Global perspective Human stories

At UN General Debate, small island states seek aid for growth, climate change mitigation

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and Grenadines addresses General Assembly.
UN Photo/Jennifer S. Altman
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and Grenadines addresses General Assembly.

At UN General Debate, small island states seek aid for growth, climate change mitigation

Small island states took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly today to call on the international community to support their development in the face of the global economic crisis and not dismiss their needs by categorizing them as medium income, while also highlighting the threats they face from climate change and rising sea levels.

“The international community cannot ignore our plight based on a distorted calculus of middle-class status and relative prosperity, or on simplistic, even offensive, stereotypes of Caribbean paradises,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines told the 67th Assembly on the fourth day of its annual General Debate, at UN Headquarters in New York.

“Small, highly-indebted middle-income developing countries, like those in the Caribbean, which are very vulnerable to natural disasters and international economic convulsions; have especial concerns which the international community is obliged to address properly in partnership with the people of our region,” he said.

In the Caribbean region, the global economic and financial meltdown continues to be felt most acutely by the poor, the youth, the elderly and the vulnerable, who bear no responsibility for the rampant financial speculation, he noted, warning that the externally-imposed meltdown has produced negative or marginal growth across the Caribbean, which now faces the implications of a potential “lost decade” of development.

Small, highly-indebted middle-income developing countries, like those in the Caribbean – which are very vulnerable to natural disasters and international economic convulsions – have especial concerns which the international community is obliged to address properly in partnership with the people of our region, he said.

“We must resist the temptation to bury our heads in the shifting sands of meaningless resolutions while we studiously disregard our imperative quest for a unifying principle and purpose,” Prime Minister Gonsalves stated, warning that avoidance of fundamental questions “threatens to set our Assembly adrift and rudderless, shirking responsibility and afraid of action.”

Within the UN system, the current budget for peacekeeping dwarfs the resources allocated for development “even as we recognise that most conflict is rooted in underdevelopment,” he stressed, noting that age-old pledges of aid have been skirted and their fulfilment delayed by States citing their own struggles with the global economic fallout.

Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of Saint Lucia.

Prime Minister Gonsalves’ concerns were echoed by his Caribbean neighbour, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of Saint Lucia, who warned that small states are forced to become even more indebted as they have to borrow to replace infrastructure such as roads and bridges, without which their economies would face further contraction.

“The Caribbean Community has continuously made the point that many small states are deceptively classed as ‘middle income’ on the mere basis of per capita,” he said. “A country the size of Saint Lucia, with the vulnerabilities that we face, should not be subjected to such a measuring tool for determining whether a state can stand on its own.”

Small states require some fairness and balance in the world economic space, he noted, adding: “We look to the future of a United Nations and other global institutions moving towards becoming more targeted and differentiated in their interventions and policies.”

Prime Minister Denzil Douglas of St. Kitts and Nevis.

In his remarks, the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Denzil Douglas, also underscored the “mammoth challenges and difficulties” confronting small island state and the need for greater consideration.

“In no way of our making, the global economic crisis has severely complicated the task of governance in highly indebted middle income nations like mine,” he said. “We continue to face significant challenges especially in relation to the attainment of economic growth in the context of a very sluggish and uncertain global economy.”

The Caribbean leaders called for an end to the United State embargo on Cuba. Prime Minister Gonsalves said Cuba could in no way be labelled as state sponsor of terrorism since it neither supports nor harbours terrorists of any type, while Prime Minister Anthony attributed the embargo to political retribution. Prime Minister Douglas said the embargo's continued denial of certain medical treatments to the Cuban people is simply “unconscionable.”

They also underscored the need for urgent action in the war against climate change and rising seas.

“This war is not a future event, it is a preset-day and ongoing battle,” Prime Minister Gonsalves said. “As all of you in this Assembly are aware, it is a war that we are currently losing. The survival of our islands is at stake, and the responsibility for immediate change lies undisputedly with those whose reckless pollution over generations has led us to the brink of catastrophe.”

