Singapore’s Journey to the 2019 UN General Assembly

  • Tommy Koh
  • Straits Times

  • 21 September 2019

The most important meeting in the world takes place each year in New York. This is the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It is attended by the leaders and representatives of the 193 member states. The UNGA is the closest thing we have to a  ‘parliament’ of the world, where every country has one voice.

 This year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will lead the Singapore delegation to the assembly, which begins with a general debate on Sept 24.

Singapore and the UN
Singapore’s relationship with the UN began 54 years ago today. On Sept 21, 1965, the Republic of Singapore was admitted as the 117th member of the UN.

This is a special year in the history of the relationship between the UN and Singapore. On 7th August 2019, the UN held a signing ceremony in Singapore for a new convention that makes international settlement agreements, resulting from mediation, enforceable internationally. The convention has been named the Singapore Convention on Mediation. A total of 46 countries signed the convention at the signing ceremony in Singapore.

In 2006, the World Intellectual Property Organization, also held a diplomatic conference in Singapore. The conference adopted a new treaty on the law of trade marks. The treaty is called the Singapore Treaty.

Singaporeans continue to play leadership roles at the UN. The Singapore Permanent Representative to the UN, Burhan Gafoor, chaired the Legal Committee (6th Committee) at the UNGA in 2017.

Another Singaporean, Rena Lee, is the President of the conference on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The ambition is to adopt a new legally binding instrument on BBNJ under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Another Singaporean, Natalie Morris-Sharma, serves as the coordinator of the annual omnibus resolution on the oceans and the law of the sea. Getting the 193 countries to agree on a consensus resolution requires both great tact and diplomacy.

At the World Intellectual Property Organization, a Singaporean, Daren Tang, chairs the Committee on Copyright.

Climate Action Summit
Prime Minister Lee will be attending the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit. This is the most high-level meeting on climate change since the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015. In Paris, the leaders of the world agreed to prevent global temperatures from rising beyond 2° celsius, preferably below 1.5° celsius.

It is time for the leaders of the world to take stock of the situation. The climate scientists I have spoken to tell me that the target of 1.5° celsius is no longer achievable and that even 2° celsius may be in doubt. The sad truth is that there has been no reduction in the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The continuing forest fires in Brazil and Indonesia will aggravate the problem.

I hope that, in New York, the leaders of the world will agree that global warming and climate change pose an existential threat to all of us. We must summon the political will to take resolute actions in all our countries to mitigate and adapt to this challenge.

Universal Health Coverage
Another high-level meeting taking place at the UN is on universal health coverage.

The proposition is that every citizen, in every country, is entitled to essential health services, to safe, effective and affordable medicine and to vaccines for all.

Singapore has an excellent record in this area and has been actively supporting the drafting of a political declaration on universal health coverage, which will be endorsed by the Heads of State and Government. This is one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Multilateralism Is an Imperative
There is an attempt by some to discredit multilateralism and multilateral institutions. We must resist such efforts. We do not wish to live in a world governed by narrow-minded nationalism and economic autarchy. We want to live in a world in which all countries cooperate with another for their mutual benefit. It is only by working together that we can effectively address the challenges of the day. Challenges like climate change, pandemics and terrorism respect no borders.

Multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Telecommunications Organization, support the civilization we enjoy. We should reform them to make them more effective and more relevant. But, we must not undermine them.

This UNGA can send a powerful message to the world. The message is that we prefer multilateralism to unilateralism. The message is that we believe in international cooperation and not autarky. The message is that we will defend multilateralism and multilateral institutions.

Small States
Of the 193 member states of the UN, 107 are small states with a population of less than 10 million. They belong to an organisation called the Forum of Small States (FOSS) founded by Singapore in 1992.

The objective is to unite the strength and amplify the voice of the small states. The ambition is to forge closer cooperation among the small countries of the world, to defend their individual and collective interests and increase their influence in the world. Whilst in New York, Prime Minister Lee will host a reception for the leaders of the 107 members of FOSS.

Global Governance Group (3G)
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the Group of 20 (G20), was given new salience. It has become a very important forum for the making of economic policies for the world. The problem is that the members of G20 are not elected but self-appointed. They have no mandate to make decisions on our behalves.

To ameliorate this situation, Singapore took the initiative to form the Global Governance Group (3G). 3G consists of 30 small and medium size countries, which are not members of G20.

It was at the insistence of 3G that the UN Secretary-General is invited to all G20 meetings. We wanted to create a link between G20 and the UN. 3G regularly engages in dialogue with the President of G20. 3G prepares constructive papers which are submitted to G20 for its consideration.

The bottom line is this: we cannot be members of G20 but we can have a channel of communication to the President of G20 and can make positive contributions to it work. We also want to ensure that the G20 works in concert with the UN, and not in opposition to it.

Toilets for All
Goal No. 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. We have made significant progress in water but not sanitation. It is a sad fact that open defecation is still the practice in many countries. It is truly deplorable that about 2,500 million people in the world do not have access to a toilet.

It is not sufficiently appreciated that not having access to a toilet can mean contaminated water, can mean cholera and dysentery and the inability of girls to go to school.

To focus the minds of the people of the world on the importance of the toilet and proper sanitation, Singapore has gained the support of the UN to make the 19th of November, each year, World Toilet Day. This is an event that is held annually, with the support of UN agencies like UNICEF and UNDP.

I admire the achievements of the World Toilet Organization founded by a remarkable Singaporean, Jack Sim.

ASEAN and the UN are natural partners. The current Chairman of ASEAN, Thailand, is seeking to develop a roadmap on the complementarities between the two organisations. The road map will focus on five areas of endeavour, which are contained in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as well as in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. One concrete action which I hope the two sides will promote is action, at the regional and international levels, to combat the scourge of marine plastic debris.

This year’s UNGA will be substantive and meaningful for Singapore.

PM Lee’s presence at UNGA will underline our strong support for the UN at a moment when the world is polarised and multilateralism is being tested. Through our active role at the UN and during the UNGA, we hope to strengthen our partnership with countries around the world and share our development experience with other developing countries. The UN will remain important for small states as it represents a rules-based international order and gives us a forum to build a network of friends around the world. 

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