Maldives’ Abdulla Shahid as President of the 76th UNGA: What does it mean for India?

After President Ibrahim Solih came into power in November 2018, Maldives’ foreign policy priority has been to restore the relations with India, the US, and other Western powers which declined significantly during Yameen’s period.

Foreign Minister of Maldives Abdulla Shahid, India Maldives relations, Indai mladives diplomacy, Abdulla Shahid’s victory at the UNGA Presidential election, Maldives Contribution to Multilateralism, UNHRC
India is expected to provide key support to Abdulla Shahid to deliver his “Presidency of Hope.” (Image: @abdulla_shahid)

By Dr Gulbin Sultana

Foreign Minister of Maldives Abdulla Shahid won the Presidency of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 7 June 2021. This is for the first time in the history of the United Nations (UN), Maldives will hold the office of President at the UNGA. Abdulla Shahid’s victory at the UNGA Presidential election is a “proud accomplishment” and “a step forward in elevating the country’s stature on the global stage”, according to Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih.

Maldives Contribution to Multilateralism

Maldives has been a firm believer of multilateralism and international cooperation to address global challenges. A small country has limited options to effectively respond to the multifaceted challenges on its own. Nonetheless, there is a great deal international cooperation can do to take on the global challenges if each member of the international community, irrespective of their size, takes responsibility and joins hands to contribute to global peace, development, and prosperity.

Maldives’ decision to join the UN in 1965, immediately after its independence, sparked a debate on how a “micro state”, could possibly contribute to the organisation. Over the years, Maldives has cleared all the doubts by raising its voice on issues of concern and playing a prominent role in the UN as well as in the other multilateral organisations including the Commonwealth.

In 1989 itself when the developed countries were ambivalent on the issue of climate change, Maldives hosted the “Small states conference on Sea-level rise” to draw world attention to the danger that small states would face due to global warming. Since then, Maldives has been an active member of the Alliance of Small Island States. It has also contributed to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by leading the initiative to establish an Independent Expert on Human Rights and Environment, as well as the Voluntary Trust Fund at the council to support the participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the work of the Council in March 2012.

Loss of Faith of the International Community

The Maldivian Government during Abdulla Yameen’s Presidency (2013-18), was extremely critical of the multilateral organisations such as the Commonwealth and the UNHRC for criticising its policies, and legal systems. The Maldives withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2016, accusing it of interfering in domestic affairs and “unfair and unjust” treatment. The Yameen administration lost the faith of the international community as it ignored their repetitive call for respect for democracy and human rights. Snubbing the international community and failure on the part of President Yameen to restore political stability in the country was probably the reason why Maldives lost its bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council from Asia Pacific region to Indonesia in 2018.

Maldives Regains its Global Stature

After President Ibrahim Solih came into power in November 2018, Maldives’ foreign policy priority has been to restore the relations with India, the US, and other Western powers which declined significantly during Yameen’s period and regained the faith of the international community. In that context, Solih Government showed its willingness to work with the international community to restore peace, stability, democracy, and human rights in the country as well as in the region. It re-joined the Commonwealth.

Abdulla Shahid’s landslide victory in the election on 7 June indicates the international community’s enhanced trust in the Indian Ocean archipelago. Shahid won the election with 143 votes, out of a total of 191 votes cast. Abdulla Shahid has a strong credential to occupy the office of President of the General Assembly (PGA), so does his opponent Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan’s permanent representative to the UN. However, the majority of the UNGA members preferred a Maldivian candidate over a candidate from a politically unstable country. Moreover, Afghanistan announced its candidature much later. By the time Afghanistan announced its candidature in mid-January 2021, several countries including India officially announced their support for the Maldives.

India’s Support to Shahid’s Candidature

India was the first country to extend its support after President Solih announced Abdulla Shahid’s candidature for the PGA for the turn of Asia-Pacific in December 2018. India publicly disclosed its decision to support Shahid during the visit of foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to the Maldives in November 2020. At that time Zalmai Rassoul did not enter into the race. Hence, there was no moral dilemma for India to choose between two friendly countries. India has vigorously campaigned for the Maldives. The Maldives is a key partner in India’s neighborhood policy. India’s campaign for the Maldives is reflective of the importance India accrues on the Indian Ocean Island. This, however, does not mean India gives less priority to Afghanistan. Since India had extended its support to Shahid’s candidature much before Afghanistan decided to participate in the PGA elections, India decided to go ahead with its decision to vote for the Maldives.