Prime Minister Douglas referred to the “radical” climate shifts the Caribbean region had undergone in recent decades. “It is troubling that the largest contributors of greenhouse gases are still not taking responsibility for the increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, coastal degradation, coral reef bleaching and decimation, infrastructural damage, and loss of lives that their actions have wrought,” he said.

“The physical, mental and financial burden that other countries' energy usage has inflicted on countries like mine has been enormous - plunging us deeper into debt, and severely frustrating our efforts to meet our Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he added, referring to the UN targets of slashing extreme hunger and poverty, maternal and infant mortality, diseases and lack of access to education and medical services, all by 2015.

Their concerns were echoed by fellow small island states located on the other side of the world, in the South Pacific.

Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano of Tonga.

“Our challenge to the international community, in particular developed countries, is to take the bold measures necessary to reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases to levels that ensure a viable and meaningful future for SIDS (Small Island Developing States),” Lord Tu’ivakano, the Prime Minister of Tonga, told the Assembly.

“To safeguard the survival of the smallest and most vulnerable States amongst us is to safeguard a viable future for all States. A rising tide may lift all boats but it will drown us all,” he added, stressing the need for sustainable development, and strict stewardship of the world’s ocean resources.

“As custodians of the ocean and its living and non-living resources, we have long appreciated that the health of the oceans is critical to maintaining a staple source of sustenance and livelihood for island communities,” he said.

Prime Minister Tuila’epa Fatialofa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa.

In his address to the General Debate, a fellow Pacific island leader, Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuila’epa Fatialofa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, called climate change “the world's most urgent problem requiring a decisive global response.”

“It is a challenge that should unite us, not divide us,” he said. “Entrenched positions devoid of today's realties and in pursuit of unrelated: agendas do not have a role in our collective effort. All countries are impacted by climate change in varying degrees. No one should stay detached and unconcerned to our common plight.”

Underscoring the vital need for sustainable development, he too made a plea for conserving the oceans’ resources.

“The call to conserve and harness the marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions including taking a decision on the development of an international instrument under the Convention of the Law of the Seas, are important major achievements worthy of support,” he said.

Prime Minister Meltek Sato Kilman Livtuvanu of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Meltek Sato Kilman Livtuvanu noted that like other Pacific island countries, his nation continues to be exposed to, and threatened by, the negative impacts of climate change such as coastal erosion, coral bleaching and ocean acidification.

“I would like to seize this opportunity to express our wish to see the UN's assistance in facilitating effective responses to global climate change, particularly through the prompt implementation of adaptation measures, as well as mitigation efforts, climate change financing, capacity building, and international negotiations,” he said.

“This may well be your last chance,” he added in his statement to the Assembly. “In your hands lie hope and destination of the world's nations. It is not only a responsibility that you have to assume for your own people but one for humanity as a whole.”

Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola of Fiji.

Noting that his Pacific island nation suffered the worst flooding on record this year, Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, said that beyond the human cost, the economic damage to infrastructure, schools, businesses, agriculture, and tourism, a sector that generates 33 per cent of Fiji's gross domestic product, was immense.

“And we still have not fully recovered,” he added. “The ongoing failure of the international community to seriously address climate change means we will all see more frequent and more intense weather events. These will erode our development gains and leave our people feeling poorer and less secure. So it is clear that it is indispensable to incorporate disaster-risk reduction into global and national development strategies.”

The Pacific island states’ plea for conservation of the oceans received support from the small Mediterranean principality of Monaco, with its Government Councillor for External Affairs, José Badia, noting the importance of sustainable development of the seas. “Our delegation will support all initiatives to improve the coordination and effectiveness of the UN’s work with regard to the oceans,” he said in his remarks to the Assembly.

The representatives of the small island nations and Monaco are among scores of world leaders and other high-level officials presenting their views and comments on issues of individual national and international relevance at the Assembly’s General Debate, which ends on 1 October.