New York, September 4th, 2003

Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

Permit me to thank the Forum of Small States (FOSS) for continuing its tradition of inviting the incoming President of the United Nations General Assembly to address the Forum prior to taking up office. It is a singular honour for me to speak to you in my capacity as President-elect of the Fifty-eighth Session of the General Assembly. My country, St Lucia, is an active member of FOSS and I therefore speak to you as a member of the FOSS family….among friends.

Today, I propose to speak to you about small states' concerns in the context of the changing international environment. I will then briefly share my priorities for the forthcoming session with you and suggest ways in which we can work together cooperatively in ensuring that we accomplish the goals that we have set for the General Assembly, including those of particular interest to small states.

Small states are prominent among the world's states, comprising a significant constituency in international organisations, including the United Nations. Less than twenty years ago, the concept of small states as a group, was only grudgingly referred to in the global political, socio-economic, development and security debate.

Prior to that, when small states generated a measure of debate, the discussion in most circles centred largely on the issue of political viability. And this centred basically on the ability of small states to exercise sovereignty and to fulfil the responsibilities associated with membership in the international community.

Today this situation has changed. There is now wider recognition of small states as a group and the debate has been broadened to include issues of concern to small states.

The speed, scope and intensity of change in the global environment, as well as the increasing interdependence of states, seriously challenge all countries. Whether large or small, developed or developing, all are seeking to deal with the ever-expanding and increasingly complex international environment. Issues such as globalisation and trade liberalisation, debt, sustainable development, poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS, transnational crime, and terrorism, have engaged our collective focus. It is clear, however, that this range of critical issues does have a greater impact on small states than on large ones, in several ways. In many cases, the effect of these issues erodes or reverses many socio-economic gains that Small States have made over the past half-century.

Globalisation is one of the significant factors affecting the development of small states. To proponents, globalisation is progress; developing countries must accept it if they are to grow and fight poverty effectively. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank summarises the message of globalisation proponents this way: "open your economy, liberalise, and, you will grow, and as you grow, poverty will be reduced".

Undoubtedly, globalisation has brought some benefits to some countries, large and small. Yet, it is fair to say that the benefits promised by globalisation have not materialised for many. Inequality is widening. Indeed, in its World Development Report 2003, the World Bank estimates that the average income in the richest 20 countries is now 37 times that in the poorest 20. In that same report, the Bank estimates that close to 3 billion people in developing countries live on less than $2 a day.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to consider the question; does the global economy constitute a level playing field? Let us look at some of the facts. Enterprises producing for export in many developing countries are invariably small by global standards, and hence unable to realise economies of scale. Additionally, the commodities market has not fared well for small states, and for many, commodity prices have hit all time lows. Increased opportunities for engagement in the international economy are countered by a strong rules-based regulatory regime, barriers to trade and agricultural and other subsidies. This situation militates against the full and effective participation of a majority of small states in the global economy.

A number of small states have sought to counter the one-size-fits-all approach to developing countries by proposing special and differential treatment within trading regimes such as the WTO, FTAA and the ACP/EU. In making this call small states are not only looking for the removal of obstacles but more importantly for the establishment of interim measures that would facilitate their effective participation in the global economy.

Acceptance of the special and differential treatment proposition is proving to be an uphill battle; a battle which underscores one of the most significant challenges facing small states - to secure the commitment of the international community to approach small states' issues from a different perspective. The Right Honourable Owen Arthur, Prime Minister of Barbados, put it this way:

"We … have an unprecedented opportunity to create a new global society which, for the first time, embraces the concerns of the very powerful and the very poor within the same paradigm of development, and which by respecting diversity and special circumstance, can establish that a high quality of human development can take place within the context of social justice."

Such a perspective would recognise the vulnerability of small states to external shocks, including natural and man-made disasters and other environmental threats. It would recognise that diseases such as HIV/AIDS do halt and reverse development gains made by affected small states. It is, after all, within the most productive sector of small economies that HIV/AIDS is taking its toll. In the Caribbean, a region comprised primarily of small states, it is estimated that more than half a million people are living with HIV/AIDS. The fact is HIV/AIDS is more than a health problem. It is a major development challenge.

Another key issue that must be examined is the use of per capita income as a means of assessing levels of development. Not only does it distort the true picture of development in many countries, but it also impacts negatively on small states in many other ways. Two pertinent examples are the level of the assessment of contributions to international organisations and premature graduation from access to concessionary resources on the basis of per capita income performance. This latter point is particularly challenging given that access to private capital is not assured.

For those small states in which the services sector constitutes a principal engine of growth, the impact of crime, both national and transnational, and the possibility of being seen as "soft targets" for international terrorism, present serious impediments to growth and even to maintaining the sector at its current level. Further, small states must often contend with a system in which some have abrogated unto themselves the right to impose their rules on the international system, for example, in international taxation policy. The external pressures on the services sector have had, and can continue to have a serious impact on national development.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, while economic issues have tended to dominate the international debate, we must not forget that there is also a key social and cultural dimension, which needs to be addressed. Global economic forces can and do adversely affect pluralistic cultural expression. We need to ensure that the individual social and indigenous cultural identities of small states remain vibrant and intact.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the challenges to small states are clear. I wish to reiterate that the situation has changed in that there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel. There is now increased awareness of the vulnerabilities of small states and that international action is required to address these issues. I believe that much of the progress that has been made, is due to small states' themselves having taken the initiative in these areas` For example, largely through our efforts we have been able to get the question of a vulnerability index on the agenda in several international fora including the United Nations; but we need to intensify our efforts to get action.

