The crucial role international law plays for small states and a stable world order

Legal minds meet in Singapore to review and discuss key developments in 2023 at CIL’s annual "International Law Year in Review" Conference

About 200 distinguished experts across different fields of international law gathered in Singapore for the “International Law Year in Review” Conference 2024 on 15 January 2024 to discuss global movements and developments impacting international law vis-à-vis a wide range of topics including peace and security issues, international dispute resolution, international courts and tribunals as well as climate change and sustainable development.

The annual conference is the NUS Centre for International Law (CIL)’s flagship event and key to its efforts to enable Singapore and the Asia Pacific region to play a more significant role in the promotion and development of international law. 

In his welcome remarks, Mr Lionel Yee, SC, Chairman of CIL’s Governing Board, highlighted how the foundations of law have underpinned the major developments that continue to shape the global landscape.  

“2023 has indeed been a busy year with the pandemic behind us and the activities of various legal bodies returning to the full swing of things. Sadly, conflicts continue to be a big part of the normative backdrop whether it is in Ukraine or the Middle East. And in all these arenas, law has been very much featured prominently.”

He noted that the annual conference was “an opportunity to take stock of international law developments over the past year and to preview what lies ahead this year”.

In his keynote speech as Guest of Honour at the conference, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, SC, emphasised the importance of international law, particularly for small states like Singapore, as, among other things, it enshrines fundamental principles that promote peace and order.

He said that alone, the words and actions of smaller states may not carry much weight, but when they work together, they have 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, and try and restore confidence in a rules-based international order.”

An insightful discussion on key developments that impacted international law in 2023

The day-long programme featured six panel discussions on different topics, namely peace and security issues, international dispute resolution, international courts and tribunals, climate change and sustainable development, law of the sea, and developments at the United Nations and World Trade Organization.

The panel on climate change and sustainable development, for example, saw lively discussions on the outcomes of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28); increased interaction between climate change protection and trade in litigation; and the movements aligning investment treaties with the financial demands of climate change.

Another panel saw keen engagement on law of the sea developments in 2023, including the signing and adoption of the Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, also known as the ‘BBNJ Agreement’; updates to the legal framework for the Seabed Mining Code and decisions of the International Seabed Authority; as well as new developments at the International Maritime Organization, including its 2023 Revised Strategy on Reduction of GHG (Greenhouse Gas) Emissions from Ships.

One participant – Mr Eduardo Cavalcanti De Mello Filho, a Brazilian Lawyer from the UN headquarters in New York, found the conference very useful. “The practical utility of the event for a legal practitioner or academic cannot be understated. It is a ‘review’ conference and the audience was certainly familiar with the majority, if not, all of the topics. As such, it was the expert assessment made by the panellists and the insider’s perspective that added a flavour to the topics. These helped us form an opinion and sketch prognostics for the near future.”

Mr Duc Nguyen, an officer at the Embassy of Vietnam in Singapore, added, “The CIL Year in Review is a unique conference that offers insights into many topical issues and challenges the world is facing today from a legal perspective. I found the topic of investment and climate change very illuminating and relevant to my work as a trade diplomat. Overall, the conference underlined the international community’s commitment to international law and Singapore’s support for international law in the region.”