BRUSSELS, Belgium — Brussels has one of the biggest concentrations of diplomats on the planet. Many nations keep three embassies here dealing with the European Union and NATO as well as the Kingdom of Belgium.
Among the historic palaces, modernist landmarks or bland office blocks hosting national delegations around the EU headquarters, is a one-room office that serves as a de facto legation for nations that don’t officially exist.
Independent Diplomat is a non-profit organization offering freelance diplomatic services to the breakaway regions, unrecognized states, governments-in-exile and island micro-nations that would otherwise struggle to make their voices heard in the corridors of power of Brussels, New York and Washington.
“We’re about trying to level the diplomatic playing field,” said Nicholas Whyte, Independent Diplomat’s Brussels representative. “We’re trying to help those groups and countries that are disadvantaged in international diplomacy so that they can engage with the outside world, so they can negotiate on a more even footing.”
Whyte is currently spending much of his time working with the authorities in southern Sudan, as they prepare for a referendum on independence in 2011. Other clients include the Polisario Front, which wants to lead Western Sahara to self-government after 35 years of Moroccan rule, and Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but remains unrecognized by any government despite its relative stability.
Independent Diplomat also works for the breakaway Turkish state in northern Cyprus as it works toward reconciliation with the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government in the south; it helps the Burmese government-in-exile which is loyal to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and offers advise to the Marshall Islands in international climate change talks. Clients include recognized nations, such as the Marshall Islands and Croatia, for which Independent Diplomat provides behind-the-scenes support in its membership talks with the European Union.
“Their support is very important, the diplomatic support, the political support,” said Mohamoud Daar, Somaliland’s representative in Brussels. “They help us a lot with the lobbying mechanism with the parliamentarians and government officials within the EU.”
Independent Diplomat is the brainchild of Carne Ross, who served as a British diplomat for 15 years before he resigned in 2004 over the Iraq War.
Ross was Britain’s point man on Iraq at the United Nations in the years running up to the war, and says his access to intelligence convinced him that Tony Blair’s government grossly exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein in order to justify the invasion. After testifying to that effect at a British enquiry into the war, he quit the Foreign Office.
Ross’ last assignment had been in Kosovo, which was stuck in a legal limbo after the 1999 war over the territory when NATO’s bombing effectively ended Serbian rule but produced no international agreement on the aspirations of the Kosovo Albanian majority for an independent state.
“It was Kosovo that inspired me to set up Independent Diplomat,” Ross, the organization’s executive director, said from his office in New York. “Kosovo was required to engage in formidably complicated and obscure international diplomacy about its future … and yet they were expressly prohibited [by the U.N.] from having a foreign service.”
Independent Diplomat helped guide Kosovo towards its declaration of independence in February 2008, which has been recognized by 65 nations including the United States and 22 of the 27 EU members. After starting out with Kosovo, Ross explains the operation expanded to support more entities shut out from the mainstream of international diplomacy.
“There is definitely a huge appetite amongst countries and governments and other groups who feel excluded from the world diplomatic system,” he said.
Independent Diplomat does not lobby on behalf of its clients, Ross said, but rather works behind the scenes.
"We advise our clients on how best to represent themselves," he said. "When I was a more orthodox diplomat, I was never very impressed when a sharp-suited Westerner would arrive to make arguments for their clients."
Funded by private donations, government grants and contributions from clients, Independent Diplomat has a budget of about $1.8 million a year and runs bureaus in New York, Washington, Brussels and Addis Ababa.
Whyte, a former campaigner for cross-community understanding in his native Northern Ireland, stresses that Independent Diplomat does not seek to influence its clients’ policies, but instead provides advice and lobbying to help their them navigate the often murky waters of international politics.
"They come to us and they say 'this is our decision, we want to know from you how we can better implement it on the international scene,'" he explained over tea in his map-lined office in Brussels’ International Press Center. “It would be utterly inappropriate for us to be pushing them to engage or not to engage in a particular process.”
The organization also insists that it won’t take on clients who are engaged in armed conflicts, are insufficiently committed to human rights, democracy and international law, or unwilling to commit to negotiated settlements to their problems.
“We are often approached by groups that we turn down,” Carne said. “We try in general to help the good guys.”