Strengthen multilateralism, Vivian Balakrishnan urges UN General Assembly

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan addresses the UN General Assembly in New York. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

WASHINGTON - With a new world order being shaped, Singapore believes the only way forward is to uphold the inclusive and rules-based multilateral system that has underwritten peace and progress since World War II, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Saturday, he said the “Assembly is taking place in the shadow of multiple concurrent crises”, as he argued the case for greater cooperation among countries.

He cited Russia's invasion of Ukraine, sharpening superpower rivalry, a still uneven and fragile recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, prolonged high inflation, greater division, disruption and polarisation within societies, and the climate crisis.

"The need for global cooperation has never been greater or more urgent, given the range of transnational challenges that all of us confront today," Dr Balakrishnan said.

"The climate crisis is a clear and present threat," he warned, adding: "Our global commons including water and biodiversity are also deteriorating rapidly (and) our global food supply is at risk."

He continued: "A new world order is being born and any obstetrician here will tell you the moment of delivery is actually the most dangerous."

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has strongly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine because it believes in the profound importance of multilateralism and international law.

"The security and even existence of Singapore - and many other countries and especially small states - depends on the international community upholding the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity," he noted.

"If we do not protect these principles, there is then no basis for countries - big and small - to cooperate on an equal footing. Small states especially must not allow the world to regress to one where 'might is right'."

Although the rules-based multilateral system is not perfect, it is by far the world's best option in addressing transnational challenges and managing the global commons, Dr Balakrishnan noted in his speech, coming just past the midway point of the UNGA's Sept 20 to 27 “high level week”, which featured speeches by United States President Joe Biden and other heads of state - as well as a walkout from a UN Security Council meeting by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.

Today's geopolitical reality makes it harder to forge consensus on such a framework, Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged.

But the experience with Covid-19 has shown that multilateral cooperation is the only way forward, he said.

This would better prepare the world to predict, prevent and respond to pandemics in a coordinated and effective fashion, he said, noting that nations share the collective responsibility to rectify the longstanding under-investment in pandemic preparedness.

"Ultimately, we share one planet," he said. "Despite all our differences, our destinies are inter-woven, and no one is safe until all of us are safe."

He said this held true for pandemics, climate change, the conservation of the oceans, and all other shared challenges.

Climate change is the most pressing challenge, needing a sustained and ambitious global response that steps up cooperation in the transition to net zero carbon emissions, he said.

This transformation would be the biggest socio-economic change since the Industrial Revolution.

"The UN-led multilateral system will be key in pulling everyone together to row in the same direction and not leave anyone behind," he noted.

As a small, low-lying, and alternative-energy disadvantaged island nation, Singapore is especially vulnerable to climate change and sea-level rise, Dr Balakrishnan told the General Assembly.

And while Singapore's impact on global emissions is very small, the Republic has raised its climate ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by or around mid-century.

A comprehensive strategy to green the economy is taking shape, and carbon taxes will be progressively raised from 2024, he added.

"We will do our part to build a comprehensive green finance ecosystem and facilitate the regional journey to net zero," he said.

On the issue of food security - which, alongside climate and the war in Ukraine is at the top of the agenda at the General Assembly - Dr Balakrishnan cited UN data showing 828 million people were affected by hunger last year.

That is 46 million more from 2020, and 150 million more from 2019.

To reverse this disturbing trend, nations need to ensure that food supply chains remain open and operate smoothly, as well as pursue innovation and harness technology to tackle new challenges.

This might include working together to develop climate-resilient food systems, while developing the necessary precautions on food safety.

Such capacity-building and the development of global norms and standards offer much scope for multilateral cooperation, he said.

International cooperation must also be enhanced to harness the opportunities of the digital revolution, he said.

"A zero-sum, exclusionary, bifurcated approach benefits no one. An erosion of trust and an atmosphere of confrontation will only breed more cyber threats and malicious cyber activities. We must also ensure that all states, particularly small states, developing and least-developed countries benefit from the digital revolution and not be left behind."

He concluded: "This is a moment where multilateralism must be defended and fortified. Our responses to these myriad opportunities and challenges must remain rooted in the foundational tenets of multilateralism, including especially adherence to the UN Charter and international law."

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