INTERVIEW: Amid disease and destruction, new UN Assembly president highlights hope

The President-elect of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid in the General Assembly hall.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
The President-elect of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid in the General Assembly hall.
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“The General Assembly is the only body which has the 193 countries represented and this body, when it speaks unanimously, when it decides on a matter, that is the international conscience,” Abulla Shahid said, ahead of the 76th General Assembly session, which starts on 14 September.  

He added that on issues such as climate change and equitable access to vaccines, he would “never give up hope that humanity will rise to the occasion.”  

Mr. Shahid also spoke about the importance of these issues and his overall presidency for his home country of the Maldives - which he serves as foreign minister - an island nation of 26 atolls southwest of India and Sri Lanka, with a population of around 530,000 people. 

He will now represent a United Nations body that speaks on behalf of nearly 7.9 billion. 

His priorities for the coming year include leading by example to help the UN reach the “gold standard” on issues such as gender equality. That means participating on panels with equal numbers of women and pushing for a more family-friendly UN, for mothers who are breast-feeding or taking care of small children.  

Throughout the interview, Mr. Shahid reiterated the importance of multilateral cooperation and the idea that global challenges require unified global action. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Your candidacy for the position of President of General Assembly was built around the theme of hope. Given the continued waves of COVID, unequal access to vaccines, and continued strife around the world – how do you plan to bring hope to the General Assembly?  

I campaigned on a presidency of hope because I truly believed that given the devastation, the despair, and the heartache that we have over the last 18 months it is time that the United Nations as the world body that encompasses the entire international community, the whole 193 countries, it is time that we stand up and we give hope to our constituents.  The Charter says “We the Peoples” so it is time that we the people, unite in giving the hope that people so desperately need. 

In these terrible times of the pandemic, we have seen humanity at its best.  We have seen that in the grave sacrifices of the frontline workers, we have seen the doctors, the nurses, the many, many ordinary individuals who have put their lives in harm’s way to help others.  That is hope. That gives hope to humanity. 

We have seen a vaccine developed in record time - that gives hope for the United Nations to come together…and begin the recovery which is what is required now.  It is unity that gives strength. 

In the Maldives where I come from, we live day in day out, with the threat of climate change, sea level rise, but we will never give up hope that humanity will rise to the occasion.  That we will survive.  It is in the Maldivian ethos that we strive for the better, we try to do better…To try for a better tomorrow. 

You touched on the issue of climate change. You’re from the Maldives, a small island developing state. What are your priorities in this area for the presidency?  

I have been talking about the 76th session being a super session for nature and there is a reason - the 76th session coincides with several major conferences on climate change and environment.  COP26, the three major conferences from the treaties of Rio, the COP on biodiversity, COP on deforestation and COP on the high-level energy dialogue and the Ocean conference. 

All these major conferences are going to build a lot of momentum during this forthcoming session.  I intend to make sure that I use my convening power as president to bring the international community together.  

To give the final push.  For example, in the run-up to COP26, I intend to convene a special event here in the General Assembly in October to give countries the opportunity to come together and give that final political commitment.  Yes, we are committed to the 1.5 degrees [target to limit carbon emissions]. Yes, a $100 billion target is achievable. Yes, the Paris Agreement [on climate change] is doable. Yes, we care about humanity. That we will listen to the cries of planet earth.   

We are seeing it every year.  We are seeing the pain our planet is going through. We are seeing extensive floods, unbearable hot weather, forest fires. You name it, we are seeing it.  So, this is time for the United Nations to come together and give that message of hope that yes, humanity will survive. 

The other very urgent priority right now is COVID-19. What are your goals for this presidency?    

After I was selected, and I was speaking here at this General Assembly, I spoke about vaccinating the world because it is very clear that no one is safe until everyone is safe.  It is easy to say but is also doable.  I believe it is doable because the international community has the capacity…Just by saying that no one is safe until everyone is safe is not enough. If we can come together, we will be able to vaccinate the world…by the end of 2022 we will be able to do it.  

I intend to convene a vaccine event, later this year or early next year.  Once again to bring countries together to take stock and to chart out a way forward. 

We discussed some of the major issues facing the world right now. How can the General Assembly make a difference given that – unlike the Security Council – it lacks enforcement powers?  

