Small states make up the majority of the Commonwealth; 32 out of 52. However, while 15 of 20 members not classed as small states have been elected to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), only four of the 32 small states have served. Small States should have a big role to play: as pointed out by former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, they are well suited to act as bridge-builders and often serve as a lens for challenges faced by all nations, and we saw from the Maldives role in its early period on the HRC in breaking regional blocks and working for the common good that their contribution can be more dynamic, and flexible than many larger states.
What holds them back is a lack of capacity. The Geneva missions of Fiji and Mauritius both have just four diplomats, and there are more than 20 UN specialized agencies and International organizations, and four UN programs and funds based in the city that could be a focus for them in addition to bilateral and consular work. It is impossible for small delegations consisting of just a few diplomats, to attend HRC sessions, follow discussions on key resolutions, and participate in informal consultations and side events. The result is small states feeling marginalised, the credibility of the HRC being jeopardized, and worst of all the depth and diversity of HRC discourse is limited. If small states are to play the full role they can at the HRC mechanisms, and the HRC is to be genuinely representative, small states need support to be able to engage effectively with it.
This is where the Commonwealth has a role to play. The Commonwealth has long positioned itself as champion of small states and has done some laudable work in Geneva over the last ten years. The Commonwealth Small States Office, established in Geneva in 2011 provides space and other services to diplomatic missions of small states and regional organisations representing small states in Geneva. Additionally, between 2013 and 2015, the Commonwealth Secretariat provided training individuals from government, parliament, national human rights institutions and civil society to help them engage constructively with the HRC’s UPR process. During this period, two human rights experts were based in the Geneva Office who provided advisory services and technical assistance to small states participating in discussions and decision-making processes in Geneva. They also facilitated dedicated briefing sessions for small states on human rights mechanisms.
However, at exactly the moment when the Commonwealth should have built on a solid foundation and expanded its support to small states in Geneva, budget cuts and changing priorities have left no human rights advisors based in Geneva and member states frustrated. Multiple senior diplomats from small states complain. In contrast Francophonie countries benefit from the OIF group which is active in Geneva and organizes pre-council session meetings for its members, as do African Union members. The current situation prevents Commonwealth small states from engaging effectively, tarnishes the Commonwealth’s reputation among its own members, and means the HRC is less effective than it otherwise could be.
CHOGM2018 and the Commonwealth Secretariat’s new 2017-21 Strategic plan which aims to build members’ capacity provide the perfect opportunity to reverse this situation, and again direct adequate focus and resources to Geneva. With a permanent representative, based in Geneva, and four resident Human Rights advisors, the Commonwealth could play the role that its strategic plan, and member states call for. This staff could support capacity building, to facilitate effective engagement with the HRC, act as a secretariat for Commonwealth states; provide tailored advice to small states on key upcoming issues and technical support around the UPR, and where appropriate short briefings on the content of relevant background documentation; and, train diplomats in human rights mechanisms and enabled to maintain sustainable, high quality, engagement.