Julian – thanks for ruining my weekend

I have a fleeting interest in Internet governance. I’ve read Jovan Kurbalija’s book An Introduction to Internet Governance, a free resource that pretty much explains it all in terms I can understand without being in the slightest bit condescending. I have what I’d call a reasonable understanding of what’s going on in the realm, but I try hard to ignore it all. Because, if I stop to think about it, I start to panic. Not a full-blown panic attack that’s visible to whomever is around, but the more insidious kind that wallows in the pit of my stomach and induces a nervousness that can make me think terrible things.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog for DiploFoundation asking Google to stop doing my thinking for me. That was back in 2012. I’d accepted that this was simply the way the world was headed and I’d better get used to it or emigrate to Eritrea, the world’s least-connected country, apparently – but it does have a dictator. The whole Wikileaks thing annoyed me. I thought it a tad irresponsible of Mr Assange to wantonly damage the fibre of diplomacy, particularly that of a country, which at the time had a president who was doing his damnedest to defer to diplomacy whenever possible. Back in 2013, as one of many telephone conversations were leaked, I worried for a while that the threat of exposure on social media might be enough to influence behavior. Diplomacy, by its very nature, requires discretion and while I’m all for blowing the whistle on corruption, I think some modicum of sense needs to be exercised before taking that deep breath.

Then this morning, I get an email saying that the attached article might be of interest to me, as I have some interest in Internet governance. Curiosity got the better of me. And I read it. And I wish I hadn’t.

Caitlin Johnstone writes of how Julian Assange keeps warning us about AI censorship, and we’re not listening. I’m no great fan of Assange, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. And he has a point about Wikileaks being the equivalent of the Alexandra library – but I still wonder if we really need to know everything…  Anyway, the article linked to this video – and that winded me.

A Daily Mail run by AI? Some might argue that this would be an improvement. But the thoughts of being manipulated without being aware of it, is scary. And yet I’m not stupid. I know I’m being manipulated. But what do I do with that knowledge? Some days, it’s just easier to go along with it. According to Assange:

When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads, it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead. This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.

The idea of Google and Facebook and their ilk as superstates is quite worrying. The idea of them using AI to control the masses is even more troubling. Johnstone summarises it thus:

What this means is that using increasingly more advanced forms of artificial intelligence, power structures are becoming more and more capable of controlling the ideas and information that people are able to access and share with one another, hide information which goes against the interests of those power structures and elevate narratives which support those interests, all of course while maintaining the illusion of freedom and lively debate.

The danger is lurking. It’s out there. I know I should be responsible and give it due thought, but some things just don’t bear thinking about – not on a Friday.

Guilty till proven innocent

Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Am I guilty? Sure. I have to restrain myself from reposting articles and links that contain information that strengthens my argument, whatever it is. First, I have to check and make sure that it’s true.

Gone are the days where information is innocent until proven guilty, true till proven false. The situation has turned on its head and now, I need confirmation that something is true before I take it seriously. And this upsets me. It upsets me that my innate trusting nature is slowly being choked by tendrils of suspicion. It upsets me because this, I fear, will seep into other aspects of my life. Trust, or the lack thereof, is pervasive.

Fake news: the role of confirmation bias in a post-truth world was the title of a seminar I attended in Geneva, an optional event offered as part of CD Multi, a DiploFoundation programme gathering 26 participants from 17 African, Pacific, and Caribbean countries and immersing them in what is known as International Geneva – the policy-making hub of the world. They say that policy dishes are prepared in Geneva and served in New York.

Speaker Rolf Olsen teaches in the Executive Certificate on Advocacy in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He opening by asking, what if we’d left Planet Earth on 14 June 2016 and come back today. Would we believe:

  • The UK is leaving the EU
  • Boris Johnson is UK Foreign Minster
  • Donald Trump is President of the USA
  • France has a new president, someone we’d never heard of
  • The Tories are going in to coalition with the DUP

With real news like that, he asked, who needs fake news.

Olsen went on to talk about what he calls Defensive advocacy – that ability to respond to unforeseen events. Unless we are prepared for all possible unforeseen events, the certainty of success will remain out of reach. Politicians and leaders are no longer in control of their message. Unplanned events are the new norm.

