Keynote Address by Minister for Home Affairs and Law Mr K Shanmugam at the CIL International Law Year In Review 2024 Conference
Emeritus Professor S Jayakumar
Emeritus Professor Tommy Koh
Members of the International Advisory Panel
Lionel Yee, Chairman, CIL
Nilufer Oral, Director, CIL
Ladies and Gentlemen
- Good morning to everyone.
- Thank you for inviting me here to speak at this Conference.
- As we gather to review International Law Developments, I think you cannot run away from looking at the backdrop of the current state of International Relations. They loom large.
- In previous decades, post-WWII, discussions on International Law proceeded against a stable, or at least, a somewhat stable, backdrop of the International Order.
- An International Order with initially the US and its Allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and countries aligned with it, on the other.
- Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the International Order has been unified, and rooted in the dominance of the US and multilateral institutions, like – the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
- Today, serious people are questioning whether this International Order is “unravelling”, with changes that have taken place over the last decades, and accelerated by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
- In this context, I will share some observations that were expressed in a recent article that was sent to me, setting out the views of some very seasoned analysts who study global policy, and macroeconomic trends. And these views, I see, are increasingly being expressed, and I think we need to think about them.
- They are not my views. But I share them to point out what some serious people are saying – as a reality check for ourselves.
- In essence, some serious people are beginning to say that in the Middle East, escalation risks have increased substantially.
- The US has not been able to contain the scope of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.
- The US has also failed to tame the Houthis, despite deploying carriers to the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
- Actions of the US in sending the Carrier Groups to the Mediterranean may in fact have emboldened Israel, which seems to be broadening its military campaign. Two weeks ago, Israel allegedly carried out a strike on Hamas’ number two leader in Beirut.
- You also read that:
- The Houthis have been attacking vessels in the Red Sea.
- The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution last week condemning the attacks and demanding that they cease.
- The US and UK, with the support from a few other countries, have since launched strikes against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
- Turning to Europe, the authors note that Russia will likely press its advantage in Ukraine, which will create further security challenges.
- On the one hand, support for Ukraine is a little wobbly. The US has failed to pass a Ukraine support bill, despite President Zelensky’s visit to Washington in December. Europe has also failed to agree to deliver financial assistance to Ukraine, at their December European Council meeting. Some estimate that US and European aid to Ukraine has fallen by almost 90% between August and October 2023, compared to the same period in 2022.
- At the same time, Russia’s war economy is said to be “roaring”, with a capacity to supply weapons that “far outpaces” Western capacity through to 2025.
- It is also pointed out that multilateral institutions are losing credibility, as they are often “used and abused” by advanced economies to serve their own interests. For example:
- Efforts to reform the IMF, such as by increasing the voting shares of emerging countries like India and China have not made headway in the last 15 years, because the US and Europe want to preserve their privileges.
- The WTO dispute settlement mechanism and reforms have been hampered by the US, which has adopted a more unilateral trade policy.
- And, the UN has suffered a further blow in the eyes of developing countries who perceive that double standards are being shown by some Western countries, which have supported Ukraine against Russia, but blocked or abstained from resolutions on an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza strip.
- With these observations, there is a sense, today, as I speak to you, that much of the Order that we had long assumed is in some crisis. Tensions have built up in the System and the tensions threaten the essential structures of the World Order, as we know them.
- Perhaps it is too pessimistic to say that they have broken down. They have not. But I think one can agree that the system and the order that we knew is facing very serious challenges, and is changing quite substantially.
- How do we see International Law in the context of these changes, and the uncertainties to the World Order?
- One may even be tempted to ask, will International Law have to adapt substantially, in the context of these challenges? Because law has to follow reality.
- I cannot give you an answer. But I will share some perspectives, while acknowledging that these perspectives do not offer a complete solution to the various challenges facing the International Order. We cannot, because some of these challenges will be determined by the many important elections that are coming up this year, and we do not determine those.
- My perspectives are obviously shaped by seeing it from a very small country’s point of view. And it is as much a statement of what I hope is fact, and a statement of hope.
- In the context of International Relations and an increasingly complex strategic environment, Small States have several interests to maintain, in order to enjoy security, peace, and stability, while preserving our way of life.
