The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism

By Christabel Fernandez

My time at the United Nations exposed me to the many fascinating facets of multilateralism and international relations. International Organisations like the United Nations are indeed a beacon of hope to peaceful international cooperation and a prevention of a third world war. Yet my time there also exposed me to the almost crippling and unbelievable reality of how IOs operate, and the blatant disregard for international norms and standards that large and powerful countries have. While the criticism against the abuse of power by states like those in the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) are widely known, less is known about the camp of small states that are seeing their collective voice grow, and for a more noble cause.  

Coming from Singapore, I have always had a sort of “soft spot” for small states and their struggles in international diplomacy. Their fights are numerous, from overcoming resource limitations, security and trying to gain legitimacy on an international level, and these are just some examples. Singapore, however, a tiny island nation-state, has managed to somehow make a mark in the world today. From leading the UNCLOS negotiations, [1] to holding key leadership positions in international organizations, [2] Singapore and Singaporeans have created a reputation for themselves as small, but capable. There is an affectionate term we use in my country known as being like “chilli padi”, a tiny red pepper with fiery seeds found in Southeast Asia – referring to the ability to pack an underestimated mean punch despite your small size.

Small states are also less concerned with militarized conflicts and politicized positions, due to resource-limitations and noninvolvement in protracted conflicts, thus giving them the capacity to channel their efforts towards issues that are most pressing for themselves. One example that drew my particular attention at the UN was a group called the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Made up of island-states in the Caribbean, the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the South China Sea. Many of them consisting of low-lying coastal towns, the SIDS are now largely driving the UN climate change and sustainable development agenda. [3] Owing to the fact that many of their economies are still developing, their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are minimal, yet they are experiencing the worst effects of climate change and environmental damage that threaten their livelihoods and future. This group no doubt too “packs a punch” when it comes to climate change. Their expertise and knowledge in a vast array of environmental issues such as ocean conservation and sustainable tourism makes them a legitimate voice for what is arguably the most important threat facing our world today. It doesn’t hurt of course, that (handsome) public figures like Jason Momoa are vocal advocates also backing the group. The Aquaman star was the keynote speaker at the UN High-Level Summit in 2019.

This idea of collective grouping works well too with the European Union, who now coordinates its voting and negotiates as a bloc in the UN. [4] The EU is indeed another regional group “trend-setter” in the UN, currently now holding an observer status and delivering statements at the start of almost all debates. Such a presence is certainly felt and is particularly effective against the traditionally “loud” states such as the US or Russia and gives weight to individual European states like Luxembourg, who otherwise may find it difficult to have their positions heard. As the single largest financial contributor, the EU is in a position to ensure sustainable funding with its anticipated UN reform package. [5] It also leads the agenda for the UN human rights system as well as for nuclear disarmament, for example. There is much potential in such efforts especially with the sharing of resources from all its member-states, not just financial but for expertise as well. It is important therefore for regional groups to coordinate their positions in order to gain greater credibility. This is also emerging among the African Group, for instance, who are particularly vocal about the lack of the continent’s representation in the Security Council. These are all important issues to be raised at the UN and, with continued advocacy, change may not necessarily be a long way off.

Despite the manifold criticisms of the UN today, there is indeed still hope in the potential of this organization to effect positive change in our world today and to address the pressing concerns that threaten the future of our planet and people’s future. The UN’s ethos is cooperation and consensus, and I believe that the power to change lies in the collective effort of states exerting enough pressure for the change they want to see.

 

References

[1] MFA Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh shares his thoughts about UNCLOS and the challenges that he had faced as President of UNCLOS III. https://www.mfa.gov.sg/Overseas-Mission/Geneva/Mission-Updates/2019/06/press_20190618

[2] Singaporeans in key positions.

[3] UN OHRLLS – Small Island Developing States. http://unohrlls.org/about-sids/

[4] EEAS – How does the EU work at the United Nations? https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/unga_factsheet_2019-2.pdf

[5]EEAS – How does the EU work at the United Nations?

Picture: United Nations Photo, Flickr

 

 

 

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