Skip to main content

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

17 June 2021

Today, the Foreign Affairs Committee publishes its report In the room: the UK's role in multilateral diplomacy.

The report identifies the common challenges facing multilateral organisations and makes key recommendations to the UK Government.

A system in jeopardy

After Carbis Bay this report found that the current system of multilateral organisations and our modern international system are in jeopardy. Autocratic states are attempting to seize control of strategically important organisations, to weaponise them, and to fundamentally redefine the once universally agreed principles on which they are based and democracies are doing too little to defend their interests. There is a very real risk that democratic states will lose multilateral organisations to authoritarian states. The influence of state actors with alternative understandings of individual rights, a key principle upon which the modern international system is based, is increasing.  

The need for engagement

Whilst the decision to bypass, or even withdraw from, multilaterals may seem attractive, engagement with multilaterals is essential. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) should take a leading role in maintaining strong and effective engagement with multilaterals. Disengagement only creates a vacuum, which allows authoritarian states greater influence and control. The new Biden Administration represents a positive shift towards increased engagement and the potential for joint action with the US.

More serious than disengagement are attempts to bend the purpose of, or even break the organisations themselves. The report tracks several instances of certain states actively obstructing the work of multilaterals.


The report found evidence of China’s increasing use of aggressive means, including exploiting bilateral economic leverage, to coerce states to back their position or their candidates and then using the organisations to shift policies away from the cooperation the organisations were created to promote. The use of aggressive diplomacy by China, or 'bullying', can be seen in operation at the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

The report found that threats from multilateral organisations can come in more subtle forms. For example, the steady acquisition of key official positions in multiple multilateral organisations by the Chinese Government


There are clear instances of threats of capture through funding, and funding used as unacceptable leverage. All six of the report’s focus organisations suffer from a lack of core funding and there was evidence at The International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL), OHCHR and WHO specifically about the impact of increased reliance on voluntary earmarked donations and the potential for this being used as leverage. Voluntary earmarked funding represents a significant vulnerability. As far as funding is concerned, the agendas of multilateral organisations can be significantly influenced by their donors, even those who give comparatively little support.

The report found that threats from multilateral organisations can come in more subtle forms. For example, the steady acquisition of key official positions in multiple multilateral organisations by the Chinese Government

Spotlighted Organisations

The report focuses in on six multilateral organisations specifically, making recommendations for each.

  • The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (pg.39)
  • The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) (pg.41)
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) (pg. 43)
  • The International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) (pg.45)
  • The World Trade Organisation (WTO) (pg.48)
  • The International Criminal Court (ICC) (pg.50)

Imperatives for the UK Government 

The UK is well placed to counter malign interference and this report identifies three areas in which the UK Government should act. The question is whether the UK Government is willing to put in the effort and commitment to make the changes we need. The report recommends that the Government should:

  1. Combat the influence of those who seek to manipulate and undermine multilateral organisations, including by publicly calling out states abusing and undermining the system.
  2. Improve internal coordination in order to proactively identify and respond to countries that undermine these organisations. The FCDO should lead within government on a tactical element of multilateral strategy, tracking the activities of authoritarian states within both higher and lower profile multilateral organisations, reporting on any moves to exert influence, and adjusting interventions accordingly.
  3. Mobilise the FCDO’s soft power and convening resources to work with broad groups of like-minded states within multilateral organisations to uphold shared values.

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said:

“Dictatorships are taking over the institutions build out of the wreckage of the Second World War to defend democracy. By stepping back for the tables where the rules are made we’ve seen fairness and freedom fade. It’s time we thought again about our place if we want to claim the influence our grandparents left us. The WHO, OSCE, and Interpol, have shaped our world and defended our citizens. Today, others are using those same tools against us.

We have a choice. We can watch the erosion of our influence and the retreat of our values or invest in the bodies that keep us safe by defending the rules. We need to work with partners in the US, Europe and around the world if we want our voice to be heard. Whenever we step away from our commitments, or stay silent, we make ourselves weaker.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has thrown this into stark relief. The WHO, which benefits from so much UK assistance, has been dominated by China, which contributes far less. As a power whose strength comes from global connections, confidence in our laws and institutions, and the skills of our envoys, we know that size is not the only thing that matters. We need to ensure transparent, effective organisations, that can have a meaningful and measurable impact on the world. Too often we have let them drift and seen them those trying to undermine us set agendas that harm us. We need to be seen as trustworthy partners if we’re going to defend our interests."

Further information

Image: Parliamentary copyright