- That must include having a clear and present interest in:
- Strong Deterrence, that will allow us to act in our national interests without being influenced by external pressures; and
- It has to include Effective Diplomacy, which will enable us to improve mutual trust and understanding with other countries. So, I see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a key part of the arsenal of small countries certainly, and facilitate multilateral efforts to promote stability and common prosperity.
- At the same time, adherence to International Law is an extremely important principle for Small States. It is important for us that we observe International Law, and that other countries observe International Law as well.
- Let me explain this by touching on three points:
- One: the importance of International Law;
- Two: the reality of international power dynamics; and
- Three: what Small States can do when Big Powers breach International Law.
- I will then conclude with some reasons to remain optimistic about the rules-based international order.
(B) The Importance of International Law
- First, International Law. Why is it important?
- Consider the alternative – A world completely without a system of rules and principles to govern the behaviour of States.
- In that world, the main principle will be “might makes right”. “Power comes from the barrel of the gun.”
- Small States will be the most vulnerable. Their survival will be at stake. Their voices may not be heard and their interests are likely to suffer.
- But with International Law, Small States have a fighting chance to carve out their place in the world.
- The rules-based international order:
- Recognises the sovereign equality of all States, big and small.
- It enshrines fundamental principles that promote peace and order – for example, the territorial integrity of all nations; the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with International Law.
- It gives all States a stake in the global commons. It provides a predictable set of rules to advance as well as defend their interests.
- It seeks to provide a stable environment for international trade and investment, which in turn promotes common prosperity.
- In these ways, International Law is extremely important, particularly for Small States. And for those who know Singapore, you can imagine the agreements which are fundamental to our survival, and what a world where International Law is not respected would look like, in the context of our own territorial sovereignty and integrity.
(C) The Reality of International Power Dynamics
- Second point I will touch on - the Reality of International Power Dynamics.
- Big Powers often want to be seen as responsible actors, and to influence norms.
- We also often get lectured on complying with International Law from bigger countries.
- At the same time, the reality is that, not infrequently, Big Powers act inconsistent with International Law, when principles of International Law conflict with their national interests.
- The result is that you get a situation of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
- International Law is sometimes paid lip service, but not followed when a country is big or important enough to ignore International Law in the pursuit of its national interests.
- Size; large populations; natural resources; political, military, and economic heft; and, strategic significance. These are not going to disappear.
- So even as we emphasise the importance of International Law, it is also important to have a realistic perspective about the way things are, and the limits of International Law.
- The examples are all around us.
- Take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unilateral. Unjustified.
- A clear and gross violation of International Law, and the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.
- It has created a major humanitarian crisis, with immense human impact. Millions displaced. Thousands dying.
- The war has to end. The international community has said so.
- But Russia is a Big Power.
- Lots of Natural Resources.
- As a Permanent Member of the Security Council, it has vetoed resolutions condemning the invasion.
- So far, it has also withstood international backlash and economic sanctions.
- And so, the reality is that Russia continues with its invasion, in clear breach of International Law.
- As I had mentioned earlier, it has put its economy on a war footing. And despite the far-reaching sanctions that have been imposed, it is now said to be in a position to produce more weapons to continue prosecuting the war.
- There are other examples where International Law has been breached in pursuit of national interests, sometimes outright territorial aggression, sometimes falling short of territorial aggression.
- Take the UK. When you think of countries which run afoul of International Law – you do not usually think of the UK.
- But in 2020, the UK government introduced a Bill that would override a Brexit treaty with the EU relating to Northern Ireland.
- The Bill generated considerable controversy in the UK.
- One Minister admitted in Parliament that the Bill would “break” International Law.
- He tried to justify it by saying that the breach would be in a “specific and limited way”. I think lawyers will recognise this as weak justification.
- In the end, the UK government dropped the offending clauses in the Bill before it was enacted into law that year.
- But the move showed that the UK government was prepared to breach an Agreement solemnly entered into just a short period beforehand.
- One can point to some conduct by the US as well.
- The US is often seen by many as a benign power.
- It has generally been a benign power – and its pre-eminence and playing the role of Global Policeman post-WW II, has, in a large measure, helped inject a considerable measure of stability to the World.
- As a result, many, especially smaller countries, including Singapore, have benefitted. And I will underline that Singapore’s prosperity or stability in the last 50-60 years, a large measure goes to the way the US has been a chief anchor of stability and international order in this region, and the actions that it has taken. So, let’s not mistake that. Many of us, including in Europe, owe our current state to the way the US has been a very responsible international power.
