The 75th General Assembly of the United Nations passed the torch to number 76 on Tuesday, with the establishment of GA President Abdulla Shahid. A Foreign Minister in the Maldives and an experienced diplomat who studied at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with his election Shahid brought his small nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean to the highest bench of the UN’s General Assembly for the first time.
Whoever believes that a GA President from a small nation will end their mandate without leaving a mark should study the recent mandate of a president from a “small” nation, the Danish Mogens Lykketoft. With him, the Security Council was put under pressure to give more transparency and inclusivity to the GA – better respecting the United Nations Charter – in the process of electing the Secretary General of the United Nations. The current Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, was chosen and elected under the conditions “suggested” by the presidency of Lykketoft’s 70th General Assembly. In addition to this, the fact that Shahid comes from an island nation in danger due to the effects of climate change, makes it clear that his election – as he said during his speech – will lead to the hastening of the 13th objective of the UNSDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to reach by 2030 in order to avoid a catastrophe). Another recent president from an island nation, John Ashe, had also made climate change one of the priorities of the General Assembly. At the end of his mandate, he was involved in a scandal related to possible bribes, and later died in New York in suspicious circumstances, investigated by the NYC prosecutor’s office.
As soon as he arrived in front of the journalists, after delivering a speech to the General Assembly in which he made clear the main points he wants the UNGA76 agenda to focus on (the pandemic and vaccinations, climate, human rights, etc.) Shahid at times used humor while answering the questions of the press. He stated he hopes they always ask him the more inconvenient questions as well, although he might decide not to answer. To the question asked by La Voce di New York, Shahid answered plenty (minute 9:50 of the video below).
We asked: Is there any power available to the President of the UN General Assembly that was not used before, or not adequately used, and that you would like to use?
After joking that he felt like a student walking into an exam again, Shahid answered:
“I hope that I will not be forced to use any of the powers that have not yet been used in the last 75 years. There will be difficult challenges but I will go through them with my legal team. And rest assured that if there will be the need to use any power that needs to be utilized for the general assembly to function, I will use them.”
There were many interesting questions for Shahid, one of which was asked by a journalist from an Indian newspaper, who wanted to know how he would speed up the Security Council reform – a reform pushed by India, which would like a permanent seat and to which Italy has expressed great opposition and has made a counteroffer to it- to which he responded that he would like to accomplish a reform but does not own a “magic wand”. You can reach your own conclusion on this by watching the video. Could the new president of the GA–as did the Danish one–leave his mark on the UN when it comes to strengthening the interests of small countries around the world? We will observe him in action, especially while working on climate change and the UNSDGs.
In the meantime this is how the Secretary General of the UN bid farewell to Shahid predecessor, the Turk Volkan Bozkir: “Throughout this difficult and historic moment, we have all been fortunate to rely on the leadership of His Excellency, President Volkan Bozkir”.
Antonio Guterres concluded that, with Bozkir’s leadership, the GA attempted to “strengthen health systems, deliver COVID-19 testing, treatment and equipment, and contribute to the most ambitious vaccination campaign in history… In short, under President Bozkir’s stewardship, this Assembly has proven, time and again, the value of multilateralism and a rules-based international system.”
In his speech before concluding the 75th GA, the outgoing president Bozkir noted that he held his office during a year of great transformations: “From the earliest moments of my Presidency, we knew that COVID-19 would dominate our agenda. However, I can now say that it has reinforced our belief in a more effective and more responsive UN.”
The new president of the GA, Abdulla Shahid, while opening the 76th session, proudly declared that his country’s flag is “flying at the highest peak today”. Looking at the “collective anxiety” and loss of hope, which he said is not solely due to the pandemic, he suggested that “the narrative has to change” and that the General Assembly “must play a part in this”. The word “hope”, often used by Barack Obama, was prominent in the speech of the GA’s new president. Shadid stated that as a matter of fact, this moment in history calls for hope above all, to demonstrate to the global population that “we are aware of their plight…are listening…and are willing to work together to overcome problems”. We can find the courage to “push forward”, “vaccinate the world” and spur a greener, more inclusive, pandemic recovery.
This spirit of partnership, of uniting in a common cause, is “the beating heart of our work here at the United Nations”, Mr. Guterres told the opening session of the 76th General Assembly. Congratulating Mr. Shahid of the Maldives on his election, the UN chief outlined his longstanding diplomatic experience and noted that “coming from the Maldives, he brings a fresh perspective on the unique experience of small island states”.
Translated by Emma Pistarino