– Earlier this month, Abdulla Shahid, the Maldives’ foreign minister, was elected President of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which commences in September.
This is the sixth time a candidate from a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) has been elected to steer the work of the UN’s highest policy-making organ during its 76-year history:
Rudy Insanally of Guyana became the first president of the General Assembly elected from the UN-SIDS category in 1993; followed by Saint Lucia’s Julian Hunte in 2003; Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa of Bahrain in 2006; and the late John William Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda in 2013, while Peter Thomson of Fiji, took the helm during the GA’s 71st session in 2016.
It may seem surprising that such small nations have so frequently been named to this high position—the aggregate population of all SIDS is only 65 million, less than one percent of the global population—but the UN’s 38 SIDS constitute one fifth of the international organization’s total voting membership.
This position gives SIDS outsized power as a voting bloc, which they have wielded to great effect, perhaps most significantly when it comes to climate change, which as we will see has benefited the entire global community.
Far from representing a monolithic group, SIDS hail from every region of the world and are home to dozens of languages and a wide variety of social and economic characteristics. Some, like Guyana and Belize, are not even islands, but they all share unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities (like size, remoteness, and limited resources base) that the UN has recognized a distinct group of developing countries since 1992.
They are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, like extreme weather, sea level rise, and biodiversity loss, making them natural allies in the fight to cut the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the crisis.
In fact, in 1989, the Maldives hosted one of the first international conferences on sea level rise, a consequential event in the international climate change fight and the inspiration for the creation of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which has been credited to establish the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and winning the inclusion of the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal in the Paris climate accord in 2015, the latter during the Maldives chairmanship of the group.
SIDS have also shown critical leadership in the creation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In 2014, SIDS helped lead the negotiations, ultimately creating what is known as the SAMOA Pathway, a blueprint to ensure priorities of SIDS were reflected in the final 17 SDGs.
Before that, John William Ashe skillfully set the stage for the SDGs by working with larger countries to create a process for the SDGs that truly had global buy in.
All along, SIDS main argument that the specific challenges they face need to be given special consideration, and today a number of the SDGs do just that, including sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism. Such recognition was further solidified in 2015 as part of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda adopted at the UN Conference on Financing for Development and again that year in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Unsurprisingly, another theme that has emerged in SIDS international diplomacy over the years is ocean conservation. In December 2017, under Peter Thomson’s leadership, the General Assembly decided to convene negotiations towards an international legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, what is known as the high seas.
Thomson was also instrumental in developing the UN Ocean Conference that sets out to conserve and sustainably use ocean resources.
SIDS’ important endeavors during the General Assembly not only showcase the value of their contributions there, but of the GA itself, a place where all 193 UN countries, large and small, can elevate their concerns.
During the campaign for the post competing with Zalmai Rassoul, the candidate from Afghanistan, the Maldives’ Shahid launched “a presidency of hope”, noting that his priorities during the year-long presidency are to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and rebuild economies better and greener.
“The General Assembly can boost efforts towards greater climate action” and “renew momentum” on issues of energy, biological diversity, sustainable fisheries, desertification and the oceans – that are at the heart of SIDS’ concerns.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, while welcoming the new President-elect Shahid commended his “selection of hope as the central theme in his vision statement” and noted that, “coming from a small island developing state, Mr. Shahid will bring unique insights to the 76th session of the General Assembly, as we prepare for COP26 in Glasgow in November.”
Shahid’s election, as with the SIDS leaders before him, not only offers new hope for islands, but the whole international community. At this precarious moment in history, it is truer than ever that by promoting the interests of SIDS, what we are really doing is protecting the future of mankind.
Ahmed Sareer was the Ambassador/ Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the United Nations from 2012 to 2017 and chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States from 2015 to 2017. He is presently serving at the General Secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) based in Jeddah.