- But the US in the past has been willing to act contrary to its international obligations, to protect its interests. And any such lists, depending on who you ask, could take a long time to enumerate, but I will just mention two.
- One example, in 1983, the US invaded Grenada. This was condemned by many States at the UN, including Singapore, as a violation of International Law.
- In the 1980s, the US supported military and paramilitary activities against the Nicaraguan government, and refused to participate in a case brought by Nicaragua before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ held that the US’ actions were in breach of International Law.
- There are many other examples, other countries too – but I do not need to belabour the point. I think it is fairly well understood.
(D) The Perspective of Small States
- Now, let me turn to my 3rd point – What can Small States like Singapore do, when Big States act contrary to International Law?
- Alone, our words and actions may not carry much weight.
- But, working together, we can have some impact.
- Thus, it is important that we should come together to stand up for International Law.
- Call out when the Big States act contrary to International Law for their violations and their double standards.
- Try and restore confidence in a rules-based international order.
- That is critical to our survival.
- As I said earlier, Small States cannot countenance an alternative reality, where International Law is more honoured in breach than observance.
- Our former President, Mdm Halimah Yacob, made a similar point recently. She said, and I quote: “If [International Law] counts for nothing, then be very fearful of the rule of the mighty over the weak. Of chaos and disorder particularly dangerous for vulnerable small states.”
- That is why we, Singapore, are assiduous about acting consistently with our International Law obligations, and doing what we can to uphold International Law.
- For example, we have taken a firm stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- We co-sponsored and voted in favour of several UN resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
- We imposed sanctions to constrain Russia’s capacity to conduct war against Ukraine. And everybody understands that sanctions Singapore imposes have a limited impact, but it is the point of principle.
- In the context of the Israel-Hamas war:
- Singapore has condemned the 7 October Hamas attacks as acts of terror. They are gross violations of International Law, and cannot be justified by any reason.
- At the same time, we have also co-sponsored and voted in favour of resolutions that were overwhelmingly adopted by the UN General Assembly (GA), including the resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.
- And we have repeatedly called on all parties to comply with their obligations under International Law, including International Humanitarian Law.
(E) International Law At Work
- I started this speech sketching out a somewhat grim perspective of the current state of International Relations.
- But it is not all gloom and doom.
- For a balanced perspective, let me conclude with two observations.
- First, even when States violate International Law, that does not in itself negate its existence.
- The key question is one of legality and legitimacy.
- A State may well violate International Law, and there may well be no effective means of enforcement against such breaches.
- However, the wrongful actions of a State need not be accepted as legal or legitimate by other States.
- For example, the UN GA resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion have enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of UN members.
- This has had the powerful effect of denying legitimacy to Russia’s invasion and occupation.
- It is also worth noting that, in both the Ukraine and Gaza wars, Russia and Israel have sought to justify their actions under International Law, rather than completely ignore its existence.
- That is telling.
- It is an acknowledgement:
- That International Law matters.
- That a poor track record of compliance can lead to a loss of legitimacy and credibility, and isolation on the world stage, even for a Big Power, like Russia.
- Second, the rules-based international order can be said to be functioning well in a number of areas. For example:
- The International Maritime Organization, and the International Civil Aviation Organization provide strong leadership on international cooperation in maritime & civil aviation matters, in accordance with International Law.
- Last year, a treaty was concluded under UNCLOS, concerning Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). This provides an international legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of our ocean’s resources. This is quite important because “land grab”, as it were, could have continued without effective framework. The negotiations were presided over by Singapore’s Ambassador for International Law, Rena Lee.
- The recently concluded COP28 also made important strides in global climate action. Singapore co-facilitated negotiations on mitigation and the first Global Stocktake that contributed to the successful outcomes at COP28.
- There are also ongoing efforts to shape international norms regarding the use of cyberspace. For example, our Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, is chairing a UN Open-ended Working Group, that is looking into this area.
- States are also working on a pandemic treaty to better manage future transnational health threats.
- There are many other examples.
- In these ways, one can see that the rules-based international order, on the whole, is still operating.
- We have to work hard to keep it functioning that way, and to strengthen it further.
- Recent events in Europe and the Middle East are a setback. They underscore the challenges facing us.
- But, as we have shown, Singapore will stand up to be counted, and do its part to safeguard and strengthen International Law.
- Thank you.
Last updated on 17 January 2024