Malta and Switzerland playing an outsized role on the UN's biggest stage

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By David Mac Dougall
Composite image showing flags of Malta and Switzerland at United Nations
Composite image showing flags of Malta and Switzerland at United Nations   -   Copyright  Thierry Lapras / Euronews

The EU's smallest Member State, and Europe's most neutral nation, are set to play outsized roles in world events over the next two years, as Malta and Switzerland begin their term as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council

Apart from France and the United Kingdom -- which are two of the five permanent member of the council, with their own veto votes -- Malta and Switzerland are carrying the mantle for Western Europe, and taking the lead on some potentially incendiary subjects. 

So are they up to the task of networking, strategising, hustling, and delivering clout on the Council, for Europe? 

Switzerland in particular will have to put aside its traditional neutrality and make some decidedly un-neutral decisions during the next few years, but they've found a workaround to this. 

The Swiss -- who only became a member of the United Nations in 2002 -- say their four main priorities while on the Security Council are to promote sustainable peace, protect civilians, strengthen efficiency, and tackle climate change. 

"The Security Council is not a party to a conflict in the sense of neutrality law. Its mandate is to maintain peace and security worldwide" the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs said in a recent briefing paper

"Switzerland can continue to exercise its neutrality on the Security Council to the full extent." 

Richard Gowan, Director of UN affairs at the International Crisis Group think tank in New York says that any angst about Switzerland's neutrality is more of an internal Swiss question -- it's been a major talking point in Swiss media this week -- than something that concerns other countries in New York, where it's viewed as one of the main representatives of Western Europe with specific diplomatic competences to bring to the table. 

"I think both Malta and Switzerland will carry a heavy burden of responsibility in the Council. There is an expectation that the two elected Western European members of the body should manage some tricky files that other members would prefer to avoid," says Gowan. 

In this case Switzerland will have to chair the North Korea sanctions committee, while Malta will oversee diplomacy around Iran -- a job that previous EU members on UN Security Council, Ireland and Belgium, have also taken on. 

The Iran file could get particularly tricky this year for the Swiss, considering their burgeoning relationship with Russia as the war in Ukraine continues, and Iran sends more weapons to Moscow. 

"Ireland and Norway have had to work very hard to secure Council compromises on issues like aid to Syria and Afghanistan over the last year, as Russia and the West have fallen out over Ukraine," Richard Gowan tells Euronews. 

"The Swiss and the Maltese will need to play similar bridging roles. The fact that Japan will take on the Afghan file at least takes one burden off the Europeans' plates."

Malta returns to the Security Council

The EU's smallest Member State, Malta, is returning as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the second time -- their only other time was back in the early 1980s -- but they're seemingly unphased by what lies ahead.

"Malta recognises that the primary duty of all Council Members is to work collectively to promote international peace and security and to prevent conflict, which is all too present around the world -- in Ukraine, and elsewhere," says Rodrick Zerafa from Malta's Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

The Mediterranean country wants their time on the Council to shine a spotlight on eradicating the use of children in armed conflict; promoting literacy and rights of women; and increasing knowledge of rising sea levels which threatens a number of small island states around the world, including Malta. 

"We believe that countries that have been effective on the Council have been successful in persuading and cooperating with other Council Members, including the P5, and that size has relatively little to do with the way that you choose to word a resolution or the manner in which you approach specific issues," Zerafa tells Euronews.

"Ultimately, we are determined to play our part in highlighting the EU’s common positions and foreign policy where this is possible," he adds. 

United Nations expert Richard Gowan says the Maltese have a good team in New York, and can draw on the EU's diplomatic reporting and advice if they want to. Indeed, Malta says it has "substantially increased" the number of diplomats working in New York, and invested in training over the last year to prepare officials "for the challenges they will be confronted with." 

And in an indication of how important their Security Council tenure is to Mediterranean partners, a Greek diplomat has already been seconded to the Maltese mission in New York. 

"Being a small island state at the UN has benefits as well as challenges. Malta can rally the Caribbean and Pacific small island states to support it on issues such as addressing the security implications of climate change," says Gowan. 

"On Ukraine, Malta will largely line up with the US, UK and France to criticise Russia. But it will presumably also want to revitalise UN peace efforts in Libya, which have drifted over the last year."

Echoing the sentiments of the Maltese foreign ministry, Gowan doesn't think that being a small state is necessarily a disadvantage in the Council -- citing other small nations like Estonia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines which have performed "professionally" during their Council terms in recent years. 

"Small states tend to send their best diplomats to New York for a Council stint, and their ambassadors are often quite flexible and creative, because they don't have to respond to a large bureaucracy back home."