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UN Security Council: how small states skilfully play their cards

Published on 26/04/2022
Written by swissinfo.ch
Published from Swissinfo.ch

As Switzerland’s election to the United Nations Security Council approaches, many might wonder just how much a small country can achieve with a seat on the global body. The example of states such as Norway shows the answer is – quite a lot, actually.

The Norwegian private jet landed at Oslo Airport on a bitterly cold January day earlier this year. Eleven bearded men in long robes disembarked in the driving snow. Several black limousines waiting on the runway quickly whisked the men away from the cameras of the few reporters who had got wind of this special visit.

The men were members of the Taliban. This was the first time a delegation from the Islamist regime was travelling abroad since the group’s violent takeover of Afghanistan last summer. Led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, they spent three days in talks with representatives of Afghan civil society, as well as with diplomatic delegations from UN Security Council veto powers the United States, Britain and France. The meetings were held at the same hotel overlooking the Norwegian capital where, after Norwegian elections, prospective governing partners negotiate their coalition agreement.

“This visit is not a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt told SWI swissinfo.ch. “But we need to talk to the people who are effectively running the country today.”

What Huitfeldt did not say was that the destination and timing of the Taliban’s first trip abroad were no accident.

That month, Norway held the presidency of the Security Council and had responsibility for making contact with the Taliban, says Henrik Urdal, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and an expert on Norway’s involvement in the UN’s most important body.

“This is now the fifth time that we’re a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council,” Urdal pointed out.

The Security Council is dominated by the five veto states (Russia, China, the US, Britain and France), while the other ten non-permanent members are secondary players with no real power. This is the common perception of the council, which is primarily responsible for global security issues and maintaining world peace.

The permanent members have often been accused of using their vetoes to pursue an obstructionist policy based on vested interests. But this criticism is not fully warranted. Since the end of the Cold War, world politics have become more dynamic, and thus also more opaque. This has led to new linkages that are often issues-based and sometimes unexpected – and not just the fruit of realpolitik alliances.

Building a humanitarian corridor in Syria

This creates opportunities for small states to voice their own concerns. Over time, they have developed strategies for getting their own agenda items on to the Security Council. The Centre for Security Studies at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich has compiled possible approaches for Switzerland to use during its time in the council: these can be summarised as preparation, prioritisation, cooperation and continuity.

All of this can be illustrated by the following examples. In 2013–2014, Luxembourg and Jordan succeeded, together with Australia, in establishing a humanitarian corridor in war-torn Syria through a coordinated approach, despite the opposition of two heavyweights, Russia and China.

The persistent cooperation paid off: the corridor is still open. Last year, the Security Council voted unanimously to maintain it, an unusual result that is largely thanks to the efforts of Ireland, another small state currently with a seat on the Security Council.

“Can we really save succeeding generations from the scourge of war? The UN Charter provides us [members] the clear responsibility to do so. And therefore we must try,” wrote Ireland’s UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, in the online magazine PassBlue, which covers foreign affairs and the UN.

Ensuring continuity of themes

Another example is the theme of “women, peace and security”, with which Sweden managed to introduce its “feminist foreign policy” agenda at the Security Council. The same goes for the subject of “climate change and security”, which has been taken up by different non-permanent members over the years. States can achieve continuity through proper coordination, so that key issues do not simply disappear from the table after their term is up.

Switzerland is running for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for the 2023/24 period under the slogan “A plus for peace”. Elections will take place in the UN General Assembly in June 2022 in New York.

Switzerland has not yet defined its own priorities if it gets a seat on the Security Council. It is clear, though, that they will be a continuation of the country’s general engagement within the UN on issues such as conflict prevention, mediation, climate challenges and also reforming the Security Council’s working methods. But the war in Ukraine will undoubtedly dominate the agenda.

The UN Security Council and the Swiss candidacy

The Security Council is the highest and most important decision-making body of the United Nations. It consists of five permanent members: the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, the so-called veto powers. In addition, there are ten non-permanent members who are elected by the UN General Assembly for two years.

For historical reasons, the five permanent members of the Security Council – the victors of the Second World War – have the right of veto. They can block any decision. The non-permanent members therefore have an important role as mediating voices to resolve a deadlocked situation.

According to the UN Charter, the Security Council bears the main responsibility for maintaining world peace. It can impose sanctions or authorise military intervention if international security is threatened. Its decisions are binding under international law for all UN member states – this is in contrast to decisions of the General Assembly.

Switzerland is running for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for the 2023/24 period under the slogan “A plus for peace”. The Federal Council decided and submitted the candidacy in 2011 after extensive consultations with parliament.

The elections will take place in June 2022 in New York. The electoral body is the UN General Assembly, comprising 193 countries. Switzerland’s chances are good, as only Malta is the only other country in the running for the two seats for Western countries.

As former Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey – who launched Switzerland’s candidacy in 2011 – said in an interview with SWI swissinfo.ch, a seat on the Security Council is an opportunity for the country to play its traditional role of mediator on the world stage. Swiss neutrality is also respected by the major powers and its voice as a bridge builder is valued.

Playing their cards at the right moment

There was another element to the visit of the Taliban representatives to Oslo earlier this year.

“Already last summer, after the Taliban takeover, we organised a roundtable with the foreign ministry on the Afghanistan question,” said Henrik Urdal of PRIO, who coordinates meetings between Norwegian representatives of the Security Council and experts from academia and civil society in Norway.

“We want to ensure that our diplomats benefit from our knowledge and that they can apply it in the negotiations in New York,” he said. At the same time, he warned against expecting too much from such consultations. “As a small actor in the international arena, it is important that we play our cards skilfully and at the right moment.”

Whether this was the case when the Taliban representatives visited Oslo last winter remains a matter of debate. Since then, the radical Islamist group has banned the cultivation of poppies – but also backed out of a pledge made in Oslo to allow education for girls at all levels.

Translated from German by Julia Bassam