COMMENTARY: St Vincent on the UN Security Council: more valuable than coin

Sir Ron Sanders

(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)

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 maneuverer 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, combatting 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.

Responses and previous commentaries:

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  1. Once again, Sir Ronald is right. I’m glad we have an Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador that has guts and doesn’t forget who he represents in DC and elsewhere. Sir Ronald brings up very good points about small-nations, the UN, and how big-nations in the world continue to bully and suppress small-nations like Antigua.

    I think the only big-countries that have actually been respectful to small-nations are China and Russia. These are the only two big-nations that seem to respect small countries like Antigua and the concerns that we have in our development path forward. The US, UK and EU have abandoned small-nations like Antigua, but worse yet, they actively hurt small-nations (as Sir Ronald points out) through their policies of hubris.

    Lastly, I am glad that Sir Ronald writes these commentaries which contain intellectual thought and scholarship. I am not sure how many people of Antigua and Barbuda read these writings, but I wish everybody did. Perhaps at the new UWI campus in Antigua they can have a government studies or international relations degree where Sir Ronald’s writings can be a part of the course.

  2. Sir Ronald is absolutely right again. Antigua and Barbuda is being well represented. Many times he speaks Truth to power in a way that is meaningful, and yet respectful. The democratic socialist government of Comrade Ralph in St. Vincent is to be commended. St. Vincent will be a powerful voice on behalf of all social democratic, labour orientated and democratic socialist and entrepreneurial socialist nations in our region, including Antigua and Barbuda

  3. Umm, Sir Ronald might be right in terms of small states being sidelined(as they always have been) but being a member of the security council will not change that.
    From the UN Security Councils website:
    “The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

    That role doesn’t include stopping powerful nations meddling in our affairs, it would only be of use if the US decided to invade Grenada again, or more likely proposed to invade Venezuela. In fact there’s an argument that this appointment might even be detrimental to the region if such an event was to occur since Comrade Ralph will most certainly direct his ambassador to side with Russia and China, further entrenching the US administrations perception that the Caribbean is a region that is anti USA, drug running, money laundering, supplier of illegal immigrants and that at some stage they’ll need to step on.

    Better that we didnt get the evil eye

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