INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief

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Updated 20 September 2021

INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief

INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief
  • In his first interview as president of the assembly’s 76th session, Abdulla Shahid tells Arab News about his vision for the 12-month term
  • He also praised the “outstanding” Saudi efforts to tackle climate change and urged other nations to follow the Kingdom’s lead

NEW YORK: Maldivian diplomat Abdulla Shahid this week took the oath to become president of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session. In his first interview since taking office, he spoke exclusively with Arab News and shared his vision for what he intends to be a “presidency of hope.”

Arab News was the first media organization to visit his new office, newly vacated by previous occupant Volkan Bozkir at the conclusion of his one-year term as president.

We were greeted warmly not only by Shahid but many members of the team at the Maldivian UN mission. His election had been hailed as a great achievement for his small island nation and another step toward true representation at the UN.

Shahid, his country’s foreign minister, takes on his new UN role at a time when the world is mired in calamity. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage worldwide as wealthy nations hoard vaccines. The planet is sending daily warning signals that we can no longer afford to ignore the dangerous effects of climate change. Protracted conflicts continue to drive millions of people from their homes and into refugee camps.

At this time, one cannot help but wonder where exactly does hope reside and how do we reclaim it?

The Maldives, an island nation in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is the lowest-lying country in the world, with an average elevation of 1.5 meters, The natural high point of its territory is only 5.1 meters. 

“Coming from the Maldives, the climate-change issue is an existential threat for us,” said Shahid. “We live every day, day in and day out, with the possibility of drowning. The sea levels are rising. The scientists are predicting that we have crossed the red line; 2040 is a date beyond the tipping point.

“But in the Maldives what we survive on is hope, because we have to believe in the common good of humanity.”

The common good has perhaps never been more considered and discussed than during the pandemic, which has plunged economies into depression and wreaked havoc on people’s lives through the deaths of loved ones, the loss of jobs, and lockdowns that create mental challenges for many.

“But there was a glimmer of hope in that: The selfless service of health workers, how they sacrificed themselves in spite of clear-cut dangers to themselves,” said Shahid.

“So we should not lose hope in humanity. The goodness of humanity is there — we have to make sure it thrives, we have (to) celebrate it. If we lose hope what is there for us? There’s nothing. The only thing we stand on is hope that the goodness of humanity will survive.”

On all the issues Shahid considers priorities, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Scientists and UN agencies know, for example, what needs to be done to mitigate climate change, slow the spread of COVID-19, and include the most vulnerable people in global rebuilding efforts.

The only thing that is lacking, one keeps hearing in the halls of the UN, is the political will to take action.

Since he was elected president of the General Assembly in June with a sweeping majority, Shahid has held meetings with representatives of every one of the UN’s 193 member states. As a result, he has a slightly different perspective on the question of will.

“I think there is great political will — it needs to be harnessed,” he said. “We are 193 countries. The UN Charter starts with these three words: ‘We the peoples.’ So the 193 countries are not 193 countries by themselves. They also constitute ‘We the peoples.’”

As an example, he said: “I’ve had the privilege of interacting with (UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s) youth group of advisors on climate change. They are thinking outside the box. They are disappointed. They are talking of action. And they represent 1.8 billion youths in the world. And these 1.8 billion youths constitute 193 countries.

“So I can see the will. I can hear them loudly, clearly. All we need to do is for us to start listening.”

As it is in the Maldives, climate change is also an existential threat to many people in the oil-producing Gulf States. The region has for years been caught in a vicious cycle of rising temperatures that lead to increased use of air conditioners, which requires the burning of more fossil fuels to power them, causing temperatures to rise further still.

Shahid believes that the Kingdom’s plans for a Saudi Green Initiative and a Middle East Green Initiative, which were announced this year and will be officially launched in October, could completely reverse this course and set the region on the road to transformation.

“I salute the leadership of Saudi Arabia for the initiatives they have taken, the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative,” he said. “The planting of (billions of trees) is going to totally transform the landscape in the Middle East.

“The Saudi leadership is becoming an international champion in the field of addressing climate change, (like) so many other countries in the Gulf (such as) the UAE (and) Qatar.

“Being oil producing countries, the target they have set is outstanding. The leadership they are showing is outstanding. And I wish many many other countries in many other parts of the world would follow the Saudi leadership on this aspect of climate change.”

