Confessions of a small State on human rights

by Ambassador Foo Kok Jwee, Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations Office and other international organisations in Geneva and the URG team Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

Size matters in international relations. Small States do not perform any fundamentally irreplaceable role in the international system; yet it is hard to imagine a world without big countries such as the United States, China, India, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil, or even without medium-sized States like Japan, South Africa and Germany.

The only viable strategic response for small States is to seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining their freedom of action as sovereign nations. They can only do so by creating and displaying relevance to the international community. I say ‘create’ because such strategic relevance can only be created – and sustained – through human endeavour. This has been one of the fundamental tenets of Singapore’s foreign policy since our independence in 1965.

Some twenty years ago at the UN in New York, Singapore along with a few other small States including Bahrain, Barbados, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Papua New Guinea and Uruguay established an informal grouping called the Forum of Small States (FOSS) – ‘small’ being somewhat arbitrarily defined as having a population of less than 10 million. We felt the need to pool our limited resources to better understand the myriad of issues dealt at the UN.

FOSS provides a platform for its members to share information informally and learn from each other’s experience. It also regularly invites top UN officials, political leaders, senior diplomats, prominent academics and strategic thinkers to address the membership on key issues of the day. Even though FOSS does not adopt common negotiating positions on issues, it fosters better cross-regional understanding because its members can discuss issues informally regardless of their respective regional and political groupings. Today, FOSS has 105 members out of a total UN membership of 193 States.

Small States arguably face even greater challenges in Geneva. Beyond the Human Rights Council (Council), small delegations must cover relevant developments in other key organisations such as the WTO, WHO, ILO, WIPO and ITU, to name just a few. Some are also concurrently accredited to Bern, the UN Office in Vienna and even other European countries. With the expanding workload of the Council – averaging around 30 texts and more than 100 side events per session – it is physically impossible for small delegations, typically comprising just a handful of diplomats, to attend and follow Council plenary sessions, and participate in informal consultations and side-events, let alone closely follow the discussions on key resolutions. Some small States, such as certain Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), are not even represented in Geneva.

‘So what?’, one might cynically ask. The fact remains that small States form the majority of the total UN membership. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has publicly said that small States are well suited to act as bridge-builders in our common pursuit of peace and security, human rights and sustainable development, because they represent a majority of nation States, with perspectives from North and South, East and West, developed and developing. Small States, he said, also often serve as magnifying lenses for the challenges faced by all nations (such as the impacts of climate change).[1]

But small States are, perhaps unsurprisingly given the heavy demands of seeking election and contributing to the body’s work, severely under-represented on the Council. Since the formation of the Council, only around 38% of members (past and present) have been small States. If small States, representing the majority of the UN membership, feel marginalised because they cannot follow Council developments due to resource constraints; if they feel their voices are not being heard; if they regard the Council as platform only for the ‘big boys’ to drive their own narrow agendas; then the Council risks credibility atrophy. It also risks missing out on the depth and richness small States can bring to the human rights discourse. The common interests of humanity will be better served through greater inclusiveness at the Council.

So what can be done to help small States better participate and follow developments at the Council? To my mind, this requires a sustained and multi-pronged response. The OHCHR, to their credit, has specific programmes and funds aimed at helping small States build capacity and knowledge on human rights issues and participate at the UPR. With greater support from countries with resources, such technical cooperation and support programmes could be expanded, or new ones set up to address emerging challenges.

Small States can have big ideas too. Council members should make a conscious attempt to actively engage small States in their work, be it by reaching out during informals, by seeking co-sponsorship for their resolutions, or by co-organising side events.

Being physically small does not mean that small State societies are less complex. There are many examples of small States in the Nordic region, in Africa, in the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific implementing good policies to tackle complex human rights challenges. We can and should do more to listen to and learn from such best practices in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Making the Council more efficient, with a more manageable workload also helps small States. In this regard, initiatives such as the Presidential Statement on enhancing the efficiency of the HRC at its 29th session are welcome, though it is important they are forged in an inclusive and transparent way.

Small States can also help themselves, and each other, to better contribute and participate in the work of the Council. While there is no Geneva Chapter for FOSS at this point in time, given the different operational contexts between New York and Geneva (perhaps in future!), small States across regional groups and the North/South divide should endeavour to meet informally to exchange notes on important issues (at the Council and elsewhere). Such informal meetings can help foster better cross-regional understanding, which is particularly important for discussions on highly contentious issues at the Council.

For our part, Singapore has tried its best to promote the common interests of small States in the UN in practical ways. Besides FOSS, we also played an active role in the creation of the 3G – the Global Governance Group – in 2010, to provide small and medium-sized countries with a platform to engage the G20. At last year’s Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), held in Samoa, we launched a dedicated technical assistance package for fellow SIDS on sustainable development, climate change, disaster management and other non-traditional security issues. During the 3rd UN World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March this year, we announced that Singapore and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction would collaborate on a specialised training course to impart practical knowledge on disaster risk reduction for developing countries at the front line of climate change (especially SIDS). These training programmes are an extension of how we have consistently shared our development experience with other small States via the Singapore Cooperation Programme over the years.

At the Council and around international Geneva more broadly, my colleagues and I have shared practical information on how Singapore has been able to improve the quality of life of its people at side-events and workshops. We have spoken about, inter alia: how we have delivered on the right to development through education; how we have maintained our religious harmony and multi-culturalism, as the most religiously diverse country in the world (according to the Pew Research Centre); how we have ensured that every Singaporean enjoys the right to water through the adoption of a systemic approach that captures and conserves every drop of water in water-scarce Singapore.

I am also happy to inform our friends and partners that we are collaborating with the Universal Rights Group (URG) to produce a series of short primers to be published before each Council session, starting with the upcoming 30th session. These primers will attempt to factually highlight the key issues that are likely to surface during the upcoming session. This could hopefully serve to alert small delegations to issues that might be relevant to them, and help them better track those issues and to better cover Council sessions. URG will post these primers on its website and circulate them electronically to all Permanent Missions as well as to others on their electronic mailing list including civil society partners.

In the final analysis, implementation is everything. Our humble view is that we have to take a practical and not an ideological approach to the realisation of human rights. Sir Isaiah Berlin, a political philosopher, made an important point in his work (and here I make a valiant attempt to articulate it in a succinct way): that there is not just one Good but many Goods, and that these Goods sometimes contradict each other and therefore cannot be simultaneously realised. He is right. Human rights exist in specific cultural, social, and historical contexts. Rights, and people’s approach to and understanding thereof, also evolve over time as their societies change. States, especially small States, need to balance the conflicting interests of different groups within their respective societies, while trying to meet equally pressing development challenges in a world buffeted by tectonic geostrategic change, rapid technological advance, climate change, terrorism and armed conflicts. This is a tall order, and often involves difficult political and resource trade-offs. Taking an uncompromising ideological approach towards the promotion and protection of human rights could lead to ritualism and formalism at the Council, rather than actual improvements in people’s living conditions on-the-ground. That is not in the interest of any State, big or small.


[1] Remarks to the Forum of Small States by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the UN Headquarters, 5th September 2014.

Image: Marina Bay in Singapore (Photo credit to URA, Singapore).

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