File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.

Sir Ronald Saunders, Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States has spoken out about the problems that Covid-19 is causing for diplomacy at the UN.

He says the COVID-19 pandemic is severely limiting the work of diplomacy. It could have a lasting adverse effect on international relations if finding a vaccine continues to elude global researchers for much longer.
Critical to the work of diplomacy, at every level, is interpersonal contacts at which relationships are forged, attempts are made to iron-out differences, or, at least, some deal is struck – even if it is to defer divisive decisions.
But the protocols of managing the coronavirus has halted such contacts. Physical meetings and conferences have been replaced by constrained, strait-jacketed, virtual meetings. Restaurants, famous as venues for deal-making, are firmly shut.

The result is that off the record discussions are simply not possible. There would be few in the diplomatic world who do not assume that telephone calls, and discussions on virtual digital platforms are not recorded – therefore as little as possible is said, constraining the possibility of compromise.

The problem is also acute at the United Nations both at the levels of the Security Council and the General Assembly. Up to July, the Security Council could not vote on important issues because its rules do not allow for such voting at informal meetings which is how virtual meetings are characterized.

Recently, representatives have gathered physically once a week to vote on some important issues, but, even so, the work of the Security Council is greatly delayed and impaired. Significantly, this has suited the bigger powers that have taken advantage of Security Council paralysis to advance their national positions, and even their rivalry.

Similarly, in the UN General Assembly, no formal electronic voting system has been established because some members still resist it. Consequently, resolutions can only pass by consensus of all member states. Since such consensus cannot be negotiated, only minimal compromises are made. That, too, suits the few giant nations, long intolerant of the many dwarf countries.

There is no question that meetings held on virtual platforms have proven that they are beneficial for some purposes. If they continue, they will save governments and businesses a great deal of money that, hitherto, had been spent on travel and accommodation. They should be retained for routine meetings on non-controversial issues.

But for hard-bargaining and on matters that require careful negotiation, virtual meetings are unhelpful to diplomacy whose effectiveness depends on interpersonal contacts, building relationships and the ability to explore possibilities that are not formally on the table.

Small states, like those in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are being left out – and left behind. Unlike powerful states, they need a functioning multilateral system in which to represent their interests – right now that system is fractured even more than it was prior to COVID-19.

The effects of the pandemic have limited the diplomacy of Caribbean state, including their capacity to negotiate with the nations whose policies most greatly affect them.

This situation calls for more cohesive policies by CARICOM governments and collective action by all of them in every international organisation.