Monthly Archives: September 2016

Is the UN ‘essential’ for Small States? Singapore Minister makes the case

Alicia Nicholls

In an uncertain world, small states have to work much harder just to stay afloat. Small boats on a rough sea will be tossed and turned much more than a tanker with heavy ballast. For our survival and prosperity, small states have to stay open and connected to the world. But our very openness makes us vulnerable to external shocks and threats.”  – Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan at 71st UN General Assembly, 2016

As a policy nerd, I enjoyed listening to, and reading the speeches given by the representatives of the 193 members at the 71st United Nations General Assembly. However, one speech stood out particularly to me. It was the poignant statement made by Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Singapore, His Excellency, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan entitled “Small states in an Uncertain world” in which he argued why the United Nations was important for the survival and prosperity of small states.

Questions about the 21st-century relevancy of the UN stem not only from the unsuitability of its organisational structure to current geopolitical realities, but also its peacekeeping failures and the fact that so many members, including prominent ones like the United States, are frequently behind on UN membership fees. Dr. Balakrishnan’s intervention on this issue is, therefore, timely.

In less than fifteen minutes, Dr. Balakrishnan convincingly and succinctly  laid out the well-known challenges faced by small states in an increasingly uncertain global economy marked by sluggish growth, growing protectionism, terrorism and health epidemics. The learned Minister reiterated that in this harsh external environment,”small states have to stay open and connected to the world”, and that our “very openness makes us vulnerable to external shocks and threats”.

He outlined three elements which he saw as crucial for the survival and prosperity of small states, namely, a rules-based multilateral system, international partnership and cooperation and sustainable development. On each of these points he reiterated why the UN was right for the job.

In the decades since the UN’s formation in the mid-1940s, its membership has grown from only the “Great Powers” to include numerous former colonies which have become independent states. Small states now make up about two-thirds of the UN’s membership. Noting that small states are “usually at the receiving end of the decisions and actions of large powers”, Dr. Balakrishnan explained that the concept of “one country, one vote” gives small states a voice they would otherwise not have. After all, the vote of the small island developing state of Barbados has the same weight as a vote by the United States, the world’s most powerful country. In concluding, Dr. Balakrishnan proffered that [u]ltimately, small states need the United Nations to provide the framework for building partnerships, promoting development and pursuing peace and security within a rules-based system.”

I quite enjoyed Dr. Balakrishnan’s speech. One cannot deny that there are flaws in the United Nations system which need to be more expeditiously addressed if it is to continue serving the needs of small states in years to come, including reform of the Security Council which still reflects the geopolitics of the 1940s. There is also concern over some of the actions of the UN’s peacekeepers, including the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak in Haiti which it has only admitted to recently.

I agree with former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s assertion in 2002 that “the United Nations exists not as a static memorial to the aspirations of an earlier age but as a work in progress – imperfect as all human endeavours must be capable of adaptation and improvement.”

Despite its imperfections, the UN is an important forum for global cooperation on issues of international development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is just one of these initiatives. The “one country, one vote” has given small states the opportunity to have their voices heard on global diplomacy and policy despite their size disadvantage.

Several initiatives have been spearheaded by small states, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Criminal Court. Small states have also left an indelible mark on the UN’s work by raising the global spotlight on climate change and other development issues, including the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is little wonder, therefore, why Caribbean countries in their national statements before the UN General Assembly pledged their continued support of the UN, while also supporting calls for reforms.

The full National Statement by Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan may be read here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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Caribbean States raise de-risking concerns at the 71st United Nations General Assembly

Alicia Nicholls

De-risking was one of the myriad of developmental issues raised by small states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at the 71st Regular General Assembly of the United Nations in New York over the past few days. The theme of the general debate of the 71st session was “The Sustainable Development Goals: a universal push to transform our world.”

De-risking practices by banks involve the avoidance of risk by discontinuing business with whole classes of customers without taking into account their levels of risk. This is in direct contradiction to the risk-based approach advocated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The major manifestation of bank de-risking has been the restriction or termination by large banks (particularly in the US) of correspondent banking relationships with banks and discontinuing relationships with money transfer operators (MTOs).

While countries across the world have been affected by de-risking in varying degrees, a World Bank study published in 2015 found that the Caribbean region appeared to be the most affected by a decline in correspondent banking relationships. This situation is even more vexing considering CARICOM countries’ adherence to international regulations and best practices, including the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force.

Arguing that correspondent banking services are a public good, CARICOM countries launched a high-level diplomatic offensive over the past months to raise awareness and mobilise action on this serious issue. The restriction and loss of correspondent banking relationships not only threaten the region’s financial stability but also threaten to de-link Caribbean countries from the global financial and trading system, undermining their sustainable development prospects. There has, however, been limited international progress on this front despite strong advocacy and a myriad of studies on the issue by regional and international development agencies.

