I thank Singapore for this second opportunity to address the FOSS membership regarding New Zealand’s project on the challenges faced at the UN by small states; and acknowledge again its consistent leadership on behalf of small states.
The conversation which began here, back in March, has evolved into rich and free-flowing dialogue, reflecting the energy, ingenuity and diversity of its many participants. Many of you have already made important contributions, at the Roundtables or through interviews with the International Peace Institute.
You have seen IPI’s summary the key themes which have emerged in the first phase of the project. Today I want to lay out some of these in more detail; to outline next steps in the project, focusing on three key priority areas; and to invite your further participation and input.
Discussions to date have highlighted what we’ve all long known -
But discussions have also brought into sharp relief the real and practical challenges we face in making our voices heard and in pursuing our objectives – challenges which our larger friends rarely acknowledge, and maybe don't even comprehend. Our Missions and Foreign Ministries are much smaller; the relative costs of our UN engagement are higher, and associated compliance burdens heavier; our access to information is more limited; and we face greater challenges in absorbing the information we do receive. The space available to us on international bodies is being increasingly squeezed by our larger friends; and the understanding and responsiveness of international bodies to our circumstances and needs is erratic – at best. And, all the while, we are wrestling with a complex and ever-expanding global agenda; and with UN processes designed either in ignorance of, or with a breezy indifference to, the practical realities we face.
Of course, small states have never been content to accept passively the limitations imposed by their size or by the interests and expectations of their larger neighbours. Our discussions have provided countless examples of innovative strategies adopted by small states – often with great success - to overcome these challenges and to project their voices internationally -
However, considerable scope clearly remains to do more to ensure all UN members, regardless of size, can take their rightful place at the global governance table.
As I said in March, the purpose of this project is to identify specific steps to help small states engage at the UN. A number of practical suggestions have already emerged. Some relate to the role of the FOSS itself, which all agreed has already played an important role in fostering a shared identity, and providing a forum for dialogue and cooperation amongst small states; and, again, I pay tribute to Singapore's leadership in achieving those outcomes.
Many participants stressed the barriers to more extensive cooperation between small states on substantive policy issues, given their often quite divergent circumstances and interests and group affiliations. But others highlighted areas – notably with regard to process – where the interests of small states are closely aligned, and where greater cooperation should be possible.
Small states clearly have a common interest in promoting more open, transparent and inclusive working methods for international bodies; particularly those, such as the Security Council, which have restricted membership, but also have the power to make decisions with profound implications for us all. Others identified specific, substantive issues on which greater policy dialogue between small states might be feasible and fruitful.
Specific suggestions worthy of further consideration include enhanced dialogue between the FOSS and AOSIS on preparations for the 2014 SIDS Conference in Samoa; and greater engagement between small states on their respective views and priorities regarding the post-2015 development agenda. These suggestions have been passed on to the FOSS chair for consideration.
But three themes stood out as offering the greatest potential for further examination within the framework of this project: access to information, capacity building, and UN support for small states. So, today I want to discuss those three topics, which will also be the focus of the next round of interviews and Roundtables –
In today’s world the problem is very rarely a lack of information; every day, we are flooded with more documents than we can possibly process, not to mention the information available online and in the media. Rather, the problem is a lack of reliable and focused information, available at the right time, and in a form we can digest.
Small states have pursued many strategies to address this. Informal networks and evening receptions serve as the UN’s “bush telegraph”, through which critical information is passed. Some small states have invested in specific tools and resources to make sense of the bewildering environment in which they operate.
New Zealand’s own contribution has been the annual UN Handbook, originally an informal set of notes for internal Mission use, but, for the past 50 years, a resource we’ve shared with the entire UN membership.
But more can be done – and should be done – to level the playing field for small states by enabling informed decision making. Several suggestions have already emerged from our discussions; and I’d welcome your thoughts on each.
Peer support between small states – “Small-Small Cooperation” – was identified by many as crucial. This could take the form of information-sharing between small missions. Much of this is obviously already happening, but several ideas were floated on how to make this more regular and structured. Take, for example, the initiative of the Missions of Lithuania, Namibia and Malta to establish a website, targeted primarily at DPRs (Deputy Permanent Representatives), to provide a platform for greater information sharing. That offers tremendous potential; as does the suggestion that FOSS might organise periodic meetings between small-state DPRs to allow for more practically-focused engagement.
Several participants suggested the greater use of technology and social media to enhance small state access to relevant information; and I’d welcome specific ideas on this. Others noted the impact of tailored information resources – such as Security Council Report – in supporting informed policy-making. While the practical challenges, in terms cost and scope, of transferring such initiatives to the General Assembly are obvious, there was interest in the possibility of developing information resources in targeted areas – for example, to preview or summarise discussions in the main committees.
And most agreed there was considerable room to improve the quality and focus of information provided by the UN Secretariat.
Again, small states have been active in employing strategies to overcome these constraints. For many, the most vitally important of these has been burden sharing amongst regional or like-minded partners - without which many would simply not be able to operate effectively at the UN. Another is supplementing diplomatic personnel with locally-engaged staff and, increasingly, with interns.
A range of capacity-building tools and resources are already available, from training courses, to various reporting templates, model legislation and specific implementation guidelines. One initiative of particular note is the Commonwealth “small states offices” in New York and Geneva - shared facilities with substantially reduced overheads for a number of small states; which New Zealand has been pleased to support financially.
But considerable scope remains to expand such efforts – by ensuring small states are more aware of and able to access such tools and resources; and by considering additional steps to build the capacity of small states at the UN. Would there, for example, be value in developing user-friendly “How To” guides to assist Missions with processes around core UN tasks, such as running resolutions, conducting elections, organising side events, or undergoing a Universal Periodic Reviews. Are current training tools and opportunities accessible to small states, and are they tailored to their specific needs and priorities? Could equivalent opportunities be offered to small states which don't qualify for the Commonwealth small states offices? Would there be value in encouraging more briefings for small states – through the FOSS or separately – ahead of major meetings and international conferences? And what steps might small states take to support each other in building core capacities; such as informal mentoring, or sharing specific tools, experiences and best practices?
In practice, this means reducing the ‘transaction costs’ of UN engagement, by insisting that the needs and circumstances of small states are understood and accommodated by the Secretariat when taking decisions (for example) on the meeting schedules, the design of reporting templates and processes, and the quality, presentation and timeliness of information provided to states. It could also include more proactive steps to provide practical support to small states, such as the availability of targeted Trust Funds, or the provision of administrative support in areas such as recruitment and management of interns. And it could include steps to hold all UN entities more accountable for their accessibility and responsiveness to small states.
It is obvious that to achieve progress we need both to be clear in our specific “asks” of the UN, and also to identify senior-level champions who could ensure that any commitments are more than mere lip service; and I’d welcome as the thoughts on how we might go about this.
So, those three themes – access to information, capacity building and UN support for small states – are what we will be discussing over the coming months, with a view to identifying specific recommendations. I would welcome your initial thoughts on these today; and I would also invite those wishing to participate more actively to join us at a follow-up lunchtime roundtable at my Mission next Thursday 25 July. You are also obviously welcome to provide additional thoughts or ideas directly to me or my team.
Our work and discussions over the past four months have left me more convinced than ever that we can channel our considerable combined energies into greater opportunities and better results for small states at the UN. When launching this initiative in March, I stressed that it would draw on the key forms of power which small states can harness, regardless of our size: the power of our numbers, the power of our partnerships, and the transformative power of our good ideas (most of which, at the UN, seem to come from small states). Those powers can combine into a considerable force; and so - may the FOSS be with us all!