Case Studies | Small states on the big stage

A new ISD case study examines Ireland’s role at the United Nations.

Jonas Heering

At the beginning of this month, Ireland began its two-year term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Along with nine other non-permanent members, it sits alongside the UNSC’s “permanent five” — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — at one of the UN’s most important decision-making bodies. Ireland’s ascent to the Security Council is the result of a successful diplomatic campaign, during which it beat out much larger countries like Canada, and a number of other states, to gain a seat at the horseshoe table in New York.

As a member of the UNSC, Ireland plans to prioritize issues it has long championed since it joined the UN in 1955: climate change; global poverty; defending human rights; eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons; peacekeeping in conflict zones; gender equality; and responding to humanitarian crises.

The UN Security Council chamber in New York (Image: MusikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons)

This is not the first time that Ireland has held important elected positions at the UN, and it has used its position to influence the multilateral agenda. The country of less than five million people has been a Security Council member three times before (most recently in 2001), and in 2012, under the leadership of its UN Ambassador Anne Anderson, Ireland won an election to the UN Human Rights Council.

In a new ISD case study, “Ireland’s Election to the UN Human Rights Council: Power, Influence, Reputation,” Ambassador Anderson examines this successful campaign and the resources Ireland had at its disposal to win the election. Her perspective as the leader of this campaign as Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations makes for an incisive firsthand account.

Case study 352: Ireland’s Election to the UN Human Rights Council
Case 352: Ireland’s Election to the UN Human Rights Council

Elections to these UN bodies provide an important window into the work of the world’s largest and most important international organization. Anderson draws on Ireland’s successful campaign to examine the role of small states at UN elections more broadly.

The case begins with a general overview of the role of elections at the UN, including for the Human Rights Council and the Security Council. While elections to the Security Council traditionally attract the most attention, the Human Rights Council is an increasingly important venue for electoral competition among member states, and a site of significant controversies. This increasing importance also highlights that the United Nations, despite its size and mammoth bureaucracy, is far from a static organization.

This case allows students to consider how the UN has evolved over time and to assess the likelihood of institutional reform through the lens of UN elections and processes. The case also provides a unique practitioner’s insight into the diplomatic efforts behind elections to UN bodies and the resource constraints that diplomats face from their capitals.

In addition to highlighting the role of small states at the UN, this case study provides a starting point for discussions over the need for institutional reform. The UN Security Council has been repeatedly criticized for its institutional structure, which represents the immediate post-World War II global power dynamics, yet reform efforts remain stalled. Meanwhile, experts frequently lament the election of human rights violators to the Human Rights Council, including last year.

By examining the ins and outs of UN elections and institutions, students will develop a better understanding of the challenges to UN institutional reform, and of the opportunities and challenges for small states to shape the agenda on the global stage.

Jonas Heering is a research assistant at ISD. He is also the Bunker graduate fellow in diplomacy, and a master’s student in the School of Foreign Service.



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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges