Small States, Boosted by International Law, Provide Necessary Voice on UN Security Council

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Can small states at the United Nations serve as the effective champions of the rules-based order and international law at a time when those essential elements of global governance are under challenge?

IPI and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations convened a policy forum on April 16th to take up that question in the context of the UN Security Council and to launch an IPI Policy report on the subject, A Necessary Voice: Small States, International Law, and the UN Security Council, co-authored by IPI Vice President Adam Lupel and Lauri Mälksoo, Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu and former Executive Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute.

“With small states, for us, international law is an existential issue,” said Gert Auväärt, Deputy Permanent Representative of Estonia to the UN. “A rules-based multilateral world order is not a comfort zone for us to look at. It is a security concern. We base our whole existence on international law.”

But what can small states, defined as countries with populations of less than 10 million, do on the 15-member Security Council where the five permanent members (P5) hold sway? “We can go in with fresh ideas,” Ambassador Auväärt said. “We can go in with things that for us have been relevant for a long period, but might not be seen as such by more global powerful players…We base our assessment on the hearsay and the option to observe from the rear seats in the Council rather than behind the horseshoe table itself. If you look at the last few years, you see that the elected ten have more and more been able to pool resources and address issues close to their hearts.”

Jimena Leiva Roesch, Senior Fellow, International Peace Institute, noted that “in the last 75 years, the UN has benefited tremendously from the leadership of small states. Many small states have played bridge-building and leadership roles when the P5 have been amid terrible and difficult circumstances.” But she warned that “we are living in a moment where international law is at threat, being ignored, manipulated.”

Luis Homero Bermúdez Álvarez, Deputy Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the UN, spoke of how his country’s recent service (2016 and 2017) on the Council testified to the importance of having small states there.

“The fact that the role of small states at the international level is limited because of the lack of physical capabilities does not imply that through wise foreign policy they may not take an active part in decision-making issues of global concern,” he said.

Arguing that they “moderated” the big states, he said, “Small states are allowed or expected to act in a more autonomous and sovereign way in international relations than before through the means of multilateral diplomacy. The UN institutional framework offers small states a way to internationalize their views, aptitudes, initiatives, proposals which are in their international interest and are used to make their countries more visible, being more involved in the decision-making process.”

He noted that small states were careful to act under the umbrella of international law. “International law is the best safeguard they have at their disposal to be respected and a shield to confront powerful states’ abuses,” he explained.

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel underscored this critical relationship between small states and international law. “Among member states, small countries are most at risk if the international system further deteriorates into an older model of international order based on mere power politics and zero-sum games,” he said. “Small states are by definition vulnerable in a world where international law is compromised and only might makes right. While states of all sizes will strongly defend international law when it is in their interests, small states tend to have fewer economic or military tools to rely on and thus often place a greater emphasis on international law in their foreign policy.”

Dr. Mälksoo said that the UN System was based on “sovereign inequality”, and the drafters of the UN Charter wanted to ensure that small states had the ability to influence decision-making. Elaborating on that point, Kristen Boon, Associate Dean, Professor of Law, Seton Hall Law School, said, “small states don’t necessarily have the same interests, but what they can unite on is procedures. For small states on the Security Council, understanding and using rules of procedure is extremely important to being an important council member.”

She said it was important for the Security Council to realize that small states need certain technical assistance or support to implement resolutions. Use of presidential or press statements “can have considerable effect,” adding, “Let me conclude by saying that the history of international law is replete with stories of how small states have made significant impacts.”

Dr. Lupel listed various ways in which small states actually have advantages of over large powers. “One comparative advantage of small size is the ability to quickly maneuver in policy debates,” he said. “Small state diplomats often report feeling less constrained by large, impersonal bureaucracies that make internal consultations. Small size also often tends to result in a more focused expertise among a small state’s diplomatic corps.

“This type of niche diplomacy where a member state champions a particular issue to move it forward in the system is behind some of the most significant advances in multilateral diplomacy, including the Law of the Sea, the establishment of the ICC (International Criminal Court) or the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty.”

He added that it was more than just not having the veto that disadvantaged small states on the Security Council. “While many point to the veto as the critical determinant of power on the Security Council, at the working level, it is often the element of permanence that gives the P5 their heightened influence,” she said. “The permanent seat on the Council allows the P5 to build up an institutional memory of relationships, working methods, and precedents that is difficult for an elected member to master in the short span of a two-year term.”

Dr. Lupel argued that in the end it could fall to small states to remind all UN member states of their obligations under international law and advocate for a recommitment to a multilateral, rules-based international order.

He concluded, “Small states on the Council as specially affected states, who collectively make up the majority of UN member states and who would be particularly vulnerable in a world with a weakened system of international law, are well positioned to provide that message, to be that voice, as we refer to in the title to the paper, to be that ‘Necessary Voice.'”