Freelance diplomats lend a hand to would-be states
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Sunday, August 02, 2009

BRUSSELS (AP) — Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara and Somaliland may not have much in common, but they share the same predicament: all are unrecognized states striving to capture international attention.

Enter Independent Diplomat — freelance diplomats who offer their assistance to such nations-in-waiting. They have scored a notable success helping Kosovo win independence from Serbia — but critics say they can only accomplish so much without involving governments and should not pretend to have more influence than they do.

The nonprofit group, comprised of former diplomats from a variety of nations, stands ready to help would-be governments navigate the complex system of national bureaucracies and international organizations designed to accommodate established nations.

"Very often government or international officials will refuse to talk to our clients, or if they talk to them they're reluctant to give them the information they need," said Nicholas Whyte, who heads the Brussels office of the nonprofit group.

"And from our clients' side, they are often inexperienced in dealing with international bureaucracies precisely because nobody talks to them," said Whyte, an Irish international affairs expert.

With offices in New York, Washington, London, Brussels and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the organization provides its clients with guidance on how to approach foreign governments or international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union.

The group played a role in helping Kosovo gain independence from Serbia. The province had been under international rule since the war ended in 1999 until declaring independence last year, and has been recognized by about 60 nations so far.

"We received great assistance from them at a time when we needed it most," said Ilir Dugolli, Kosovo's representative to the EU.

Independent Diplomat's $1.8 million annual budget comes from foundation and government donations, as well as client fees. Clients are charged according to their ability to pay, with the poorest paying only nominal amounts.

The group also counsels established nations on issues where they lack expertise, including advising the Republic of the Marshall Islands on the U.N. climate change process and working with East European countries applying for EU membership.

"We advise would-be countries, but also regular states where we can add our own expertise to theirs, as long as they are democratic countries that respect international law," said Carne Ross, the group's founder and director.

He said Independent Diplomat adheres to a strict policy of rejecting clients engaged in armed struggle, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.

"If Robert Mugabe came to us for advice, we wouldn't help him," said Ross, a former senior British diplomat.

The organization says it has had significant impact as an intermediary, including arranging a recent meeting between EU officials and the president of Western Sahara's government-in-exile. The territory was taken over by Morocco 35 years ago, and although a U.N.-negotiated truce in 1991 called for a referendum on its future, this has never been held.

Independent Diplomat "are our true friends," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, who leads the government-in-exile based in a refugee camp in the Algerian desert.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus requested the group's assistance in negotiations to reunify the Turkish and Greek parts of the island. Cyprus was split along ethnic lines after the Turkish invasion in 1974, and thousands of Greek as well as Turkish Cypriots fled to the southern part of the island.

"Turkish Cypriots are institutionally disadvantaged by the policies of the international community, and yet are expected to carry on with the peace process," Whyte said.

However, Cypriot officials dismissed the group as outsiders with no influence over island policy.

"The Republic of Cyprus was accepted into the European Union in 2004 with full legal sovereignty over the entire territory" of Cyprus, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy. "That's certainly not going to change whatever anyone from the outside says or does."

Robert Cooper, secretary-general of the European Council in Brussels, also questioned the group's influence.

"Achieving anything in foreign affairs is very difficult for non-governmental groups," he said. "Some NGOs perform extremely valuable work and are well respected ... but in the end nothing is achieved without governments (and) they should not pretend that they have influence when they don't."

Still, Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Iran, said those involved in the endeavor were "individually capable people" who could make a difference.

"Their philosophy and their code — and the approach that they take — does fill a gap for countries and for movements who don't have access to the international system," he said.

International recognition has eluded Somaliland, the self-declared republic in the north of Somalia which has had an effective government for almost two decades, including its own currency and a viable economy.

"International policy has been predicated on shoring up Somalia's weak and embattled central government rather than supporting the one part of the country that has demonstrated its ability to avoid conflict," Whyte said.

The organization believes the world's diplomatic institutions need to be more accessible to such non-state groups, or the price will be more bloodshed.

"Our work helps countries and other political actors avoid conflict by using existing diplomatic channels ... as long as they are allowed to," he said.

Source: AP, Aug 02, 2009

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