Small states generally do not have significant military capability and little economic or negotiating power. The era of multilateralism offers small states the best hope for socio-economic development, for peace and security and for the opportunity to participate actively in setting and implementing the global agenda. This opportunity for increasing the role of small states should not be missed.

The Commonwealth Advisory Group noted in its Report, "A Future for Small States, Overcoming Vulnerability", "the United Nations is the most important international organisation for small states". As you are aware, the United Nations is the sole multilateral organisation open to all the world's states. It is the world's most important deliberative forum, and as such, critical for initiating global action and the resolution of global problems. It has the legitimacy to address the full range of global concerns, and its agenda is unparalleled by any other international organisation. The United Nations is, therefore central to the resolution of the challenges confronting the global community in general, and small states in particular.

The General Assembly is the United Nations only universal organ: the only United Nations organ in which small states, like large states, are full and equal members. It is to the General Assembly that small states come to work cooperatively to achieve national and international objectives. And, it is the General Assembly that has given me, representing St. Lucia, a small member state, the honour to provide leadership to the premier policy-making and supervisory organ of the United Nations. I have taken the honour and responsibility that leadership brings into serious consideration in determining my approach to the Presidency of the Fifty-eighth Session of the General Assembly.

It is my strongly held view, however, that all countries have a stake in ensuring that the United Nations keeps its Charter obligation to work for the socio-economic development of all the world's people. My consultations with Permanent Representatives, regional and other groups and senior Secretariat officials have indicated broad agreement with this position. Therefore, I have put development and rebuilding the confidence of developing countries at the top of the list of priorities for the Presidency.

We have also placed priority on a successful outcome for the High-level Plenary on HIV/AIDS, bearing in mind the negative impact of this deadly disease on development. Priority will also be given to the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development and the preparations for the SIDS+10 Conference, to be held in Mauritius in August 2004. Importantly, we will seek to advance initiatives to implement, in an integrated way, the outcomes of United Nations Summits and Conferences, including the Millennium Development Goals. While we believe that specialised and other agencies have a vital role to play in delivering development commitments, we see the United Nations General Assembly as having a critical coordinating and policy-making role.

I also believe, however, that the General Assembly must be strengthened to enable it to deliver its development and other objectives in an effective manner. To achieve this, all members will need to participate actively in setting and implementing the global agenda. Revitalisation of the Assembly features prominently in the priorities we have set for reform of the United Nations. We also hope to facilitate consideration of the future direction of reform of the Security Council, ongoing for some ten years now, following our assessment of where this matter currently stands.

Enhancing the role and function of the General Committee has been among ideas long in our contemplation. I believe that the Committee can be a source of significant support to the Presidency. Together with Committee members, we are seeking to determine how best to give practical effect to an enhanced role for the General Committee.

Peace and Security have assumed increasing importance, especially following the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad which resulted in the death of the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Sergio De Mello and a number of other United Nations staff members. Our sympathy goes out to the family of Mr. De Mello and to the families of all who died, as well as to those injured in the bombing. In an international environment charged with the tension of internal conflicts, war and terrorism, we have undertaken to facilitate consideration of the situation in Iraq, to support and promote peace in the Middle East and conflict resolution in Africa.

I believe that FOSS member states fully understand what is required to carry forward the priorities of the General Assembly, including those that I have identified for priority consideration. I say this with confidence, because small states have, indeed, proven themselves fully capable of advancing issues of interest both to themselves and to the international community. This is borne out by our sound record of accomplishments and the major voice we have had in international organisations, such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States, where Small States have often taken a lead role in stimulating and coordinating action in areas of particular concern.

In the current international environment, however, there is much more that we can, and must do. Small states must continue to unravel and make sense of the increasingly rules-based trading system. We must also act to have an input in international policy. We must insist that decisions and resources be matched more precisely, to enhance our prospects for implementation of the outcomes of multilateral deliberations.

Colleagues and friends, I will be counting on you to assist me in meeting the goals and objectives of the Fifty-eighth session of the General Assembly. I urge you to focus on the issues and to propose and negotiate outcomes that will help us to realise those goals and objectives. Specifically, I would request members of FOSS to:

  • take the lead in advancing priorities for the session, in the areas of development, United Nations reform and peace and security;
  • work systematically to garner support for, and understanding of concerns to small states, through regional and other groups and organisations, where FOSS members are represented.
  • contribute to the development of a strong support system among member states of the General Assembly for the SIDS + 10 programme;
  • encourage bilateral partners, particularly those in the developed world to participate; and
  • help to bring forward the matter of the vulnerability of small states, including the initiative for a vulnerability index.

Colleagues and friends, the mission is clear and the objectives have been outlined. We must work collectively to achieve our objectives.

Let me again thank Ambassador Mahbubani for inviting me to address the FOSS and to thank you all for the warm welcome that you have given me here today.

I thank you.

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