Make no mistake about it, the election of St Vincent and the Grenadines – one of the world’s smallest states – to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is both an important and timely event.
The election, primarily by the world’s developing states, has occurred when there is increased intolerance of small states by larger and powerful governments determined to enforce their objectives on the rest of the world.
This intolerance is manifest in many ways, including the continuous efforts by governments of big countries to secure changes in voting methods in inter-governmental organisations that would disenfranchise small states. Big governments have, in the past, tried to impose “weighted voting”, a process by which votes of countries that pay the most in sums of money to international organisations, count at a higher value than others.
Of course, these countries conveniently ignore the fact that each member state of inter-governmental organisations pays its subscriptions based on a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The same percentage of a rich country’s GDP may be larger in volume terms, but the comparative burden on its taxpayers is no greater than on the taxpayers of smaller economies.
Recently, in the Organisation of American States (OAS), there has been an attempt to nullify votes of “abstention”, casting them as “absent”. So far, this attempt has been resisted by 12 of the 14 CARICOM countries, supported by a few like-minded Latin American states. But, should this maneuver succeed, it would turn international practice on its head, allowing a small group of countries that do not comprise more than a half of the member states to win a vote and so impose their minority will.
Casting a vote of abstention is a valid position for any government. It indicates that a government believes that particular proposals may not have sufficient merit or substance to be supported or that the proposal has enough value not to be rejected out of hand.
It leaves the door open for supporters or opponents of a proposal to convince abstainers of the worthiness of their positions. And that is what the business of diplomacy is about. It is a hard graft of discussion and negotiation, of persuasion and bargaining based on convincing evidence.
Abandoning that process and declaring, instead, that a government which abstained from a vote is “absent” and, therefore, its vote does not count, is an alarming attempt to disenfranchise a nation in international decision-making.
This latest attempt to side-line small states follows a litany of positions, adopted by comparatively larger and more powerful countries. These include: the imposition of taxation requirements; assaults on citizenship by investment programmes in small states that compete with similar programmes in North America and Europe; cutting off small states from participation in the global trading and financing system by withdrawing correspondent banking relations; paying lip-service to the arguments of island-states about the deathly threats posed to them by Climate Change; using coercive methods to turn governments of small countries from standing-up for principles such as non-intervention in the internal affairs of states; turning a deaf ear to the one-sided terms of trade that give powerful countries large surpluses in money terms while offering no incentives that would help to balance trade and improve the lives of people of small countries; closing the door to concessional financing desperately needed to maintain and improve economic development; and depriving small states of a voice in the major global decision-making bodies.
For all these reasons, the election of St Vincent and the Grenadines to the UN Security Council, for a term beginning in September, is of enormous importance to every small state in the world. It gives small states a voice at the table of decision-making – a chance to resist further incursions on their rights as sovereign states, and the opportunity to show that small size is no obstacle to contributing meaningfully to resolution of issues that confront the world.
Large and powerful countries deserve the right to be at the centre of global decision-making, given their GDP, their large trade volumes, their worldwide investment and their financial contributions to a range of global challenges, including peacekeeping, combating diseases that can cross borders, and alleviating the worst aspects of poverty. But that right is not exclusive; it should not deny the legitimate voice of the small and vulnerable.
When the United Nations was conceived, leaders of states committed themselves to a world “governed by justice and moral law”, one in which they asserted “the pre-eminence of right over might and the general good against sectional aims”. Over the last 50 years, the world has witnessed a withdrawal from those commitments if not a reversal of them.
As one voice on the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines might not be able to stem the tide of intolerance for small states, but it can demonstrate that the intolerance is misplaced and that small does not mean stupid, ignorant or incapable. Indeed, the history of the United Nations is replete with the contribution of small states to the enhancement of the UN’s work and for the beneficial conditions that apply to all humanity. Among those are Malta’s introduction of the concept of Law of the Sea, and Guyana’s definition on the concept of “aggression” that now informs international interpretation of that term.
The government of St Vincent and the Grenadines, under the leadership of its Prime Minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, spent many years doing the hard grind required to win the seat. His government has been steadfast in upholding the principles of international law and justice which protect small states from abuse. In doing so, it made enemies of the powerful who might have preferred it to acquiesce to their objectives. That enmity was evident in the failed last-ditch effort to cause St Vincent and the Grenadines to lose its election bid.
The cost of the campaign and work that must follow during the tenure of St Vincent and the Grenadines at the UNSC was not cheap by Caribbean standards, but it is invaluable in the participation which it gives to people of all small countries. Not everything is measured in coin; upholding rights, arguing for fairness and justice are value beyond money.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
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