Journalism was built on a foundation of pride in ethics. The Society of Journalists, in the preamble to its Code of Ethics, states:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

The most powerful enemy of fake news is a strong press corps. But today, so much of our content is created by those untrained in such ethics. Bloggers proliferate. Fact-checking. Confirmation of sources. Independent verification. These no longer feature in so much of what we read. The three principles of good communication have fallen:

  1. The sender/source is known.
  2. The information has been verified.
  3. The receiver can independently make a decision without fear or undue influence.

But confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, is far from being a new phenomenon. Take news outlets in the UK, the USA, and France as cases in point – all have biased points of view, from the right-wing Murdoch stable to the left-wing Guardian and CNN. Media outlets have become politicised. The Washington Post did a study of 21981 articles mentioning Clinton and Trump and concluded the same.

Fake news wasn’t born yesterday. Go back five hundred years to the advent of the printing press and you’ll see examples of sensationalism, aimed at inflaming passions and prejudices. More recently, in 1844, the Anti-Catholic movement in Philadelphia falsely accused Irish Catholic men of stealing bibles from public schools. Riots ensued. So what’s new about fake news? Technology. Its an enabler.

With the oligopoly of traditional media broken, journalists are under increasing financial pressure to report quickly and sensationally. Monetary returns for clicks encourage dramatic headlines. Data collection and use of Big Data facilitate bias and allow specific targeting of the converted.

It’s been said that we are living in an echo chamber. We read what reinforces what we already believe. We connect with people who agree with us. We are not being challenged. The critical thinkers among us are often mocked or labelled conspiracy theorists when they offer a dissenting opinion.

But is the situation out of control? Can we make a difference? Olsen argues that yes, we can. By…

  • Rebutting fake news at every opportunity
  • Supporting free press by paying for our news – taking out subscriptions to credible outlets
  • Participating in dialogue and in elections

We also need more transparency. Do we really want to waste time reading advertorial press that is clearly biased? Or would we prefer objective, impartial accounts of what’s going on in the world? We need to start asking – cui bono – who benefits.

A chap from Sweden wondered at the connection between the decline in respect for authority and established institutions and the rise of fake news. He suggested that the blame cannot be laid squarely at technology’s door – but that it’s rather a symptom of a broader malaise.

Someone from Jordan raised the issue of false flags – real reporting on fake events. Where are the investigative journalists who reveal those fake events for what they are? But what is true and what is fake? Just yesterday, when I first read new so of the Baseball shooting in DC, I had to check it before I believed it. That upset me. Simple fact-checking for my blog has become difficult. Simple facts like what year, how high, how big …. I can no longer accept the first source I find and the more I check the more variations of the truth I find. And these are measurable facts. I despair. A participant from Malawi wondered at the time we waste checking whether something is true or not. Lots of time … too much time, I say.
My issue now will be to find a media outlet that I can trust, knowing, as a Brazilian journalist in the audience commented: neutrality is a goal, but complete impartiality is utopia.

My take-away came from Kenya:

He who knows how is always at the mercy of he who knows why.

Speaker Rolf Olsen is CEO and strategic counsel at Leidar, which he founded in 2009. He spends his time helping clients set their course, and some of Europe´s largest and most successful companies have had their vision, mission and stories developed with Rolf´s assistance. Rolf has more than 35 years’ experience in communications, the last 25 at a top tier international level. Before setting up Leidar, he was CEO Continental Europe of Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm. Prior to this he held executive positions at both European and global level for two American Fortune 50 companies; firstly 13 years with Digital Equipment Corporation and then five years with Motorola. Rolf teaches in the Executive Certificate on Advocacy in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

2017 Grateful 28

I was born asking questions. Seconds after I popped into the world, I opened my mouth and screamed whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. I particularly like when I get to meet people from countries I’ve never been to and (almost embarrassingly) places I know very little about.  My geography is atrocious. I went to Costa Rica last month thinking I was going to South America. I was utterly confused when, driving in to Istanbul from the airport a few years ago, I saw a sign welcoming me to Europe. And sure didn’t I move to Hungary thinking it was by the sea. The mind boggles. I’ve long since come to terms with this failing and have accepted that I’m missing the geolocation gene that might just help me figure out where I am and where I’m going.

