OCT 2 — Last week, Singapore’s Prime Minister spoke at the UN. In particular he addressed the Forum of Small States (FOSS), a grouping of the world’s smaller nations.
Singapore was instrumental in establishing the forum and PM Lee in his speech made clear that he thought both the forum and the UN remained essential in terms of preserving the rights of the world’s less powerful nations. ‘
He referred to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, rising food and energy prices and new pathogens among the dangers and challenges faced by smaller states. And he said:
“If we regress to a world where ‘might is right’, small states would find it impossible to survive and even big countries will not be better off. We must therefore participate actively to strengthen the multilateral system.”
By the multilateral system, PM Lee is referring broadly to co-operation and engagement via the UN and the treaties modulated by the UN and its organs.
I completely agree that it is only via co-operation that small states can survive but I am not certain the UN remains the best medium for this sort of co-operation.
The truth is that from its inception, the UN has been utterly dominated by the victorious allies — the nations that effectively won World War II — i.e. the US, China, France, the UK and Russia.
These countries have permanent seats and veto powers on the UN Security Council — the most powerful UN body, at least with respect to formulating UN responses to threats and aggression.
As these nations can block action via their vetoes they can prevent any sanctions or measures being taken against themselves. Typically it is these powerful states and their allies who most regularly commit acts of aggression.
The US and Russia both make extensive use of their veto powers which is why we’ve seen no meaningful action from the UN following the invasion of Ukraine and also why we didn’t see any action taken over the US’ various invasions.
There’s nothing the UN can do. This isn’t just an issue in the security council, the most powerful states and veto members wield enormous influence across the UN and it’s virtually impossible for small states to move significant matters forward without the backing of more powerful nations.
This fundamental imbalance has led to the UN increasingly losing credibility. Where once the world looked to the UN Security Council to take action, today the UN in the face of most instances of aggression is barely relevant.
It has had virtually no success in its attempts to bring war criminals and egregious violators of human rights to justice particularly those from more powerful nations.
While some of the UN’s vast array of bodies and organs do make valuable contributions — the Red Cross or peacekeeping missions, for example — the organisation as a whole is struggling. A slow and ossified bureaucracy in a dynamic and dangerous world.
I just don’t see how such an organisation can safeguard the rights of small states. For the UN to begin to be relevant again, you’d need to see the curtailment of the veto system and mechanisms established that really allow small members to bring binding action against larger ones.
But this is unlikely to happen. The UN remains overly reliant on funding from major Western nations; the US and EU account for the majority of its funding and it is headquartered in New York, the financial centre of the world’s most powerful state.
Crucially the UN struggled to regulate or take action against corporations even though many large corporations exceed small nation states in power and in terms of the harm they can do.
For me, the challenges to the UN are so fundamental they raise questions as to whether it is even worth continuing with this incarnation of the system or perhaps it’s time to jettison it for now.
Relying instead on regional alliances like Asean or security organisations like Nato — until a true foundation for multilateral co-operation can be established.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.