A historic day for Maldives at the United Nations

The government has, on almost every occasion, described this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as a “particularly momentous” occasion for Maldives, owing to the fact that a fellow Maldivian is serving as the President of this prestigious assembly for the first time.

It is a big deal, especially for a miniscule country like ours, and it is, indeed, a historic moment in more than one way. With all 193 Member States of the UN in attendance and having a vote, this is the first time a Maldivian would be presiding over such a large-scale gathering of global leaders with the power to make impactful decisions. Secondly, (using another favourite buzzword) this truly is an ‘unprecedented’ time we are living in. Covid-19 pandemic brought with it unfathomable challenges and it caused a dramatic shift in global operations, as well as our general conduct. Add to this a nagging climate emergency, a new wave of terrorism on the rise and a host of other international discords – and one would understand why the Maldivian government is keen to emphasis the momentum. President Abdullah Shahid has a herculean task ahead of him.

So, what exactly is the function of the UNGA?

The GA plays a pivotal role in global peacekeeping and policymaking. Its functions include, discussing and making decisions about international problems; electing the Security Council members; supervising the work of other UN bodies, and considering the UN budget. Even though the GA is not involved in the political decisions on UN peace missions, the GA plays a significant role in peace operation financing. It is also within its confine of powers to make recommendations on any questions within the scope of the Charter.

Being the chair and the presiding officer of the GA, therefore, is a serious and important role – for the entire planet. President Shahid would have to ensure that the rules of procedure are followed, but going beyond the procedural role, he could also invite UN officials to brief the assembly on issues of global significance to promote international political cooperation and stability.

For the sceptics and pessimists, this may still raise the question of ‘why any of this matters to us at all?’ On an individual scale, it may be difficult to see how, or why; one may even be forgiven for viewing the GA as a futile gabfest where pompous world leaders sign hollow treaties and agreements. But we do reap benefits from engagements such as these, albeit it may not be evident immediately. Away from the ambitious promises and headlines, the actual business getting done is that of long-term thinking and networking.

Small as we may be, we are still part of the global community and making a ‘good impression’ in international arenas benefit us greatly.

For example, during the peak of the pandemic, we were able to secure a good vaccine stock, and as a result, over 80 percent of the eligible population are now vaccinated, which is an impressive statistic worldwide. We received grants in millions from Canada, USA, Japan and the European Union, while Singapore, Thailand, UAE and India contributed generously in-kind (in the form of PPE, medical equipment and even staples).

Besides the impressive Covid-19 aid we amassed, there are more personable benefits of being on friendly terms with the outside world, too. Since 2019, the government has facilitated over 400 scholarships to various countries in an array of fields. The decision to re-join the Commonwealth meant that even more study-aboard opportunities were opened up again, along with other benefits such as taking part in programmes run by these organisations in to build human capacity and expand knowledge.

Ultimately (and admittedly over-simplifying the matter) good foreign relations equates to easier, hassle free travelling and vacationing, too. Shahid, in his capacity as the Foreign Minister of the Maldives, had ensured that Maldivians can travel to Morocco and Russia without a visa, while the government has notably made an effort to establish diplomatic relations with African and South American countries. It is also easier than it had been to obtain a Schengen visa now, via the German embassy in Maldives. All this does make a difference in our lives, even if it is not seen instantaneously.

We have also seen the repercussions of “isolationism”. In 2016, when Maldives left the Commonwealth, it took away the aforementioned benefits, immediately. Former President Yameen Abdullah also severed ties with Qatar and Iran, which created an atmosphere shrouded in mistrust for the Maldives amongst other Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. Furthermore, the almost toxic relationship with India during Yameen’s presidency had led awkward encounters that affected the entire region as it disrupted the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meetings. All this lead to Maldives securing an embarrassing 46, out of 144 votes when Maldives contested for the Asia-Pacific seat in the UN Security Council in 2018, after spending over MVR 17.6 Million on the campaign. In comparison, Shahid’s bid for the President of UNGA had cost the state MVR 4.7 Million, and he managed to secure an impressive 143 votes for the seat.

If one is still cynical about why foreign relations matter, establishing good foreign relations is a way to ensures our voices and opinions on matters that are close to us, are heard, globally. Having a Maldivian at a top seat in the world’s most powerful organisation means that we have accessibility to have our voices heard on matters that are close to our hearts. In the past, we have seen Maldivians advocating for Rohingya Muslims; we have always been vocal about our stance on the Palestine issue, and there is a general consensus about the urgency of rectifying the climate crisis. Being the passionate and sentimental people that we are, we now get to have these concerns heard on a global platform. It is also our chance, as a nation, to make a positive impact.