In Geneva this week as part of DiploFoundation’s CD Multi programme, I’ve met people from 17 countries I’ve yet to visit: Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Malawi, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Cabo Verde, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Suriname, Fiji, and Cook Islands. I’ve met people before from everywhere except Cabo Verde and Benin, so of these two countries I know even less than usual, if nothing at all. Apart from a vague notion that they’re in Africa, somewhere, I was clueless.

In conversation one evening, I got to ask about Cabo Verde.

I was right in thinking we were talking about what I knew of as Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony about 500 km off the west coast of Africa. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s not one land mass but a series of 10 small islands  with the main airport in Praia on Sao Tiago (Santiago). All but Santa Luzia are populated. The islands don’t have much going for them in terms of natural resources. What land there is not suitable for crops, and drought is a challenge. In the last century, 200 000 people died as a result of droughts which gave rise to mass emigration so that today, more Cabo Verdeans live outside the country than inside, with a sizeable diaspora in Portugal, the USA, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Luxembourg. Reminiscent of Ireland in the famine days, and indeed countries like Romania today, emigrant remittances play a huge role in the local economy.

Back in 1975, when the country achieved independence, there was talk of unifying with Guinea-Bissau, but a coup in G-B put paid to that idea. Classified as an LDC (least developed country, i.e., a country that exhibits the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development, with the lowest Human Development Index ratings of all countries in the world) it was upgraded by the UN in 2008. A poster child for political and economic stability, this upgrade seems to me to be something of a poisoned chalice. Once out of the LDC bracket, many sources of funding dry up. Better off countries who actively support LDCs in their efforts to develop divert their funding to those still in the group. There is (and I could be wrong) a three-year transition period, a weaning off, after which the stabilisers are removed and the country is left to its own devices. But is that long enough? I wonder.

Cabo Verde, now classified as a SIDS (a small island developing state), is feeling the pinch and the pressure of going it it alone. Yet increased efforts to attract the tourist dollar and develop the infrastructure that goes with this are slowly paying off. In reading various reports, it would seem  that there is huge potential for start-ups, for young entrepreneurs who have a vision for the future. With an 87% literacy rate (considerably higher that of sub-Saharan Africa at 61%), there is cause for optimism. And as a tourist destination, something tells me that I’d like to see it before it makes the popular list of places to go and is overrun, swallowed up by sameness.

Black sand beaches. White sand beaches. Volcanoes. Great creole food. And the music…. I’m a few years too late to see the great Cesaria Evora live, but the national music genre, Morna, is something I could listen to. It’s a fusion of Portuguese, African, Brazilian, and Cuban – a form of blues. Nick Mayes did a great piece in The Guardian on it a few years back. Worth a read.

I’ve been trolling the Net, looking at pictures, reading blogs and articles – a first for me. I don’t plan. I go. But now, I’m planning. And to show I’m serious, I’ve done the unthinkable and added a travel category to this blog before visiting. What a great start it would be to 2018.

It’s been a busy week. Lots happening. I’m grateful for the education, the conversation, and the inspiration. And to anyone who would limit travel, curb immigration, or advocate a stay-at-home policy, to you I say stop – and think. Don’t deny me the opportunity to meet, to learn, to experience. So much of the world’s attraction lies in its diversity; we just need to get out a little more.








A good day at the office

I find it hard to explain to people what it is I do to put milk in the fridge, to pay my bills, to keep my sanity. I don’t have one of those neat jobs that fits tidily into a box, easily captioned, and even more easily explained. I have what Charles Handy would call a portfolio career, picking up degrees and qualifications in various fields as I’ve move from one thing to the next. Over the years, though, I’ve found that I really enjoy training in public speaking. For me, speaking from a stage is the cheapest legal high I can get. Better than any drug and, while equally addictive, far less harmful. And when I can encourage that passion in others, I’ve had a good day at the office.

