Spotlight on Research: Marginal voices and bullying at the UN

Marginal voices and bullying at the UN

If we think that diplomacy is important it's crucial that all voices - especially those of marginalised groups, indigenous communities, ethnic minorities and displaced diasporas - are given meaningful opportunities to be heard, says Prof Fiona McConnell, Professor of Political Geography at the University of Oxford.

Diplomats of unrecognised nations and unrepresented peoples are the "inconvenient truths" of international diplomacy, says Dr Fiona McConnell. These marginalised voices deliver testimonies of discrimination, oppression and injustice, often at the hands of UN member states. Yet, there is a problematic diplomatic deficit: marginalised groups-whose interests are most at stake-are often blocked from spaces of international diplomacy. Her research aims to better understand this deficit by examining the strategies by which such unrepresented communities seek to engage with the UN.

Dr McConnell has been conducting research with diplomats from marginalised communities for the past 5 years. Through collaborations with the Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization (UNPO), she has attended UN forums on minority and indigenous issues where she has documented how the UN structures and practices favour the big, not the brave.

Interviewing UNPO diplomats McConnell heard first-hand accounts of access to the UN being blocked, verbal threats and filibustering. Bullying takes place both at the UN, where speeches have been interrupted and speakers intimidated, and outside these diplomatic spaces. Visas have been refused, individuals followed, and families back in representatives' homelands have been threatened with violence.

Dr McConnell and colleagues are seeking to raise awareness of the inequalities that underpin spaces of international diplomacy by documenting such incidents: "The first step is to record this [bullying], to put it on the agenda, to make people recognise that UN forums do not offer the level playing field that they claim to be."

She hopes that her research will feed into changes in diplomatic practice at the UN. Only when this happens, might diplomats from marginalised communities feel confident to report incidents and the culture change she says.

In addition to documenting bullying and blocking tactics used by member states at the UN, Dr McConnell has facilitated a series of workshops, training UNPO diplomats in lobbying skills, so that they might be more effective in representing their polities at the UN. These workshops are a crucial element in demystifying the UN's complex rules, legal language, and culture, and providing unrepresented diplomats with the tools to make it a space where all voices can be heard equally.

After all, diplomatic spaces should be places where "estranged difference" can be brought together; they should be safe spaces for "reaching across that gap". However, as Dr McConnell reminds us, this is only possible when everyone has an equal chance to speak and when everyone listens.


Funded by the University of Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account; 2015-2017.


Prof Fiona McConnell in collaboration with the UNPO and Tibet Justice Centre.