Small States and the UN Security Council

Small States and the UN Security Council

Yesterday I participated in the launch of a new report at the International Peace Institute, entitled ‘A Necessary Voice: Small States, International Law and the UN Security Council.’   A link to the report and the webcast is available here.   The conversation emphasized how the history of international law is replete with instances of how small states (defined as countries with populations under 10 million)  have influenced the international legal order.  In addition, it highlighted how small states don’t necessarily have the same interests: there is thus real difficulty in talking about them as a “unit.”

Regardless of differences on substance, however, one thing small states can unite on is procedures.   For example, the unique chairperson arrangement at the UN means the presidency rotates on a monthly basis, giving all Security Council members the opportunity to highlight their priorities.  Moreover, under the Security Council’s Rules of Procedure, the President has substantial  discretion with regards to certain procedural decisions, such as calling meeting of the Council at any time deemed necessary.   Because procedural votes are not subject to the veto, some Presidents have used their procedural powers to delay meetings, reject agenda items, require states to share resolutions in advance, and suspend meetings to conduct consultations.  For a fabulous book on Security Council procedures see Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws book here.

A strategy for small states that are not members of the Council is to use UN Charter Article 31 on issues that specially affect them.  For example, climate change and rising sea levels are literally a matter of survival for some small states, and they could use this as a basis for further participation in conversations about climate change as a threat to security.  Relatedly, Rules 37 & 38 envision that specially affected states can participate in Security Council discussions, even while not a member of the Security Council.  Article 50 also anticipates that certain decisions create special economic burdens, and invites affected states to bring those matters to the Council.

Because the international legal system is a consent based order, the sum of the parts can be bigger than the whole.  Nonetheless, where small states can be consistent on issues that are difficult for them, it is helpful because it gives them the moral authority to influence other issues.   At the 2019 ASIL annual meeting, there was a terrific panel on how small states can use international courts and tribunals as a counter balance to power.  This panel and the event yesterday reinforce how there are multiple pressure points in the international legal system, and that small states can strategically use them to reinforce and develop international law.

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