Saint Vincent and the Grenadines may be the smallest country to ever sit on the Security Council, but it doesn’t mean it is intimidated by the big powers. Instead, the island nation is already amplifying the voices of Africa and the Caribbean in the UN forum.
“I think that what the small state does is to forever remind the bigger countries of the importance of not only upholding international law,” Inda Rhonda King, Saint Vincent’s permanent representative to the UN, told PassBlue. “But reminding them of the obligations under the law, that it’s not just, you’re here to serve the international community. . . . It’s like holding them to the moral compass.”
Saint Vincent joined the UN in 1980, and with a population of 110,000, it really does speak for small countries, including in the Caribbean region. A few weeks after the country took its two-year seat on the Council, in January 2020, it spontaneously allied its voice with the three current African members on the Council, Niger, South Africa and Tunisia, creating the A3+1.
“I think it has been effective,” King said in a recent interview. “It certainly raised the eyebrows of many because it was not immediately obvious why that should be, until we made the links that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is predominantly African descendants and indigenous.”
Its foreign policy is unconventional; it is also a member of the Nonaligned Movement. While Ambassador King says her country has healthy relationships with Britain, France and the United States on the Council, its voting pattern and statements sometimes resemble more of what China and Russia are saying and doing. However, Saint Vincent has no formal relationship with Beijing because it formally recognizes Taiwan. “It is an independent, home-grown, uniquely Vincentian foreign policy,” she said.
Jacqueline Braveboy-Wagner is a professor of political science at the City College of New York and the City University of New York, specializing in the Caribbean region and Caricom, the regional organization of Caribbean states. She concedes that Saint Vincent’s foreign policy is puzzling.
“They’re not pro-Russia, although their stance on Venezuela might make them seem,” she said. “They are not particularly happy with the [former] colonial power, the United Kingdom, and even though much of their trade relations is still with the UK and Europe, they’re not big on France, so I think as far as the permanent members are concerned, Saint Vincent could go any way.”
For November, which is the country’s one and only Council presidency in its two-year term, Saint Vincent said it wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. One meeting is going to be on Palestine, an issue particularly close to the ambassador’s heart.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said to the media on Nov. 2 about his country’s place in the UN: “I value this engagement with love, because without the UN and international law, multilateralism, we’d live in a perpetual state of nature, and I don’t think people across the world would like that. In this pandemic world, this can only take place if all people work together and nations have to own processes.” (Gonsalves, a member of the Unity Labour Party, is running for a fifth term in an election on Nov. 5.)
The Council will hold an event for the UN’s annual Police Week, and Saint Vincent will use it to highlight the challenges of UN police forces in Haiti. Its thematic debate, on Nov. 3, is focused on drivers of conflict, and Gonsalves will lead the session virtually.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more about Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ goals in November, with insights from Professor Braveboy-Wagner, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series on SoundCloud or Patreon. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)
Ambassador to the UN: Inda Rhonda King, 60
Education: B.A. in chemistry and mathematics, State University of New York, Albany; certified management accountant.
Her story, briefly: Rhonda King, as she is known, has had many lives: as a certified accountant; as an English teacher in China; as a book author; and now as a diplomat.
She got into diplomacy at a turning point in her life. She had gotten sick with breast cancer, which made her realize that she did not like accounting and wanted to try new things. The Vincentian government often called her to work with it when she was in the business world. She sometimes said yes, but often said no, she recalled.
One day, Prime Minister Gonsalves called her with a request that made her say yes, but not right away. “When he called me one day in 2013, to ask: ‘Would you be interested in joining the diplomatic corps? Rhonda, stop saying no to me,’ ” she recalled, “I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t speak a foreign language.’ ” Gonsalves asked her to send him her CV. She forgot. Two days later, his assistant reminded her; she sent it, and the prime minister and the foreign minister eventually offered her the job at the UN.
She has been the permanent representative for seven years, and throughout her tenure, she has been president of UN’s Economic and Social Council; and chaired the General Assembly’s budget committee as well as the largest group on Security Council reforms, the L69, comprising 69 developing countries. She now leads the Security Council Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions.
King is single and has no children. In one of her essay collections, published in 2003, titled “Journal of a Superfluous Woman,” she wrote that the role of single women without children in society is undervalued. Though her mind-set has changed since then, she says more could be done to support women — mothers or not — in the workplace and in society.
“When I was chairing the [UN budget] committee, mothers had to bring their children in at, you know, 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning,” she said, noting that the UN does not welcome children in meetings. She said there has been progress over the last few years in the UN being more flexible for women, and part of that is reflected in the fact that 50 ambassadors are now female.
King talked to PassBlue on Oct. 29. Her remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is the smallest country to ever sit in the Council. Why is it important to have small states in the Council? For the small state, there is no daylight between self-interest and international law; we depend on a robust body of international law for our existence, we have no standing army, we have no geopolitical axes to grind, and for us upkeeping international law is of critical importance. I think that what the small state does is to forever remind the bigger countries of the importance of not only upholding international law, but reminding them of the obligations under the law.
Why did you decide to join your voice to the three current African members on the Council (Niger, South Africa and Tunisia) and what are the limits of this alliance? When we were campaigning [for the Council seat], we always said that we would essentially be like the fourth seat for Africa. Why? We are a predominantly black state, we are descendants of both the African slaves and indigenous people. So we are considered by the African continent to be part of the sixth region of Africa. My prime minister is a pan-Africanist and an ardent supporter of not the liberation of Africa but to see Africa become what Africa should be.
During the first or second week of our tenure on the Council, Niger was delivering a statement on behalf of the A3, and they delivered a magnificent statement. I listened intently and I said to my PC [political coordinator], ‘I want to align with that statement.’ We had our own statement, but I wanted to align with it. Then I reached across to South Africa, and I said: ‘Is there any method here? Could I just align?’ She said yes. And then I said, ‘O.K., let me go and tell Niger that we will align them with them’; and he [Ambassador Abarry] was pleased. So I took to the floor and I aligned with the statement as delivered. That day, the A3+1 formula was born. And we have been coordinating on specific African files. We don’t coordinate on all of them; we have statements where we may go separately because, for example, South Africa’s minister may want to come and have a particular South African perspective to bear, and so we will go our separate ways for that.
What about your relationship with the powerful P5 members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US? We are part of the Americas. We have a unique relationship with each member. We are a former colony of Britain, so we have fundamental ties that’s not unshakeable. . . . We consider the United States a very strong ally. We have partnerships [with the US], especially on water security issues. But again, our foreign policy is . . . difficult to pin down.
For instance, some people will think that we say things that seem to resonate with China, but we do not have diplomatic relations with China because we recognize Taiwan. Our prime minister is a regionalist, so he thinks in terms of the Caribbean and what is in its best interest.
Make no mistake, we consider the UK, France, the United States to be extremely strong allies and you see that in different ways. So we may challenge them on the periphery of some issues, like human rights, but we have a healthy relationship with the EU and a healthy relationship with Russia. With China on the Council, we have been able to [find common ground], like the nexus between peace security and development. That’s a priority for us. But yet again, we do not have relations with China. On the Council, we are still able to work with all of the P5.
Head of State: Ralph Gonsalves
Foreign Affairs Minister: Louis Hilton Straker
Type of Government: Parliamentary government
Year Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Joined the UN: 1980
Years on the Security Council: 2020-2021
GDP per capita: $7,361
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.
A month’s Presidency in the UN Security Council is neither here nor there. As a born Vincentian living in the UK, I was extremely proud of the appointment of a representative from SVG to the Council; but on reflection I began to question why this appointment was made, to one of the smallest nations in the world. What will be it’s influence and who will they align with in trying to influence others? Stephanie Fillion has eloquently explained that their impact has been non existant as they are swimming against the tide in a pool full of piranhas.
It would be better for the country to form economic alliances, other than their chosen ones and then try and influence their chosen nations to assist in the development of SVG, as less face it; it is a small nation, with no natural resources, totally dependent on tourism; and with a young and part ageing population that will continue to struggle in the bad big world due to limited economic opportunities, huge unemployment rates and a limited health service.