Lioness in the halls of global power | Vanessa Frazier

Malta’s top diplomat at the United Nations, Vanessa Frazier, marries her patriotism with an unfettered love for her job. But to retain Malta’s international reputation as an honest broker requires principles: ‘If you don’t compromise on your principles, you are always a winner.’

Vanessa Frazier, permanent representative to the United Nations for Malta, holds the two month presidency of the Security Counci. Photo: Ray Attard
Vanessa Frazier, permanent representative to the United Nations for Malta, holds the two month presidency of the Security Counci. Photo: Ray Attard

In a tiny room that serves as the office of the president of the Security Council, six journalists are crammed in to listen to ambassador Vanessa Frazier explain how Malta’s two-month presidency of the world’s most important multilateral body showcases the island’s diplomatic finesse.

Frazier is a long-standing career diplomat who has served her country for the past 30 years across Europe and now as permanent representative to the UN, and by her own admission, finds herself in a job she loves to do, underlined by passionate patriotism for Malta. Woe betide they who criticise Malta: “They will find a lioness,” she declares, unfazed by the power dynamics of big countries whose political bandwidth soars higher than that of the UN’s numerous minnows.

“It is a place in which every country’s own national interest comes first,” she says of this globalist workplace in New York, where the cut and thrust of political realism means even Malta must state its piece loudly, and clearly. A day later, she is accompanying foreign minister Ian Borg to the Security Council. Frazier, comfortable in her own skin in this hall of power, works the room, greets the representatives of the other nations, guiding Borg – the second foreign minister since her appointment in January 2020 – around the congregations of powerful diplomats and foreign secretaries.

Malta is on the UNSC as a non-executive member for two years, sharing the stage with the victors of World War II – the permanent five members (USA, UK, France, Russia, China) – in a body where every decision is law for the UN’s members, and where every word uttered carries weight.

This is where Malta’s role as president in this two-month period serves to show how its diplomats parry well with larger nations who know the procedures and rules of this institution well. “It may seem innocuous but there are differences on the types of meetings... what topics are debated, whether the meeting is open or closed, the format, the briefers,” Frazier says. All must be decided by consensus, which is where Malta’s influence comes in as the broker of these final outcomes. “The country’s influence is very important, because we have to stick to our principles... some countries might not want an open meeting... they might see that as a provocation. So we have to negotiate.”

How Malta’s presidency is viewed here becomes crucial. Frazier says Malta is valued as a consistent and principled country. “And that is what’s important. The lesson I’ve learnt in here, is that you win only if you stick to your principles. If you don’t compromise on your principles, you are always a winner.”

So even in a week dominated by the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the anniversary of the war, Malta needs to ensure dignified proceedings in a playground of political actors where the big boys find it easy to browbeat the smaller nations. That is a sense of ‘solidarity’ – or entitlement – shared by the P5 members keen to retain their influence and control. But even Malta must show itself, as a member of the Security Council, accountable to the general membership that elected it there. “We have a form of accountability that the permanent members do not have, and that is always present in my mind when we take decisions.”

This reputation also influences the choice of ‘significant events’ embarked upon by Malta during February and March, namely climate action on sea-level rise, and the safeguarding of children in conflict. The first subject marries Malta’s pioneering work on the UN Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS) and its role in putting climate change on the UN’s agenda in 1989, to address a lacuna in the treaty on what happens to countries’ maritime and economic rights when sea rise obliterates their coastlines. The second highlights Malta’s keen interest in a topic that affects mainly African nations, but now also Ukraine and the Middle East.

Frazier pinpoints the way Malta leverages its reputation as an honest broker in international affairs. A case in point from the week’s proceedings is convincing Palestine not to steam ahead with a resolution on the Middle East conflict whose wording would have invited an immediate veto from a Security Council member. “I felt it was in their interest that they do not push ahead with a resolution tabled by the United Arab Emirates, which would have invited a veto and shut the door to further discussion... we spoke to the Palestinians to suggest a presidency statement, the wording of which is also negotiated between all the members... a product that involves week-long negotiations. And achieving that would still leave the door open for a resolution later on, while also bringing on board the United States.”

That is what Maltese diplomacy is about, Frazier says, a behind-the-scenes approach of gentle negotiation promoting consensual outcomes and honest advice. “I invited the Palestinians to consider whether they wanted to trigger a veto initiative from the United States, that would have then played out in the General Assembly with the US explaining its veto and inviting support from other member states...

“I felt they should not alienate an important ally for them, especially in an important week where the subject was Ukraine. There, Maltese diplomacy came to the fore. It was a huge success, a first agreed Security Council product on the Middle East since 2016... nobody picked it up in Malta,” Frazier points out – a wry reflection on the scant interest in foreign affairs in a media landscape which, this week, was lit up by the court judgement on the controversial Steward hospitals privatisation.

There is sanguinity in Frazier’s appraisal of Maltese diplomacy. Its understated victories never get the limelight that is otherwise hogged by the provincialism of daily politics back home. “Malta is seen as an honest broker. We have absolutely nothing to gain from all this, so these countries look to Malta to show its leadership.”

Frazier is equally honest about the realpolitik that governs state actions inside the UN. “They are all about their own national interest – only. If Malta had a permanent seat in the UNSC, we would be the same. This is normal, neither bad nor good,” and she explains how, for example, the permanent members close an eye to the fact that Russia’s vote on a matter that concerns it as a party to the conflict in the Ukraine, is forbidden by the Charter. “The other Council members say... ‘that will be used against me in the future’... so you see, there is also a lot of solidarity between them.”

Frazier takes a moment to credit her mother and grandmother, as the women who bolstered her ambition and driving force in her career. As a role model to young diplomats, Frazier takes her mentoring very seriously and confesses to this with emotion and authenticity.

“I have had a fantastic 30 years in diplomacy. I have been witness to history in the making first-hand, it’s given me great satisfaction as well as a lot of work and sacrifice. I am one of those lucky people who found her ideal career.

“My mother and grandmother didn’t go to university or have careers, but were homemakers who pushed me to achieve what they didn’t. I want to try and do the same for others.”

That adventure started in 1987 when Frazier packed her bags for her Luther College scholarship in Iowa. “It was like I was going to the end of the world,” she remarks of a pre-internet world where an atlas was her parents’ closest reference to her whereabouts, not an easy video-call on a smartphone. “I was lucky that my parents never held me back. I wanted to study and see what I could achieve, and they encouraged me to do it. And I would like to encourage girls to do the same: if we could do all the things we’re able to do, we would amaze ourselves.”