On 7 June 2021, Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid, was elected President of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The Maldives’ candidate won against a contender nominated by Afghanistan with 143 to 48 votes. Though the Maldives will pay a high cost for this candidature, over the course of the one-year tenure the new PGA will also have the opportunity to lead global discourse and guide the adoption of international law.
Incorporating the UN motto in the wake of the COIVD-19 pandemic to “build back better,” the Maldives’ campaign focused on the primary mandate of the 76th PGA to support a sustainable recovery for the global community. He promised to engage, not only with UN Member States, but also with non-member stakeholders, including members of civil society. As a nation that recently led the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the negotiating arm of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), sustainable action and SIDS perspectives were prominent in Shahid’s acceptance speech following the vote.
To understand the impact that the President of the General Assembly can have, one must understand the role of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA). It is the primary organ of the UN, issuing approximately 300 resolutions each year that compose the main body of international law, with a focus on security, development and human rights. The vast majority of these resolutions are adopted by the full consensus of all 193 Member States, and though a resolution is not usually legally binding on nations, the moral weight of any resolution weighs heavily upon all nations.
As President of the General Assembly, Shahid will be able to set priorities for the focus of UNGA, lead global discourse, host events and highlight issues of importance for himself and the Maldives. As the convener-in-chief, Shahid will also have the opportunity to mediate disputes, engage in UN negotiations, push agendas and favourable viewpoints, and support favourable comprises. By advancing the positions he chooses to, and leveraging both his position as President of the General Assembly and as Foreign Minister of the Maldives, he can elevate the Maldives to act as the primary power broker within the UN during his tenure. He has the ability to ensure that SIDS priorities like climate change, sustainable development, equitable representation, strengthened multilateralism, recognition of structural vulnerabilities and ensuring that no one is left behind gains prominence throughout UN negotiations.
Unfortunately, the only way to exert this influence and authority is through having financial support, a robust bureau, an extensive support network and clear neutrality. However, with only USD307,800 allocated to the President of the General Assembly’s Office for Shahid’s term and explicitly dedicated to official hospitality, travel, communication and administration of the office, the Office of the President of the General Assembly is primarily funded through external contributions — contributions which are made to the Trust Fund in Support of the Office of the President of the General Assembly. Though the nominating country is expected to ‘foot the bill’ for the actual work of the office, it is unlikely that the Maldives will dedicate substantial resources to Shahid’s tenure as President of the General Assembly. Even the hiring of staff to his bureau is dependent on being able to raise funds to cover substantial renumeration packages adhering to UN regulations.
As the President of the General Assembly is an unpaid position, it is likely that the Maldives will cover the cost of his living allowances and accommodations at the level of an Ambassador, which would likely incur an additional cost of USD120,000 to the State budget for the year he serves in New York. Shahid will likely also increase the stationed diplomats in New York to support his tenure as PGA, though they may simply be assigned to the Permanent Mission of the Maldives and not his bureau.
Shahid is likely spending the entirety of his initial post-victory waking hours responding to large donor nations’ congratulatory messages and asking for secondments of their diplomats to fill his bureau, as well as financial contributions to support his proposed programming. This process will see traditional donors with ties to Shahid gain concessions as to what that programming will entail. Interestingly, direct donations are taxed by the UN itself, with 13 percent of any of these donations taken by the UN secretariat as an administration cost. A further one percent of any staff remuneration will also go to the UN Secretariat.
His reliance on donors will impact his ability to be an impartial arbitrator at the UN, and therefore reduce his political capital. He has already indicated that he may look to an Indian as his Chef de’ Cabinet. This news comes following Shahid’s previous displays of subservience to India, even at the cost to Maldives’ own sovereignty. When asked by the Indian news channel NDTV regarding former President, then in exile, and now Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed’s request for “India to send an envoy, backed by its military… we request a physical presence,” Shahid replied “I believe that the [Indian] Ocean is named after India for a reason. India has certain obligations to maintain peace and security in the Indian ocean…I myself am slightly disappointed that it’s almost 48 hours since the declaration of the emergency and we haven’t seen any Indian presence on the ground.”
Beyond a possibility that he may fail to uphold the Maldives’ interest, there is also speculation that the Maldives has now wound up trading votes for Shahid’s candidature against diplomatic norms and etiquette; specifically that votes were traded for principal organs of the UN, thereby squandering the country’s ability to leverage them for equivalent national candidatures. Normally, a vote for an individual candidature like the President of the General Assembly would never be traded to another country for a reciprocal vote for a principal UN organ like the Security Council.
Even assuming there is no conflict of interesting in concurrently serving as President of the General Assembly while also a sitting Foreign Minister, Shahid is choosing to forgo at least half his time in his official posting. Arguably he is failing to meet his mandate, given that most of his engagements will no longer be at the Ministerial level, but instead the Ambassadorial, while also confined to UN settings. Unless another Cabinet Minister can formally fill in as the “Acting Foreign Minister,” this mandate will be lacking.
Shahid’s success or failure is not wholly predetermined. In the wake of the ongoing global pandemic, UN Member States are showing that they are ready to collaborate and find ways to work together. As his campaign slogan aspires, maybe Shahid still has the chance to be the #PresidencyOfHope.
Author's update (10 June 2021, 2pm): Shahid has now indeed appointed India's Deputy Permanent Representative Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu Kumar to his right hand position as Chef de Cabinet. Likely to balance this unusual move, he has also appointed the current Maldives' Permanent Representative Thilmeeza Hussain as a Special Envoy. This further raises questions of quid-pro-quo bias and may have financial implications given the Maldives PR's formal supporting role, further stretching the Maldives' already thinly spread resources.
Mohamed Jalaal Naseem, with an educational background in tourism management and project management, has several years of experience in business development and planning.