This week, I’m in Geneva with DiploFoundation’s Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for small Pacific, Caribbean, and African States, known in brief as CD Multi.

Small states with limited geographical, human, and financial resources face the challenge of doing more with less: they need to employ all available methods to increase their representation, including networks, alliances, and information technology tools. In addition, diplomats from small and remote states often lack the experience and exposure to Geneva-based institutions and processes that would allow them to ensure that the interests of their nations are well represented.

Small states, especially geographically remote Pacific, Caribbean, and African nations, strongly depend on international law and order. The effective presence of such states in International Geneva is vital for their social and economic development, as Geneva is the main governance hub for issues such as trade, climate change, health, and migration.

Twenty-six participants from 17 countries [Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Malawi, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Cabo Verde, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Suriname, Fiji, Cook Islands] are taking part in this 10-day immersion programme, the final of three phases (the other two being Online Learning and Policy Research) of CD Multi-Carib and CD Multi-Africa which began in October last year.  Back in 2014, I got to see parts of Geneva I’d not visited before with the CD Pacific group. What sticks in my mind most was the visit to the International Telecommunication Union. This time, we’ll get to catch the latest in Internet governance developments at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) at the ITU next week.

The programme offers participants a chance to network, to meet representatives from those International Organisations that have so much to say in decisions that affect their lives at home. Four of the countries participating in the programme do not have permanent representation in Geneva [São Tomé & Principe, St Vincent & Grenadines, St Kitts & Nevis, and Suriname] so for them, this is an opportunity to scope out the prospects for setting up shop.

Each participant brings an admirable level of expertise to the table. They range in age and years of experiences. With backgrounds in the voluntary sector, air traffic control, international development, policing and security, ICT, teaching, and diplomacy, they share a passion for ensuring that their countries have a voice, a seat at the table.

During the various conversations that we’ve had over the last few days, I’ve been quietly impressed by the depth and breadth of their collective knowledge but even more so by their energy, their enthusiasm, and their determination to make a difference.

In my world, I see lethargy, apathy, and a general ‘whatever’ attitude that borders on helplessness in the face of the political turns this side of the world has taken. [Admittedly, the voting turnout (nearly 70%) in the UK election this week has given me hope that tomorrow’s leaders are stepping up and taking note (453,000 of the 600k new voters to sign up on deadline day were aged between 18 and 34), but talk from Ireland and Hungary both brings to mind a vision of hell and a hand-basket.] The company I’ve been keeping in the last few days has been cathartic, helping me shed some of the disengagement I’ve been feeling and reigniting my interest in the world at large.

Ceiling of the Human Rights Council room at the UN

1000 sq m weighing 23 000 kg – took 9 months to do – depicting the ocean floor and said to be a metaphor for multilateral diplomacy and the different perspective everyone has (view is different from every seat in the room)

Next week, we’re at the Human Rights Council – it meets three times a year for a total of ten weeks and is currently in session. We’re also at the Commonwealth Small States Office, the ITU, the Austrian Permanent Mission, the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The session I’m looking forward to most is one on Fake News – and the role of confirmation bias in a post-truth world.

Yes, indeed. It’s been a good few days at the office.


2017 Grateful 35

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest.

Back at the request of DiploFoundation to run a two-day public speaking workshop, the few days were packed solid, Serbian style. I’ve yet to meet a people with anything approaching the same capacity to live life to the full. And the hospitality, as I remembered, is first class. (India comes a close second.)

Serbia has its fans and its detractors. I can’t ever hope to understand its history or even come close to anything approaching empathy for the past that has shaped its present. I can only speak from my experience. It may well have been four years since I was there, four years since I worked directly rather than virtually with the Diplo team, but it felt like yesterday. From that first welcome dinner at Patlidžan with its excellent piadina sa biftekom (steak wrapped in flatbread) and my re-acquaintance with Tamjanika wine, I felt at home. Conversation flitted between the serious and the banal. International development policy, cybersecurity, Trump, Brexit, the recent Serbian elections, village life, modern education; everyone at the table had something to contribute. That evening, on our way back to the fab Crystal Hotel, we stopped into Le Petit Bistro, lured inside by the strains of live music. Stubovi Pop Kulture are now on my list of bands to check out, next time in town.