Shahid was only 26 years old when, as a young diplomat, he attended his first General Assembly session. It immediately convinced him that the way forward in finding solutions to the world’s problems lies in the multilateral system.

“Things are very interconnected,” he said. “What happens in one country has a ripple effect on many others. No country can survive on its own.” 

The biggest threat to this multilateralist approach is “the tunnel vision of ultra-nationalism” which he described as “completely outdated.”

“Unity is the only solution,” said Shahid. “Look at COVID-19. The one thing that it has taught us, and we shouldn’t be blind to that, (is that) no one is safe until everyone is safe. It is the job of leaders here at the UN, (of) respected countries, to continue to give that message that unity is strength.”

As anyone who follows the work of the General Assembly and the Security Council knows, however, unity is a rare commodity. A web of tensions permeates the work of UN bodies.

Shahid said that the role of the General Assembly has evolved in the 75 years since the UN was founded, but a closer look at that evolution raises questions about whether it was all in the right direction. For example, it has oscillated between strongly advocating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was first promulgated in the Assembly Hall, and being frozen by inertia on the issue.

Meanwhile one source of tension between member states concerns the relationship between smaller, developing countries who want more of a say in UN deliberations, and the rich nations who are the organization’s main donors.

It has not always been like this, however. The Uniting for Peace resolution in 1950, initiated by the US, states that if the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security, the General Assembly should take up the matter itself and urge collective action.”

This resolution was acted upon during the Suez crisis of 1956, when UN intervention led to a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops, and the establishment of the first peacekeeping force.

Almost half a century later, however, when the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 provoked calls from many organizations for the General Assembly to take on the issue and override a Security Council impasse, it declined to do so. 

More recently, efforts to revitalize the work of the General Assembly have focused on increasing its power in relation to the Security Council, promoting greater transparency, and improving the quality of debates. Some say it is an important institution that has never quite sorted out its role as a truly deliberative and functional body.

The General Assembly has the power to censure states for violating the principles of the UN charter. In the 1960s, for example, it suspended the South African delegation from the UN because of the continued practice of apartheid, which was in violation of Security Council resolutions and international law. The country was only readmitted in 1994 following its democratic transition.

In August 2012, the General Assembly voted 133 to 12 to denounce the Syrian government for atrocities during the Syrian uprising. And in December 2019, it passed a nonbinding resolution condemning human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. 

According to Shahid: “The consensus of the General Assembly reflects the world’s conscience. That is the power of the General Assembly.”

One way to enhance this power and render debates more deliberative, he said, is by inviting “other voices” to speak, including representatives of civil society, academics, scientists, gender experts and youth.

With the participation of such voices “the General Assembly will thrive,” Shahid added.

The Security Council, meanwhile, should “reflect the current realities of the world,” he said, and reforms of the council should be expedited because its very credibility is at stake.

An element at the heart of Shahid’s agenda, and vital for any reforms to even begin, is the inclusion of women.

“Women have been exploited, trampled upon, suppressed for far too long; we shouldn’t be accepting it,” he said as he called on all who have not yet become “gender champions” to join the fight.

In what is perhaps one of his most radical positions, he vowed in his new role not to take part in any panel that is not gender balanced.

“My staffers have told me that it will be a difficult one to keep but I told them that it is their job to make sure panels are gender balanced,” Shahid said.

“And for me as the president, it is very simple: I will say, ‘No, if there is no gender balance I will not attend.’ And that statement itself, coming from the president of the General Assembly, is a strong message and it will be respected. And I hope that if they want me to be on these panels they will make them gender balanced.

“The next time, such organization or associations (organize) panels they will always recall that President Shahid insisted that panels need to be gender balanced.”

To those who continue doubt the necessity or suitability of women in leadership positions and decision-making roles, Shahid’s message could not be simpler.

“If the person who is doubting the role of women is a man, I would ask the person to just sit down and think: Where did they come from? Who carried the person for nine months? The mother,” he said. “It’s very simple: Respect your mother. Give your mother the respect that she deserves.

“And when you have a daughter, look at her, see whether you would want your daughter to suffer. Give respect to your daughter — it’s very personal.”

Failure to recognize the importance and value of women means that the world is wasting one of its great human resources, Shahid said.

“The world is made up of men and women. If we want to lock (away) half of the world population and not benefit from them, we are utilizing (only) 50 percent of the population,” he said. “Does that make sense at an economic level? At a humanitarian level? At a social level?

“It does not take a genius to say simply that the only way humanity will progress is (if we) respect women.”


Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
Updated 5 sec ago

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
BRUSSELS: The EU’s main Covid vaccine provider, BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success
Updated 54 min 17 sec ago

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success
  • Under the new rules, most arriving passengers must show negative test results at Portugal’s airports, seaports and land borders
  • Authorities in Portugal have confirmed an outbreak of the new coronavirus variant, omicron, among members of a professional soccer club and a medical worker

LISBON: Portugal tightened passenger entry requirements and mandated masks indoors to curb an upward trend in coronavirus infections as the country with one of the strongest vaccination records in Europe entered a “state of calamity” Wednesday.
The crisis declaration, Portugal’s second this year, is one step below a state of emergency and gives the government the legal authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
Masks now are required in enclosed public spaces, and individuals must show proof of vaccination, having recovered from COVID-19 or a negative virus tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels. Nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes and sports venues also must require negative virus tests from visitors and patrons, including vaccinated ones.
“With the test, we feel more comfortable. We don’t leave the club thinking, ‘Do I have COVID or not?’” Sara Lopes, a 21-year-old shop worker, said as she lined up at a central Lisbon nightclub as the new requirements took effect at midnight.
“It’s a bit of a hassle to have to make appointment after appointment at the pharmacy, but it’s fine,” Lopes said.
Under the new rules, most arriving passengers must show negative test results at Portugal’s airports, seaports and land borders.
Experts believe that Portugal’s vaccination rate, which at 87 percent of over 10 million residents is one of the highest globally, has shielded the country from the infection spikes recently experienced by some other European countries.
Still, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been rising since September. Portuguese authorities on Tuesday recorded 2,907 new cases and 15 deaths.
Authorities in Portugal have confirmed an outbreak of the new coronavirus variant, omicron, among members of a professional soccer club and a medical worker who had contact with them.


Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
  • A new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response will come into force in 2024

GENEVA: World Health Organization member states agreed Wednesday to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.
Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.


China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
Updated 01 December 2021

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
  • A number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri

BEIJING: China on Wednesday urged its citizens to leave three provinces in eastern Congo as violence intensifies in the mineral-rich region.
A posting from the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa on the WeChat online messaging said a number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, where several anti-government rebel groups have a presence.
It said Chinese residing in the three provinces should provide their personal details by Dec. 10 and make plans to leave for safer parts of Congo. Those in the districts of Bunia, Djugu, Beni, Rutshuru, Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga should leave immediately, it said, adding that any who do not do so “will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“We ask that all Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested businesses in Congo please pay close attention to local conditions, increase their safety awareness and emergency preparedness, and avoid unnecessary outside travel,” the embassy said.
No details of the incidents were given, although the embassy last month reported five Chinese citizens were abducted from a mining operation in South Kivu, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
It warned a the time that the security situation in the area was “extremely complex and grim” and that there was little possibility of sending help in the event of an attack or kidnapping.
No details were given about those kidnapped, who they worked for or who was suspected of taking them.
Several armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, the Mai-Mai and the M23 regularly vie for control of eastern Congo’s natural resources.
Despite the danger, Chinese businesses have moved into Congo and other unstable African states in a quest for cobalt and other rare minerals and resources. Chinese workers have also been subject to kidnappings and attacks in Pakistan and other countries with active insurgencies.
Security was a key topic at a meeting Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on Monday, between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Congolese counterpart Christophe Lutundula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China’s government and ruling Communist Party “attach great importance to the safety and security of Chinese enterprises and Chinese nationals overseas and the Chinese side has been extremely concerned with the recent serious crimes of kidnappings and killings of its citizens in the DRC,” Wang said, using the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wang urged Congo to secure the release of those kidnapped and create a “safe, secure and stable environment for bilateral cooperation.”
Xinhua quoted Lutundula as saying Congo would take “forceful measures” to investigate the crimes, free the hostages, punish the culprits severely and safeguard national security and restore stability to the country’s east.
Earlier this week, Uganda said it launched joint air and artillery strikes with Congolese forces against camps of the extremist Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in eastern Congo.
The ADF was established in the early 1990s in Uganda and later driven out by the Ugandan military into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there.
At least four civilians were killed less than two weeks ago in Uganda’s capital when suicide bombers detonated their explosives at two locations.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were carried out by Ugandans. Ugandan authorities blamed the ADF, which has been allied with the Daesh group since 2019.


Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 01 December 2021

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
  • Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people
  • The reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant

CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, said.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.