Opening Address by Minister for Law K Shanmugam at the UNCLOS 40th Anniversary Symposium
31 October 2022 Posted in [Speeches]
Ambassador-at-Large, Professor Tommy Koh
Ambassador, Mr Eivind Homme
Ambassador, Ms Sandra Jensen Landi
Ambassador, Mr Antti Vanska
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- Forty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted after several years of negotiations. It came into force in 1994.
- The adoption of UNCLOS – I think people may not realise how significant a development it was. It gave a comprehensive and universal legal framework for the governance of our oceans; a common ownership of humanity – present and future. The way UNCLOS is drafted, it has proven itself to be adaptable to new challenges.
- We had a not insignificant role in UNCLOS. Professor Tommy Koh was the President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1982. He was helped in his efforts by Professor Jayakumar, who eventually became our Law Minister, and Chao Hick Tin – who eventually became an appellate court Judge in Singapore. They played outsized roles, important roles, in the conclusion of UNCLOS.
A more interconnected world
- UNCLOS, as most of us here know, provides freedom of navigation, and overflight and creates fairly clear rules. It has 168 parties, including most of the major maritime states. One obvious exception is the United States, but its public position is that it is UNCLOS-compliant, even though it is not a signatory.
- The importance of UNCLOS has increased substantially, as a result of the world becoming more interconnected.
- If you look at it from 1982 to 2022, about 40 years, the value of global trade has increased by more than 10 times. It was about USD 2 trillion in 1982. It is around USD 22 trillion now – even accounting for inflation, that is a significant increase.
- Today, around 90% of traded goods in the world are carried over sea. Freedom of navigation is an essential condition for our global supply chains, economies, and for many countries, their very economic survival.
- For Norway and Singapore, we are two examples of countries where the maritime sector plays an outsized role.
- For Norway, it has the fourth largest merchant fleet by value, which is bigger than what the United States has. It is the second largest exporter of fish and seafood, and one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas. Together, Norway’s maritime industries contribute 70% of its export income, and provides jobs for more than 250,000 people. If you take a population of around 5.5 million, that is very significant.
- For us in Singapore, we sit astride major shipping arteries. On the West, through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, which is why Singapore was chosen by Raffles. And the other artery, on the East, through the South China Sea. We are connected to 600 ports in over 120 countries. We have the world’s busiest container transhipment port, as well as top bunkering port. We are also building the world’s largest automated port at Tuas. Our maritime industry contributes about 7% of our GDP, and provides jobs for almost 200,000 people. This is also significant in the context of our resident population – by which I mean citizen and permanent resident population, of around 4 million.
- So, you can see why UNCLOS, and its principles centring on freedom of navigation, are extremely important for many – in fact, throughout the world.
- For countries like Norway and Singapore, it helps maintain open trade routes, and secures sea lines of communication. In addition, it governs the uses and resources of the oceans, and obliges states to protect the maritime environment. These are important to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes, and facilitate sustainable use of the oceans.
A more uncertain world
- As we celebrate 40 years of the adoption of UNCLOS, let us also remind ourselves of what it stands for, beyond simply the governance of oceans. It provides for a rules-based international order.
- I think that is worth reiterating in the context of what we see around the world. It is important to remember this, as we are now in a more uncertain world, with rising geopolitical tensions, wars amongst the major powers.
- International cooperation has become much more difficult. Today, if you were negotiating something like UNCLOS, I think the prospects of an instrument that would achieve near universal acceptance are slim. And that is probably overstating it. That is a pity.
- The temptation to resort to unilateralism has grown. That puts the global commons at risk – like our oceans and seas. If these are turned into conflict zones, then global trade will suffer, economies and countries will suffer.
- That is why Singapore watches developments in the South China Sea very carefully. We are not a claimant state in the South China Sea, and we do not take sides on the competing territorial claims.
- But, given our high degree of reliance on the maritime economy, we have a critical interest in ensuring that the South China Sea remains open for navigation and overflight by all States, including Singapore, and that it remains peaceful and stable, with any disputes to be resolved peacefully, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.
- We are committed to negotiating an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, that is in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including UNCLOS, and which safeguards the legitimate rights and interests of all parties.
- In closing, let me say this: UNCLOS is relevant, indeed, essential to our continuing peace and economic prosperity. It is a fundamental piece of the international rules-based infrastructure. We should reaffirm our commitment to it. That will give us the confidence to chart our way through a more uncertain world – safely and peacefully.
- Let me end by thanking the Norwegian government and the Ambassador, for arranging for this ship to be here – I was given a fleeting tour of this beautiful ship. I was astounded that some 108 years ago, something like this was built, which is still serviceable and beautiful and well-looked after. To some extent, it shows the craftsmanship and the engineering ingenuity that was there in northern Europe at that time.
- Thank you for bringing the ship here and having the ceremony and symposium in such wonderful surroundings. Thank you very much.
Last updated on 31 October 2022