Two Caribbean nations, Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, currently hold important positions within the United Nations. At its plenary meeting on 22 November 2019, the Group of 77 (G77) at the United Nations – a coalition of 135 developing countries – and China elected Guyana, by acclamation without preconditions, to serve as its Chair for 2020. Jamaica held the same post in 1977 and 2005, Guyana in 1999, and Antigua and Barbuda in 2008. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was elected for a two-year term seat on the UN Security Council in June 2019, which it took up this month together with Estonia, Niger, Tunisia, and Vietnam. This was seen as a ‘historic occasion’ for the small island state, which is the smallest country ever to be elected to the UN Security Council, and the third Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country to do so, after Jamaica in 2000 and Guyana in 1975.
Like Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Guyana have demonstrated that size is no indication of a nation’s ability to meaningfully contribute to the global agenda and become part of the solutions to challenges confronting the world. But what does the election of Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines mean for Small Island and Developing States (SIDS), especially given the perception that small states are often sidelined in the global arena and become victims of larger countries determined to impose their will and advance their interests?
Lest we forget, it is important to remember that it was former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who asserted that ‘Being small does not mean an absence of big ideas.’ The definition of the concept of ’aggression’ that now informs international interpretation of the term, the adoption of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Criminal Court and recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty are examples of major ideas and outcomes pioneered by the UN’s small-state members. Therefore, small states making contributions at the global level is nothing new. Small states have actively contributed to the protection, promotion, and progress of the principles of international law.
Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines can be strong advocates on behalf of CARICOM and the wider SIDS community, particularly for the issues that are important to SIDS. As a matter of fact, in speaking to the press, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves contended that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was ‘committed to the principle of sustainable development and, as a Small Island Developing State in danger of inundation by rising seas, is very concerned about the consequences of adverse climate change and intends to work very closely with the other members of the Security Council.’
It will be important for them to do their groundwork, build trust with important policymakers, and identify mutual interests, which can emerge from the UN System Framework For Action on Equality intended to address rising inequalities across the world and the targets of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is important to recognise and establish that Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines cannot realistically address the gamut of issues confronting the world at this time or those that can emerge during their tenure. Therefore, it is critical for them to prioritise, and focus on particular issues and challenges that they can advance. Experience has shown that having a clear sense of priorities facilitates better preparation and co-ordination, and contributes to greater outcomes and sustainable action. As indicated earlier, the areas for focus can be climate change, upholding international law, and UN reform.
The successful campaign by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council resulted from intense preparation. Now that that goal has been achieved, remaining a formidable force will require the same or even greater degree of preparation. As part of getting ready for their participation at this global level, they must remember that the CARICOM region has always worked as a team. During Saint Lucia’s presidency of the UNGA (2003-2004) and Antigua’s chairmanship of the G77 (2008), CARICOM countries provided logistical and manpower support to these two delegations, which allowed them to play effective roles at the UN. This level of co-operation must now be extended to include other SIDS, to seek support, and strengthen the influence of small states.
Given the high costs sometimes associated with participating and hosting meetings to advance regional interests, it might be useful for these small states to leverage the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to decrease their transaction costs and increase their capacity to mobilise constituencies and make representation as needed.
Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have a colossal challenge before them. However, looking back to look ahead can provide them with the knowledge, skills, and experience that can help them be effective in their roles. They can prioritise their focus, without being myopic to influence developments on the global scene, whilst working to advance mutual interests.
Rawl Prescott is a Project Officer at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in International Studies.