Over a late lunch the next day in a fabulous local Italian  restaurant, Amici, the conversations continued.

The workshop started Friday evening at 5. Participants, keen to learn the secret to effective public speaking (if there is one), came from work, probably the last thing most people would want to do at the end of a hard week, but they came. Everyone was an expert in their own field. And again, the diverse backgrounds and experience added to the quality of the communication. Serbians, in my experience, are rarely, if ever, stuck for something substantive to say.

Each had their own demon to tame – be it anxiety at determining what to say, lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, fear of facing an audience – and they brought their demons with them. My mandate had been quite broad. There was only one specific ask: the workshop had to be dynamic. They didn’t want a lecture. Or a seminar. Or an ex cathedra presentation.

It’s impossible to turn someone into a public speaker in two days. It takes time and effort and practice. But what can be done is to raise the level of their awareness of what makes a speaker good speaker and what makes a message an effective message. Practical tips to address the demons, opportunities to put the theory behind public speaking into practice, and immediate constructive feedback on performance – that’s where it’s at.

It’s always a good sign when participants are in no rush to leave. So much can be learned from others in the room. And very often, chance encounters at workshops where participants are given a safe environment in which to expose their vulnerabilities and experiment with finding their voice, can lead to future co-operation.

Dinner that evening was a quieter affair, just four of us. Villa Maska, with its fab floral Trabant, is yet another gem on the Belgrade culinary route. My sixth encounter with the hospitality industry this trip and my sixth time to comment on how seriously they take their business. From the coffee shop on the corner to the local restaurants and kafanas, the service was warm and welcoming, delivered with ease and efficiency. Service in Belgrade is the stuff textbooks are written about.

The second day, Saturday, ran from noon to 5pm and again, participants stayed over. The overriding feedback was that it had been different to the type of soft-skills training they were used to. They got floor time. They got to speak. They got to experiment. They got to practice. And they learned. Mission accomplished.

Dinner that night was at the home of old friends in New Belgrade. A smorgasbord of Serbian delicacies that left me daydreaming of having the time to grow paprika and make my own ajvar  and making a note to myself that I had to try the boiled eggs in horseradish and sourcream at home. As we sat around the room sampling homemade rakija and Montenegrin wine, again the conversation leapfrogged around the world with everyone contributing. Life in Serbia is extremely social. And inclusive. And entertaining.

Sunday, we had plans to visit the Tesla museum but it was lashing out of the heavens and I was knackered. Workshops drain me. Having to be on my game for hours on end is physically and mentally challenging. We were picked up from the hotel at 2.30 for a Sunday afternoon lunch at Milošev konak, noted for its delectable desserts. In this remnant of old Belgrade, with its platters of roasted meats and lively music, we spent the better part of five hours. Had the yawns not begun to get in the way of conversation, I might still be there.

As always, the musicians were an integral part of the experience. The music was like a rollercoaster ride – from happy to sad, from upbeat to melancholy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics, the sentiments were clear. My new favourite song is Dimitrijo, sine mitre, a tearjerker if ever there was one.

It’s been a long week. And I’m heading into the next with a backlog of work that will take days to get through. But as exhausted as I am, I’m grateful that I managed to hold my own, and to keep up with Belgrade. I’m grateful, too, for the spirit of friendship and the shared belief that working together is how we change the world, one thought at a time.

If you’ve not been to Belgrade, you’re missing out. The food, the wine, the music, and above all, the incredible hospitality, is something everyone should experience. I can only hope that it won’t be another four years before I get to come back.



Time to (re)take responsibility

It’s not a gun that kills someone; it’s the person who pulls the trigger. It’s not Facebook or e-mail that ruins people’s lives, it’s the person who posts the message – or worse still, mindlessly forwards and shares messages without checking that their contents are true.

