Levelling the Diplomatic Playing Field

Higher Educational Approaches to Enhance
the Small State Diplomacy




By Laurent Cleenewerck | Robin van Puyenbroeck

The United Nations system is a forum in which complex multilateral instruments are drafted, finalized and ratified. A recent example is the landmark Arms Trade Treaty adopted by the General Assembly on April 2, 2013,1 which was not only highly symbolic and visible but will also have a significant practical impact on international trade and domestic processes.

The intense diplomatic activity within the UN system often results in a binding agreement, which can stretch the capacity of many Small or developing States. Indeed, a State may not be small in size or population but still experience severe constraints in its ability to deploy a large diplomatic team due to budgetary limitations. As a result, major international instruments and conventions are generally drafted and finalized without significant contributions from representatives of these Small States. It is the diplomats working for "high budget" States that are effectively in charge of writing international law, a practice that is increasingly causing concern.

This situation of minimal representation of Small States prior to the signature stage affects the legitimacy of these international instruments.

In addition to the above, all States, regardless of size and capacity, are at all times engaged in some level of the treaty-making process. An exchange of minutes between two governments may very well turn out to be binding and relevant to international legal processes. The case of the Agreed Minutes between Qatar and Bahrain, which led to a major International Court of Justice case2 with territorial implications, should be etched into the minds of all negotiating diplomats. This kind of intergovernmental paper may not be as visible as other major conventions negotiated within the framework of multilateral institutions, but are nevertheless of great importance to national and global governance.

Last but not least is the issue of mere numerical capacity, which can be compounded by a lack of resources to provide adequate and advanced training to Small State diplomats and their wider civil service. In today's intergovernmental discussions and negotiations more expert knowledge in a broadening field of civil service expertise is required. Departments ranging from Treasury to Justice and Environmental Protection increasingly put their mark on the creation of international legal instruments.

Yet, for global governance to be inclusive and equitable, all UN Member States should be able to be effectively involved in treaty-making processes with the level of expertise that guarantees fair representation.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is an important UN instrument beginning to address some aspects of this challenge. This autonomous UN body uses a 'nano-degree' approach, consisting of certificate courses aligned with current trends and needs in higher education. In 2010, the United Nations University successfully transitioned to degree-granting status and began to offer capacity building support to the Member States through a variety of courses and programmes. EUCLID, another treaty-based institution with a university mandate and charter created a no-cost treaty-making skills development program for diplomats and the civil service working for Small States. In order to level the playing field and ensure training is successful it is important to recognize that in the case of Small States there are a fewer number of diplomats who are required to be more productive. Ideally, Small State diplomats should be able to review large numbers of documents, quickly identify their legal standing and identify areas of ambiguity or adverse impact for their country. Further, when unable to participate in the drafting process, they should be able to enter declarations and reservations on their national concerns.

It is a mistake to underestimate the risks associated with a possible sense of alienation from global governance. Small States often experience international structures as imposed by a small group of ruling States. Small States ought to be an integral part of the development of global governance, with their interests represented equally. A lack of legitimacy has shown to be detrimental to the success of and respect for international as well as domestic norms and rules. In this area as in many others, higher education, especially affordable and professionally oriented, is a major component of the solution, which continues to call for ongoing recognition, engagement and support from the global community.


1. The Arms Trade Treaty (2013) - A/RES/67/234 B
2. Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain)

Laurent Cleenewerck is on the faculty at several institutions of higher learning including Humboldt State University, Ukrainian Catholic University and EUCLID.

Robin van Puyenbroeck is the Executive Vice-President of the United Nations Association of New York as well as the New York representative and Under Secretary-General of EUCLID (Euclid University).

This article originally appeared in the ACUNS Quarterly Newsletter, Issue No.3, 2014 published by the Academic Council on the United Nations System