Despite being a microstate, Liechtenstein is a successful actor in the diplomatic world scene. However, one cannot deny that the size of a large state matters when it comes to geography, population and economic and military powers. Liechtenstein is a striking exception that proves that size doesn’t always matter.
Last summer, my friend Peter from Liechtenstein told me some amusing stories about border crossings he had experienced. For example, one time when he went to the Turkish border and got laughed at by the border officials. They claimed that he had forged his passport. The official told him, “If you’re going to fake a passport, next time you should choose a country that actually exists”. When Peter insisted that his country, in fact, did exist the border official sent for his boss to examine the authenticity of his passport. The boss googled Liechtenstein and found that the ‘faked state’, in fact, exists. The border official realized that he had made a mistake and he let Peter pass through without any further questions. Another time Peter crossed the Serbian border. All officials at the Serbian border crossing gathered around him. Everyone wanted a glance of his passport since they’d never seen a passport from Liechtenstein before.
Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world. Located and landlocked between Austria and Switzerland this small country inhabits around 38.000 people. To walk from the southern to the northern border takes about five hours.
Georg Sparber, Counselor and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations talks to me about Liechtenstein’s successful diplomacy as well as their position in the world society.
Georg Sparber, Deputy Permanent Representative for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations / The United Nations
What role do you think that microstates should play in the international society?
— “States will always try to preserve their national interests and for smaller states this involves building strong international relations and playing an active role in the international community. Smaller states have certain advantages in shaping policy discussions on the international stage. They can often act quicker, are sometimes more creative in finding solutions and are used to reaching out to other states across regions. Smaller states often have a strong interest in promoting international law which guarantees that all states play by the same rules. It is these states that are often vocal if the law is violated, which is something Liechtenstein has been doing consistently.”
Microstates such as Liechtenstein are sometimes defined as actors with limited capability and influence. This definition could be explained due to the resource limits in the overall exercise of national power that smaller states have. Even though the states are sovereign the absence of a national army has the consequence that the states are sometimes considered weaker as they are unable to use military powers and positioning psychologically in their international relations. This means that they instead have to turn to other measures such as diplomacy or other state capabilities.
What is the main difference when you represent your country as a microstate in comparison to countries that are non-microstates?
— “We don’t like the term “microstate” very much. The UN Charter makes it clear that cooperation within the UN is based on the principle of sovereign equality, no matter the size or economic and military might of a country. This being said, it is evident that there are differences between states when they make their voices heard. An economic or military power can often just state its position and it will thereby influence the course of action at the UN, while smaller states often need to build alliances and generate political momentum to push an agenda ahead. This is not necessarily a disadvantage, because the legitimacy of UN decisions strongly relies on the support they enjoy in the UN membership. Smaller states sometimes just need to put in an extra diplomatic effort to make a difference.”
Georg Sparber continues to explain challenges that Liechtenstein faces within foreign affairs: — “A challenge we face on an ongoing basis is limited resources. The UN covers so many different aspects of international relations that it is impossible for Liechtenstein to follow all of them. We have to choose our priorities very carefully and preserve the necessary resources to make a difference in these areas.”
With the binoculars focused on Liechtenstein it becomes clear that the small state influences the world society more than one might think. Liechtenstein has been a very influential actor regarding human rights issues in the UN. In 2006, Liechtenstein was a key actor in the founding of the UN Human Rights Council. Liechtenstein also takes an active part in the reform of the treaty bodies of the UN Human Rights instruments. Furthermore, Liechtenstein participates actively in the intergovernmental work of the Third Committee of the General Assembly. Matters that are allocated to the Third Committee relate to a range of social affairs, humanitarian affairs and other human rights issues. Liechtenstein prioritizes inter alia the protection of the human rights of women and children due to their greater vulnerability as well as the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons. The Third Committee is responsible for all those questions.
On my question of how Liechtenstein has been able to be a key actor in the founding of the UN Human Rights Council Georg Sparber answers:
— “Human rights have always been a priority for Liechtenstein as we consider them fundamental for peace and security and sustainable development. We have therefore consistently contributed to strengthening human rights institutions at the UN. At some stage it was clear to us and many others that the Human Rights Commission became an unviable body because of ongoing political attacks and could not properly fulfil its mandate anymore. Therefore, we have contributed to create a better institution which has become the Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, not all the flaws of the Council’s predecessor could be addressed, but I believe that the Human Rights Council today is a well-functioning and authoritative institution that has made a difference in many situations and on many topics.”
We shouldn’t judge microstates as actors with limited capability and influence too quickly. The number of citizens or the geographical size of the state does not determine the state’s influence in the world society. Their actions do. States that contribute to progression in humanitarian issues should be taken seriously no matter how small or big they may be. So, even though the Liechtensteinian passport might not be recognized at all border controls, we must not neglect to recognize their actions.