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UNGA ‘Presidency of Hope’ comes with challenges

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‘Presidency of Hope’ is what this moment in time calls for. “Let us choose to write a new chapter,” Shahid declared on assuming office. “Seven billion people on this planet are united in one common humanity,” he said, pointing to the single word – hope. On the pandemic, Shahid noted that it has been a challenging and tragic year, and yet he sounded positive: “Let us dare to dream and let us dare to hope, to embrace,” he declared from the grand pulpit of the global community. “Hope is never ‘over-rated’ or ‘a cliché’, but instead drives people to not give up, despite the odds seeming high,” he said.

Shahid’s ‘Presidency of Hope’ idea centred on five core principles. The COVID-19 pandemic that has been wrecking the world as nothing else in this 21st century of technological advancements, provides the immediate context. While the global communities are being enveloped in news that immerse them further in anxiety such as climate change, natural disasters, instability, and conflict, there is urgency for change in the narrative that these issues dominate global air waves, he said.

The UNGA must play a part in providing assurance to the troubled people who seek signs that things will ‘indeed’ get better and that tomorrow ‘will be better’, Shahid said, dwelling further on his idea of ‘hope’. To billions of people, the UN represents an ideal, an aspiration … a promise of a brighter future.… Let us draw upon that collective humanity now,” he declared.

Having said as much, the UNGA President stated that the august body must stand before the people of the globe and demonstrate to them, that “we are aware of their plight and their anxiety, we are listening, we are willing to work together to overcome these problems and the United Nations is as relevant to today’s crisis as it was 76 years ago during the aftermath of the Second World War.”

A Maldivian Presidency

 In an interview to UN News on the eve of taking over, Shahid said that contesting for the presidency was the best decision he ever made. “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,” he said.

Shahid is the first Maldivian to decorate the UNGA chair. “For the Maldivian people it is a great honour. It is a privilege for a Maldivian to be presiding over the General Assembly,” he said. It was an opportunity for a small island nation such as Maldives to make a difference, he underlined, referring to the plight of all small island nations, often ignored by the larger world, hence also the world body, going beyond promises.

Real politik and beyond 

While the pandemic and the plight of small island nations on other concerns, starting with the immediate impact of climate change on sea levels which continue to rise each passing year, Shahid as UNGA resident cannot sidestep the world of real politik. Afghanistan dominates that discourse just now, and is bound to remain so throughout his UNGA term. While the world was anticipating such a turn of events, it had not bargained for the fast-tracked Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on the oft-repeated American military exit. This much was woven into the way nations voted on the UNGA presidency in June. Shahid polled 143 out of 191 votes cast. Competing against him was former Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, who polled 48 votes, or close to a third of the victor’s count.

The result reflected global preference for the Maldives even otherwise as Afghanistan had held the post at least once, way back in 1966. It was also a result of Shahid’s dedicated campaign, and the support his candidacy enjoyed from the Government of President Ibrahim Solih back home. Of equal importance, however, was the fact that the alternative would be an Afghanistan, independent of political background and international standing.

The world had already visualised a Talibanised Afghanistan during the term of the 76th presidency of the UNGA, which Shahid now occupies. It did not want an Afghan, however non-controversial. This was because in a situation as has evolved since mid-August, exactly a month before the UNGA change-over, Afghanistan’s very membership and political representation at the UN and its affiliates too were expected to be questioned before the UNGA and also the UN Security Council (UNSC). It would have been embarrassing to say the least and an impossible situation otherwise, for the UNGA to discuss, debate, and decide upon Afghanistan-related matters with an Afghan in chair. The character of his representation and presence too could have been under the magnifying glass if a new Afghan dispensation were to challenge it.

All of it now goes only to underscore the problems that Shahid as UNGA president would be sought to hear out, though thankfully for him, it is the full house that decides on all such issues – apart from the UNSC. Given the underlying voting pattern that elected him President, the overall trend of UNGA discourse and decisions in the weeks and months can be gauged – at least to an extent.

Whither India?

 As the UNGA President, Shahid as the Maldivian Foreign Minister would have the pleasure of hearing his President address the house, the latter’s second since his maiden appearance in 2019. On Shahid’s election in June, Solih too said it was a ‘proud accomplishment’ and ‘a step forward in elevating the country’s stature on the global stage’. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be amongst the other world leaders addressing the General Assembly with Shahid in chair. In a way, Shahid’s victory is also India’s victory on the global stage, as Indian diplomats at the UN and elsewhere launched a coordinated campaign after visiting Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla publicly endorsed the candidature in November last year. In doing so, Secretary Shringla also highlighted the earlier commitment made by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The Indian endorsement became significant as the Maldives, as a small nation without adequate diplomatic representation in many world capitals, wanted both endorsement and support from a larger nation, especially a larger neighbour.

With China and Pakistan purportedly pitted in favour of the Afghan candidate after India made known its decision, Shahid’s candidature needed all the positive support it could obtain at that stage. From a purely Indian perspective, in the absence of a rival candidate’s name being known, it became all the more necessary for it to plunge deep into the campaign early on, if other member nations had to take New Delhi’s support for Shahid’s candidacy seriously.

The coordinated action paid off, as the results showed. In doing so, Shahid also had the support of other member states of SAARC, though now defunct. This is important considering that Afghanistan is also a SAARC member, and no one, including Afghanistan, looked at it with the perspective that Shahid’s presidency would coincide with India’s term as a non-permanent member at the UNSC which has a symbolism of its own, though not necessarily in any strategic way. However, India’s term as monthly rotational UNSC chair had expired in August when Shahid took over. Afghanistan was the dominant theme at the UNSC throughout that month, what with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Shringla addressing different sessions on different issues during the month.

Previous stints

For Shahid, conducting the affairs of the global body even while continuing as the all-important Foreign Minister of his home country at this crucial hour of post-pandemic economic restoration and social rehabilitation is going to be equally challenging. But challenge is what he is known to have conquered all through his life, beginning as a career diplomat under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year-long rule (1978–2008) then as the Foreign Minister.

Shahid’s latter-day assignment as the Parliament Speaker following the first-ever multi-party democracy elections of 2008–09 was even more challenging. He belonged to the Gayoom-led Opposition of the time when President Mohammed Nasheed’s Government of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was a ‘minority’ in the house. As the Speaker, Shahid had to do a balancing act, and also be seen as being free and fair, as the world was keeping a close watch on post-democratised Maldives by the hour.  His election for the UNGA job, especially by the all-knowing West, could thus be a backdated endorsement of his political and politico-administrative roles as a diplomat, minister, and Parliament Speaker. Today, as he represents the ruling MDP of President Solih, headed by Nasheed, now Parliament Speaker, again he has seemingly drawn a fine line of balance as the other two are at loggerheads, both on matters of policy and politics. Even while immersed in COVID-care and domestic politics, which has never seen a dull moment throughout Solih’s term that commenced in late 2018, Maldives and Maldivians would be watching Shahid at work in distant UN headquarters. They would be evaluating the suitability of the 59-year-old global diplomat for greater responsibilities nearer home in due time, and well after he steps down from the presidency at the UN a year from now. (ORF)

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