The enforcement power of the General Assembly, I sincerely believe is more than that of the Security Council. The enforcement comes from the membership. The General Assembly is the only body which has the 193 member countries represented, and this body when it speaks unanimously, when it decides on matter, that is ‘the international conscience’. 

So, we have to make sure that the General Assembly functions; functions more pro-actively; functions more effectively; so the message to the rest of the world, to us, is clear. The General Assembly sets standards, the General Assembly shows the way forward and the General Assembly draws the line, as to what is acceptable and what is not. 

Therefore, I believe that the most important organ of the United Nations and the world, is the General Assembly of the United Nations.  It has the moral authority to set standards. 

The President-elect of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid is interviewed in the General Assembly hall.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
The President-elect of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid is interviewed in the General Assembly hall.

Can I ask a follow-up, because you speak about efficiency, about unity. How do you hope to use your position as the President of the General Assembly to bring about that unity? 

I do understand that we will have divisions, we will have difference of opinions, we would have different positions on issues, but my time as Speaker of the Parliament and my parliamentary experience shows me that it is possible to solve issues through dialogue. It’s important that we keep talking, that we find opportunity to sit down, put our views across to each other and then we will be able to come out with resolution of issues. 

If you look at world history, we have seen conflict erupt when opportunities for dialogue closed, when people decided to lock themselves up and distance themselves.  This assembly brings people together, it provides the opportunity for people to interact with each other, and we should use it to the maximum. 

You brought up your Government back in the Maldives. Within your Foreign Ministry, you were able to bring gender equity across that Ministry. What are your goals here for your presidency?  

I decided to bring the experience of my ministry in the Maldives, to my cabinet, so my cabinet is gender balanced.  Many of the senior positions are held by women and I also have given the commitment, and once again I pledge that I will not sit in any panel that is not gender balanced. 

I also intend to make sure that I talk about this more and more. I want to make the United Nations not only the gold standard setter but also the gold standard practitioner.  In that context I intend to speak to the Secretary-General and the Secretariat and make the United Nations more family -friendly. That is a task that I intend to undertake. 

I am also going to continue with the advisory group on women that former president [Volkan] Bozkir had constituted.  I also intend to have regular sessions with the women PRs [Permanent Representatives] who are resident here so that I will benefit from their viewpoints.  I intend to make sure that the issue of gender continues to be one of my top priorities during my presidency. 

I’m very curious, Sir, as a mother myself. What are some of your ideas for making the UN more family friendly?

During my campaign I met a female ambassador, she shared with me the horrific story that on a day when her babysitter got cancelled at the last minute, she had no choice but to bring her two little children but to leave them in her car and leave them in the UN garage with a driver. There should be a family room where children should be able to be cared for these are issues that we should sort out.

My last question is about young people. Not quite as young as we’re talking about right now. But youth, how do you hope to bring youth into the General Assembly, into what is happening in this hall?  

I was a young diplomat when I first had the experience of attended the UN General Assembly in 1988. It was my first General Assembly experience as a young diplomat. 

It is my experience during those years that committed me to multilateralism.  What I saw here in this General Assembly in the corridors and within the committees, that gave me the confidence that multilateralism is the only way forward. I want to give that opportunity to young diplomats from under-represented countries and that is why I have launched a President of the General assembly Youth Fellowship Programme.  I intend to bring a number of young diplomats from under-represented countries give them the opportunity to work in my office and with the countries they represent at the missions so that they will be able to experience what happens here. Their work will be coordinated from my office and at the end of the year they will be given a certificate to prove that they have performed their duties well.   

But who knows maybe one of these young diplomats who gets through the fellowship, may become the President of the GA at a future date.  Investing in multilateralism is what we should do now.  COVID-19 has once again shown us now that multilateralism is the only way forward. The best investment in multilateralism is investing in young people.  And that is what I am going to do. 

What does your presidency mean for your country of Maldives? 

I am taking office knowing very well the challenges that I will face.  I have been asked many many times, why did you throw your name into the hat at such a hectic time? I would say this is the best decision that I have taken.  Because it is the one opportunity where you can make a difference and one opportunity where a small country like the Maldives can make a difference. For the Maldivian people it is a great honour. It is a privilege for a Maldivian to be presiding over the General Assembly. 

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