Just ask Mark Hendricks. Apparently, back in 2010, a friend of the South Africa native circulated a photo of Mark with the message:

People please beware of the man in the picture, as he is very dangerous and is in the business of selling young girls and boys. He also preys on ladies that are single to get them into the HUMAN Trafficking circle. If you do see him please just ignore him and get away from him as far as possible and alert the police ASAP. PLEASE CIRCULATE THIS PICTURE TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW. THE MORE PEOPLE SEE HIS FACE, THE LESS CHANCE HE HAS OF GETTING TO ONE OF OUR CHILDREN

The so-called friend who did this said it was just a prank. A joke. They had no idea the consequences it would have. In 2010, the message went viral and now it’s resurfacing again. It ruined Hendricks’s life once… and no doubt will do so again. The descriptive ‘living hell’ comes to mind.

That the friend was at fault for dreaming this up in the first place, is a no-brainer. Such a level of irresponsibility is heinous. But what of all the others who aided and abetted by forwarding and sharing? It could be argued that they thought they were doing something for the greater good of mankind, but no one obviously stopped to check if it was true.

My mother is fond of saying that paper will take any print. It doesn’t discriminate. And yet our ability to tell right from wrong, true from false, is what marks us as human. With the pressures of time and the myriad of information out there, can we be held responsible for not taking precious minutes to verify the facts? And indeed is verifying the facts even possible anymore? Has the widespread availability of information robbed us of our powers to tell right from wrong? Has the quickening pace of society and the expectation of instantaneous communication put pressure on us to the point that we simply forward and share so that we feel we are doing something?

We need to wake up to the fact that lives can be and are being ruined at the push of a button. And we need to take responsibility for the part we play in this. 

First published at DiploFoundation 30 August 2013

What I didn’t know about Ireland

Seaweed beds on the west coast of Ireland

As Ireland’s national day – St Patrick’s Day – draws near, and people around the world get ready for the ‘wearin’ of the green’, the papers will soon be full of retrospective pieces on Ireland’s recent descent from economic grace. I’ve been Irish for as long as I’ve been alive. I may not have lived there full-time for many years, and yet I still consider it my home. I thought I knew quite a lot about my country and its interrelations with the rest of the world. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Last year, I took Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States course and chose Ireland as my focus country. Over the next few weeks, I looked at Ireland’s diplomacy from a variety of angles: structure, security, economic, environmental, multilateral, and regional. Each week, I learned more and more interesting things about Ireland, things that I’d never known before. For instance, I had always thought that neutrality is enshrined in our consitution: it isn’t. I never realised that the Republic of Ireland doesn’t exist except as a soccer team. Ireland (as in the 26 counties) is known as Ireland or Éire. As the weeks advanced, the shame of what I didn’t know was soon overcome by the wealth of knowledge I was accumulating. And not just about Ireland but about each of the other small states that my classmates had focused on.

There's no place like home. There's no place like...

I unearthed a newfound pride in my country, at a time when the Irish psyche was taking a beating having gone from being Europe’s posterchild to one of its PIGS. Taking just one area – multilateral diplomacy – I discovered that in the late 1950s, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken had pioneered the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the UN, a contribution that was recognised by the UN when Minister Aiken was asked to be the first signatory to the NPT.  At the 2010 Review Conference of the NPT, Ireland chaired the body charged with making progress on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  Other notables include Irish diplomat Sean MacBride (Nobel-Prize laureate and co-founder of Amnesty International) who played a key role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights; Seán Lester, the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, who handed over the flame at the birth of the UN; and Edward Phelan who played a key role in founding the ILO in 1919 and was Director General of the ILO in 1941.

While much of our lives are spent looking backward instead of forward, this course helped give Ireland’s current woes more context. Set in what I had come to understand as Ireland’s standing in diplomacy, our past achievements gave me hope that we would, indeed, recover and live to tell this tale, too. When I visit Ireland, I no longer feel dismay as how we have let ourselves go. Instead, I see a nation ready to shoulder the consequences of its actions and move forward. I sincerely hope that we have learned our lesson and I wish that more people at home would take the time, be it in a structured course like Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States, or in private study, to learn about our country and be proud of the contributions we have made. It is only by understanding our role in the world that we can fully appreciate the power of our people and by gaining a broader appreciation of the roles other countries play, we can better measure our own progress.

First published on  5 March 2012