In the room: the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy Contents


Background to the inquiry

1.Cooperation has served us well. Since the Second World War we have structured our global partnerships through agreements, organisations and norms forming what academics call the Rules-based international system. It is a web of values, rules and norms underpinned by the principle of inalienable individual human rights. Together they have provided the core framework for international relations and supported global cooperation. A network of multilateral organisations has helped to embed this framework in international law making the world a more stable place. As the UK redefined its place in the international order in the wake of the war, it became a driving force in founding these organisations and has since invested heavily in supporting them in terms of policy, finances and people. This investment has paid off for the British population, through economic growth, the absence of a third global conflict, and respect of individual rights. The interests of the British people are inseparably linked to those of people around the world, and multilateral organisations facilitate cooperation to advance our shared interests.1

2.Our previous inquiries, and those of predecessor committees, have established that autocracies see multilateral organisations as a strategic sphere of influence2 and are prepared to use multiple and varied means to ensure they serve their foreign policy objectives.3 Moreover, autocracies seek to identify inconsistencies in the approaches of liberal democracies to international issues and exploit these to their advantage.4 In our report on the Integrated Review we observed that these organisations face the danger of a toxic cycle of decline, becoming increasingly outdated, discredited, irrelevant or subverted to serve the agendas of individual member states. We recommended that “the UK convene and catalyse negotiations to reform multilateral organisations: seeking to maintain their relevance and their benefit for all rather than a few.”5 We also recommended that the Integrated Review should provide “greater coherence and alignment among UK levers of influence, and therefore greater impact abroad”.6 While the final Integrated Review shared our view that the UK should lead in the reform and strengthening of multilateral organisations,7 and on the importance of cross departmental working in this effort,8 it lacked analysis of the role of malign influence in undermining these organisations. The Review referred to the importance of working together with like-minded states but did not set out specific options for applying within multilaterals in areas such as the election of key officials. This built on the work of our predecessor Committee which investigated China and the Rules-based international system (RBIS), including China’s approach to multilaterals. It found that China saw engagement with multilateral organisations as an important part of projecting its influence and values, and that it was prepared to use multiple tools to achieve this.9

Our inquiry

3.Our focus in this inquiry has been to look at the ways in which the governance and work of multilateral organisations are being undermined. We chose six organisations, within and without UN structures, that address a wide range of issues and face a wide set of distinct threats.10 We also consider the influence of the UK Government and how the FCDO might use this to strengthen organisations against undermining behaviour.

4.We received 28 submissions of written evidence for this inquiry. We held an initial evidence session with a high-ranking diplomat, former minister and prominent human rights lawyer.11 We held a further six oral evidence sessions relating to the six organisations we looked at in depth, and the funding for multilateral organisations (details can be found in the respective annexes). We concluded the inquiry by hearing evidence from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations.12 We are most grateful to all our witnesses, and to all those who submitted written evidence, for their contributions to this inquiry.

5.This report begins by considering the ways that some states exert influence over multilaterals, seeking to re-shape them to prioritise state sovereignty over individual rights, or to undermine the effectiveness of the organisations themselves. It goes on to consider how the UK Government, and the FCDO in particular, interacts with multilateral organisations and where it exerts influence. Then, it considers opportunities for the UK to work both independently and together with coalitions of like-minded states to strengthen multilateral organisations against abuse and corrosive influence. Finally, it draws conclusions on the areas of vulnerability of the six organisations and makes specific recommendations for strengthening them against malign activity. Detailed analysis of evidence that underpins our conclusions and recommendations is included in the annexes to this report, as well as analysis of evidence regarding multilateral funding and the UN external audit system.

1 Oral evidence taken on 19 May 2020, HC 380, Q6 [Samantha Power]

2 Oral evidence taken on 23 October 2018, HC 612, Q25 [Nigel Inkster]

3 Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2019–21, A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy, HC 380 Para 6

4 Oral evidence taken on 21 July 2018, HC 380, Q98 [Juan Manuel Santos]; Oral evidence taken on 9 June 2020, HC 380, Q53 [Marietje Schaake], Foreign Policy Centre IR0019 p1

5 Para 19 HC 380

6 Para 12 v HC 380

7 In para 24 (p16) the Government commits to reform in the WHO and WTO, paragraph 4 (p44) commits to strengthening them

8 See p19

9 Foreign Affairs Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2017–19, China and the Rules-Based International System, HC 612

10 These were the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UN Office for the High Commission for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Police Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, and the International Criminal Court

11 HE Sylvie Bermann, former French Ambassador to the UK and director of multilateral organisations for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ben Emmerson QC, international lawyer and Judge of the Appeal Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia; and Rt Hon Alistair Burt, former Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We held an additional session with the former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott AC, and now an advisor to the UK Government’s board of trade.

12 At this session the Minister was accompanied the following officials: Mr (James) Kariuki, Multilateral Policy Director (outgoing); Mr (Neil) Briscoe, Head of UN and Multilateral Department; Ms (Beth) Arthy, Head of Global Funds Department; Mr (Chris) Jones, Home Office Director for International Co-operation on Criminal Matters; Mr (Julian) Braithwaite, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other International Organisations, Geneva; HE (Neil) Bush, Head of the OSCE delegation

Published: 17 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement