UN General Assembly: Vivian Balakrishnan urges urgent multilateral action to address digital divide

WASHINGTON – Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan urged the identification of a common set of “digital development goals” to address, among other issues, the wide digital divide which has left 3.8 billion people still digitally disconnected.

The digital revolution and three other key areas – public health, climate change, and oceans – require the urgent attention of the international community, the Minister said in his statement at the UN General Assembly in New York late Saturday afternoon (Sept 25).

The pandemic has accelerated the pace and scale of the ongoing digital revolution, he said.

Digital transformation fundamentally must be about improving lives and empowering people and especially the poorest and the most vulnerable, Dr Balakrishnan said.

“If we do not close the digital divide we will not achieve the SDGs,” he warned. The SDGs are a set of goals adopted in 2015 by the UN, broadly a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

“This is why digitalisation poses a global challenge and requires a concerted global response,” Dr Balakrishnan added.

Issues involved include addressing misinformation, leveraging digital technologies to promote innovation and sustained development, and fair and secure access to data – ensuring that data is “not monopolised by a few… leaving the vast majority digitally disenfranchised”, he said.

“The international community needs to have a conversation about a ‘framework of norms and principals’,” he said, adding that the voices of small states must be heard.

Digital transformation needs to be people focused and must include people’s daily lives, and all relevant stakeholders need to be involved, he said.

On the public health front, access to vaccines is the biggest problem faced by many countries, he said, urging the scale up of production and distribution. Singapore would do its part by donating under the Covax initiative to other countries with greater needs, he said.

He called for the strengthening of multilateral support for the World Health Organisation and the UN, and to mobilise resources for collective security because “no one is safe until everyone is safe”.

And he said the international community needed a sustained and ambitious global response to climate change, whose effects while felt at the local level require solutions be at the global level.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Climate change presents a “clear and present danger” for a small island state like Singapore, he said.

“The fight against climate change will be a stark litmus test of our ability to manage the global commons through multilateral action,” he said. “If we work together we can make a substantial impact. If we fail the consequences will be calamitous for every country and for all humanity.”

Oceans are also global commons in urgent need of multilateral action, he added. The 40th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to Unclos as the primary legal instrument for governance of the oceans, he urged.

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