What is there for India?

The UNGA is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, serving as the main deliberative, policy-making, and representative organ of the UN. The President of the General Assembly (PGA) is responsible for chairing the UNGA session for the elected term and is also the presiding officer for this duration. The President has all the power to decide a topic of discussion and issue a statement on matters of importance. Since, PGA represents the whole membership at conferences, other international and regional meetings, and can co-host events with the Member States and other partners, views of the person holding the chair of Presidency of the UNGA matter.

Usually, it is expected that the PGA will have a neutral stand on the global issue irrespective of his/her country’s stand. However, India was utterly disappointed with the incumbent PGA from Turkey, Volkan Bozkir, who acted more as a representative of Turkey than a PGA by making remarks that Pakistan is “duty-bound” to raise the Kashmir issue in the UN more strongly. Bozkir also endorsed Islamabad’s attempts to link the Kashmir issue to the Palestine problem. India expressed its strong opposition to the unwarranted references made with respect to the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir by the PGA and said by making the misleading remarks, Bozkir did a great disservice to the office he occupies.

There is a hope that Abdulla Shahid’s presidency in the UNGA for the next one year will not create such unpleasant situation for India as there is an alignment of views between India and the Maldivian Government as well as Abdulla Shahid on the issue of Kashmir, China, Indo-Pacific, Quad, Afghanistan, and terrorism.

India as a non-permanent member of the UNSC will act as President of the council for August this year and again for a month during Shahid’s Presidency in the 76th session. As a non-permanent member of the UNSC for 2021-23, India’s priority is to achieve a “concrete and result-oriented action at the council for an effective response to international terrorism”. PGA-elect Abdulla Shahid too expressed his intention to make progress in the long-pending issue of a comprehensive definition of terrorism during the 76th session of the UNGA. As the two countries are cooperating on the issue of terrorism at the bilateral level, both sides are hoping to cooperate at the UN too. As a non-permanent member of the UNSC as well as a willing country to take a leadership role on the global issues, India is expected to provide key support to Abdulla Shahid to deliver his “Presidency of Hope.”

“Presidency of Hope”

On 30 April this year, Abdulla Shahid declared his vision statement titled “A Presidency of Hope: Delivering for People, Planet and Prosperity” where he outlined his priorities for the UNGA during 2021-22. Minister Shahid talked about five “rays of hope” in his vision statement: Recovering from COVID19, Rebuilding Sustainably, Responding to the Needs of the Planet, Respecting the Rights of All, and Reforming the UN. Abdulla Shahid is committed to delivering the “Presidency of Hope”. In this endeavour, he looked for the support of all the members of the UNGA.

As PGA-elect Shahid made the first official visit to India on 22-24 July 2021. During the visit, he briefed India about his priorities in the 76th session of the UNGA as a President and sought India’s cooperation in fulfilling the vision. Minister Shahid noted that the concept of “reformed multilateralism” put forward by Prime Minister (PM) Modi during his statement at the General Debate of the 75th session of the UNGA, highlighted all the facets he mentioned in his “Presidency of Hope”. Therefore, he requested India to back his “Presidency of Hope” which PM Modi readily agreed to. Abdulla Shahid has appointed India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu as the Chef-de-Cabinet-designate of the Office of the President of the 76th United Nations General Assembly to fulfil his vision.

Maldives supports India’s membership at the UNSC as a permanent member. With Maldives assuming the presidency of the UNGA, India can now hope for solid support in the UN, as Abdulla Shahid told the media, “As President of the General Assembly, it would be my role to bring the countries together and try to form a broad consensus on the security council reform process.”

The international community including India entrusted lots of hope to PGA-elect Abdulla Shahid to function independently and efficiently during his tenure in the upcoming UNGA session. The concern, however, is that the way Maldivian domestic politics is taking shape, as Foreign Minister he might have to get caught up with national affairs and find little time to effectively work on his “Presidency of Hope”. Hopefully, the Maldivian ruling party and President Solih will not allow such a situation to arise.

(The author is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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