June 10, 2023

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.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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