On June 8, South Asia acquired a rare salience at the United Nations after the Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid was elected as the new President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for a one-year term beginning in September. The importance of the region gained further notice with Bangladesh being elected as one of the Vice-Presidents of the UNGA from the Asia-Pacific region. These posts are held on an annual, rotational basis among various regional groupings and the 76th session (2021-22) is the turn of the Asia-Pacific group. In January this year, India was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
This is the first time that the Maldives will be occupying the office of the President of the UNGA, the highest office in the UN System, which reflects the collective goodwill of the 193 member-countries. Abdulla Shahid, an accomplished diplomat, won as about three-fourths of the 191 countries voted in the election against his rival former Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, who got 48 votes.
India had thrown its weight behind Shahid way back in November when the country's Foreign Secretary undertook a visit to the Maldives. In an unusual gesture, New Delhi chose to go public with its support in an election held through secret ballots. Afghanistan was a rather late entrant to the race for the post, coming in January this year. India has robust relations with both the Maldives and Afghanistan. But New Delhi conveyed it to Kabul that it would not be able to support Rassoul as it had declared its support for Maldives publicly much before Afghanistan announced its candidature.
The presence of Shahid and Rassoul in the election for UNGA Presidentship has not only brought to light a tussle within South Asia but also some awkwardness for India, which perhaps would have to work towards assuaging hard feelings in the Afghan establishment. The fact that Afghanistan had been a UNGA President in 1966 while the Maldives had never graced the post before was one of the factors to influence India's decision to back Shahid.
The election of the Maldives and Bangladesh as President and Vice-President respectively is expected to raise hopes that some of the most pressing challenges facing South Asia—like Covid-19 vaccines and funds to tackle climate change vulnerability as well as a transition to green technology—will get flagged at the high table of multilateral diplomacy at the UN. Public health emergencies like Covid-19 and equitable distribution of vaccines are undoubtedly at the heart of international geopolitics now, particularly after the four-nation Quad's (comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan) initiative on this front.
In one of his first interviews after getting elected, Abdulla Shahid told The Hindu newspaper that vaccine equity "is the first ray of hope" he wanted to build during his presidency, and that vaccine nationalism should be avoided at all costs because "no one is safe until everyone is safe," a view repeatedly articulated by global experts. In bringing the vaccine equity issue to the fore, he pointed out that one in every five persons in the developed world has been vaccinated while the figure is dismal in the case of the rest of the world, where only one in every 500 people has got the jab. It is here that India occupies a central role in the vaccine initiative, particularly in manufacturing, procuring and distributing vaccines in its immediate neighbourhood, at a time when China is quite proactive in supplying its vaccines to countries in South Asia.
It is not without reasons that in the last week of April, India, Japan and Australia launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in the Indo-Pacific region to reduce their dependence on China, and that the US expanded the scope of the Quad to invest it with an economic content through multiple trade, aid and vaccine supply chain initiatives. A part of the Quad initiative is aimed at answering China's concerns over the Quad emerging as "Asia's NATO".
One of the biggest challenges facing the world is adopting an integrated approach to the impact of climate change on public health. It can be recalled that the Malé Declaration, adopted in 2017, agreed to promote climate-resilient healthcare facilities to be able to withstand any climatic event. The issue here is how to carry on economic development riding on low carbon emission without sacrificing the growth momentum, in which universal health coverage is also one of the key determining factors. Despite all talks of transitioning towards a greener economy, the fact remains that fossil fuels, emitters of greenhouse gases, and power generation from coal continue to be labour-intensive and an important source of tax revenue for governments in the developing countries.
Bangladesh, the Maldives, the 52 small island countries and coastal India are among the regions highly vulnerable to global warming and rising sea levels. The importance of shifting to a greener economy with decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, particularly on coal, could not have been better underlined than during the Covid-19 pandemic. The reminder came from two severe cyclones in quick succession recently—Tauktae on the western and Yaas on the eastern coasts of India—leaving a trail of death and devastation in the midst of the battle against a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus.
Abdulla Shahid has proclaimed that the occasion of his election as UNGA President "is a proud day for the Maldives and a proud day for South Asia… you can be rest assured that as President of the General Assembly, I will do my best to make South Asia proud." It is going to be an unprecedented South Asian moment at the UN. One year at the helm of the UNGA high table may not be a long time. But it is not a short time either, depending on how the time is used to shape the global body's response to the pandemic and climate change.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.