Singing from the same hymn sheet, CARICOM representatives consistently raised the issue in their national speeches before the UN General Assembly.  In perhaps one of the most comprehensive and impassioned statements, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas, H.E. Frederick Mitchell,  made de-risking the starting point in his speech, emphasizing not only the difficulty being faced in opening accounts, but also the impact on tourism, remittance and financial flows. Calling it a “moral imperative,” he reiterated Caribbean countries’ adherence to anti-money laundering rules, while condemning the over-regulation which has had led to the de-risking phenomenon. He also termed the attacks on the Bahamas and the CARICOM region as “inaccurate and unfair”.

Touching on the sustainable development implications of de-risking, representative of Trinidad & Tobago, Senator the Honourable Dennis Moses, Minister of Foreign and CARICOM  Affairs, poignantly stated as follows:

“The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda recognizes that national development efforts need to be supported by an enabling international economic environment through international business activity and finance, international development cooperation, and international trade. However, the issue of financial institutions terminating or restricting correspondent banking relations in the CARICOM Region has destabilized the financial sectors of our Member States and has disrupted the Region’s growth and economic progress.”

On behalf of Trinidad & Tobago and CARICOM, Senator Moses further called on “international banks to engage collaboratively with affected Member States to restore normal financial relationships between domestic banks and international markets.”

Prime Minister of St. Kitts & Nevis, the Hon. Timothy Harris noted that “[a]lready, in the Caribbean, as of the first half of this year, some 16 banks, across five countries have lost all or some of their correspondent banking relationships putting the financial lifeline of these countries at great risk”. Highlighting Caribbean countries’ dependence on tourism and remittance flows, he further explained that “such [de-risking] actions threaten to derail progress, undermine trade, direct foreign investment and repatriation of business profits.”

Laying the blame for de-risking on “heavy-handed” FATF regulations, Prime Minister of St. Vincent & Grenadines reiterated the potential of de-risking to disconnect Caribbean countries from global finance and “a shifting of potentially risky transactions to institutions that lack the regulatory wherewithal to handle them”. He further explained that “these [FATF] regulations must be revised urgently before legitimate transactions in the Caribbean–from credit card payments to remittances to foreign direct investment–grind to a halt.”

Besides de-risking, CARICOM representatives raised several other development issues, including climate change, graduation policies of international development agencies, United Nations reform, the US embargo of Cuba, the attack on international financial centres by OECD countries and the on-going border disputes between Guyana and Venezuela and Belize and Guatemala. CARICOM states also congratulated newly elected UNGA President, Peter Thomson of Fiji, and thanked outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for his service, particularly his support of SIDS.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

OECD describes global trade growth as “exceptionally weak”

Alicia Nicholls

In its Interim Economic Outlook released yesterday September 21, 2016, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has again expressed concern about the slowdown in global trade growth, echoing similar sentiments made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Describing global trade growth as “exceptionally weak”, the report notes that the volume of global trade fell in Q1 2016 and remains subdued despite some recovery in Q2.

The OECD noted that weak trade growth was as a result of not only cyclical and structural factors but also “some backtracking” on the opening of global markets to trade in goods and services. Noting that trade is an important driver of productivity growth, the organisation warned that this deceleration could undermine productivity growth and living standards in future years. These issues are further explored in an OECD Economic Policy Paper entitled “Cardiac Arrest or Dizzy Spell: Why is World Trade so weak and what can Policy do about it?” which was also released that same day.

The OECD report has reiterated the need for policy action to boost trade, including avoiding trade protectionist measures, reducing unnecessary trade costs and removing impediments and distortions for cross border investment. Recognising that support for globalisation in advanced economies has weakened, the report also suggests that policies be implemented to ensure that the benefits of trade and investment are widely shared.

This low trade growth is also affecting global GDP growth. The OECD warned that the world economy remains in a “low-growth” trap and projects global GDP growth to remain flat at only  3% in 2016, with only a modest improvement in 2017.

The full press release may be obtained here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Small State IFCs: The Lay of the Land

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Excerpts from my most recent Q&A with IFC Review

Tax Diplomacy is Now an International Dialogue.

FH: Tax diplomacy is no longer a dialogue among a limited number of capital-exporting states eager to orient the world to provide maximum economic benefit. Nor is it simply about how the international aspects of one state’s tax rules affect foreign tax-payers. Tax diplomacy is now truly international, evidenced in the constituency of the now 102 members of the OECD Global Forum and its regularly scheduled meetings, and the increasing areas of state action (or inaction), which have now become part of the international tax dialogue. To their enduring credit, as part of the OECD’s campaign to keep their tax agenda forefront in the public domain and among world leaders, they enlisted the international wealth re-distribution lobby and helped craft and deliver a message about international tax that is less esoteric. With the tax woes…

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Belize accepts TRIPS Amendment

Alicia Nicholls

Belize has become the latest member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to accept the amendment to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which seeks to improve poorer members’ access to affordable medicines.

This  amendment to the TRIPS Agreement formalises and makes permanent the waiver provided by paragraph 6 of the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, known as the “Paragraph 6 System” in 2003. The amendment was approved by the WTO General Council on December 6, 2005, and permits exporting countries to grant compulsory licenses for the manufacture and export of pharmaceutical products to poorer countries.

