us behind,” he said. “Of the 12 nations in the Pacific that are UN members, seven of us have populations of fewer than 100,000.”

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge moderated the discussion.

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