The protocol is not yet in force and will only enter into force upon acceptance by two-thirds of the WTO’s membership. The original deadline for acceptance was December 1, 2007 but has been extended to December 31  2017 by the General Council in November 2015.

So far the following CARICOM countries have accepted the amendment: Grenada (2015), St. Kitts & Nevis (2015), St. Lucia (2016), Trinidad & Tobago (2013).

More from the WTO’s press release here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

European Parliament Appoints Its Representative for BREXIT Negotiations

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Read more about Guy Guy Verhofstadt here

But Europe’s Conservatives and Reformists are not happy.

In response to Verhofstadt’s appointment, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament, said all 751 MEPs should decide the parliament’s Brexit negotiator.

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Brexit supporter and ECR leader Syed Kamall said: “It is not right that the President and a couple of men sitting in a back room can decide everything and foist it on the democratically elected representatives… If the parliament thinks that Guy Verhofstadt is the right person to represent it in the negotiations then that’s fair enough, but these backroom stitch-ups are disrespectful of the 747 other MEPs and their voters.”

More here

Working with his counterpart,Michel Barnier, negotiator for the European Commission, Guy Verhofstadt has been appointed to keep the Conference of Presidents (comprising the EP President and group leaders) fully informed of Brexit negotiating developments.

He will…

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G20 Leaders’ Hangzhou Summit: Trade and Investment Takeaways

“Our growth, to be strong, must be reinforced by inclusive, robust and sustainable trade and investment growth.”  –G20 Leaders’ Communiqué 2016

Alicia Nicholls

Against the backdrop of an uneven global economic recovery, subpar global trade and investment growth, trade disputes and the recently held Brexit referendum vote in the UK, trade and investment were top of mind for world leaders at the just-concluded Eleventh Group of 20 (G20) Summit held on September 4-5, 2016  in Hangzhou, China.

The G20 is the premier international forum for cooperation on global economic governance and its members account for 86 percent of global GDP and 78 percent of global trade. China currently holds the G20 presidency.

With the goal of providing political leadership to ensure “inclusive, robust and sustainable trade and investment growth”, G20 leaders endorsed the decisions taken by G20 trade ministers at their Trade Ministers Summit held in Shanghai in July this year. Among the key outcomes of that July meeting were the Terms of Reference of the new G20 Trade and Investment Working Group, the G20 Strategy for Global Trade Growth and the G20 Guiding Principles for Global Investment Policymaking.

Key Trade and Investment-Related Aspects of the G20 Leaders’ Communiqué

Below are some of the key trade and investment-related takeaways from the G20 Leaders’ Communiqué:

  • Reiteration of G20 leaders’ recognition that strong growth must be reinforced by “inclusive, robust and sustainable trade and investment growth”;
  • Commitment to strengthening G20 trade and investment cooperation;
  • Commitment to a “rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system” with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) playing a central role;
  • Commitment to continuing the post-Nairobi work. It is instructive that the Doha Round was not mentioned, confirming that the Doha Development Round is effectively dead despite disagreement among WTO members on the round’s future in the communique to the WTO Nairobi Ministerial held December 2015;
  • G20 leaders also reiterated their support for the inclusion of new issues into the WTO negotiating agenda, another area on which WTO members saw strong divergences of opinion in the aftermath of the Nairobi Ministerial. The G20 leaders  noted that “a range of issues may be of common interest and importance to today’s economy, and thus may be legitimate issues for discussions in the WTO, including those addressed in regional trade arrangements (RTAs) and by the B20″;

  • Commitment to ensure their regional agreements and bilaterals complement the multilateral trading system;
  • Commitment to ratify the Trade Facilitation Agreement by the end of 2016;
  • Indicated their support for the importance of the role that WTO-consistent plurilateral trade agreements “with broad participation” can play in complementing global liberalization initiatives and mentioned the Environmental Goods Agreement as an example;
  • Reiteration of their opposition to protectionism on trade and investment “in all forms” and reiterated the commitments to standstill and rollback protectionist measures till the end of 2018 and to support the work of the WTO, UNCTAD and Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) in monitoring protectionism;
  • In recognition of the rising anti-globalisation and anti-trade sentiment in many western countries, G20 leaders “emphasize[d] that the benefits of trade and open markets must be communicated to the wider public more effectively and accompanied by appropriate domestic policies to ensure that benefits are widely distributed”;
  • Endorsed the G20 Strategy for Global Trade Growth, as well as the G20 Guiding Principles for Global Investment Policymaking which “will help foster an open, transparent and conducive global policy environment for investment”. These were decided at the G20 Trade Ministers Meeting held in July;
  • Indicated their support of policies encouraging firms of all sizes (particularly women and youth entrepreneurs, women-led firms and SMEs) to take full advantage of global value chains (GVCs);
  • Although China was not specifically identified, G20 leaders noted that global steel oversupply was a global issue requiring a collective response and increased information-sharing. They called for the formulation of a Global Forum on steel excess capacity to be facilitated by the OECD with the active participation of G20 members and interested OECD members.

For the tax-related aspects of the communiqué by FRANHENDY Attorneys, please visit  here.

The full communiqué may be read here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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