South Asia

Interview | 'Small Countries Need UN Charter's Protection': Maldives Foreign Min on Ukraine Vote

Abdulla Shahid tells 'The Wire' that 'when violations of the charter take place, small countries do not hesitate to stand up.'

New Delhi: Maldives foreign minister Abdulla Shahid said that the Indian Ocean nation’s consistent vote in favour of United Nations resolutions criticising Russia’s military action in Ukraine reflects the view among small countries that a functional international system based on the UN charter and principles shields them from geopolitical vagaries.

In South Asia, there has been a clear divide between larger and smaller countries on the Ukraine War. While India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have abstained on the UN resolutions, the Maldives, along with Nepal and Bhutan, have voted in favour. This position was also reflected in the latest resolution passed by the 193-member UN General Assembly to mark one year of the start of the Ukraine war.

In an interview to The Wire, Shahid, who was in New Delhi to attend the Raisina Dialogue, explained that for small countries, the UN charter and its principles were their main “protection” in navigating the international system.  

Along with the impact of the Ukraine war, he also answered questions about the return of Chinese tourists to the Maldives. He also talked about the upcoming presidential elections and the opposition’s ‘India out’ campaign, and whether former President Abdulla Yameen should be allowed to stand as the opposition’s candidate.

Shaheed, who served as President of the 76th UN General assembly between 2021 and 2022, also does not believe the Intergovernmental Negotiations process for Security Council reforms will see any progress.

Here is an edited excerpt of the interview.

How has the war impacted the Maldives?

When the war began, Maldives was receiving 4% of its tourist arrivals from Ukraine. Overnight, it stopped. And Russia contributed about 21% of our arrivals at that point in time. But it’s gone down to about 17%.

Any instability in Europe would have a direct impact on the tourism industry in the Maldives, The surge in fuel prices, the food crisis around the world, and the energy crisis. All this impacts us because we are dependent on the import of food and fuel.

So worldwide, any impact on the international economy has a direct impact on the Maldives. And when your economy is narrowly based, then the impact is felt much more harder. You recall that when the war started, fuel prices shot up about 200% with fluctuation in the price.

For small island countries, not only the Maldives, but for all small island developing countries, it has been almost unbearable, but we have been able to keep going ahead.

We were able to increase our tourist arrivals to pre-COVID pandemic levels in 2022. This is without the Chinese market, the drop in Russian and Ukrainian markets, and the instability in Europe. But still, any war anywhere is going to impact the tourism market, travel, and service industries.

There has been a lot of analysis that the Ukraine war has led to a fissure between the West and the Global South, exacerbated by economic hardships. But Maldives has consistently voted in favour of UNGA resolutions. Why is that?

Well, the numbers don’t add up because the last vote also had 141 in favour and the first vote also had 141 in favour.

When you look at the countries who have voted in favour of the resolution, these are mostly small countries. Because for small countries, all we have is principles. Security for small countries comes from the principles of the UN Charter and international law and international system, which is based on rules and order.

So when violations of the charter take place, small countries do not hesitate to stand up. We’re not saying this to any country. We are not saying it to Russia, or we are not favouring Ukraine or anyone else. We are not partnering with anyone. We’re just saying it for ourselves because small countries need that protection.

Maldives is one of the countries that initiated way back in 1989 the resolution on the security of small states, which was adopted by the General Assembly three times by consensus. And that is how it is. We want to make sure that we stick to the principle.

Has there been any outreach from Russia and China?

We talk with everyone because we have friends with everyone. But we are also ready to tell our friends that when the charter is violated, I mean, for us, we have nothing but the principles.

It was a matter of great pride for the Indian government that India became a top source of tourism for the Maldives. Now the Chinese market is back. Would it impact the dynamics of your relations with the two neighbours?

Not at all, not at all. We are open. We have been entertaining multiple nationalities. And tourism should be regarded as a way of connecting people. They come and meet each other and get to understand each other. So tourism and these service industries should not be regarded and should not be promoted as if you let ‘x’ nationality arrive, then ‘y’ nationality will not. It’s not an equation.

There has been a lot of academic discourse about outbound Chinese tourism being used as a diplomatic tool.

Well, for the Maldives, when China closed its borders, of course, no tourists were there. Since they opened their borders, Chinese tourists have started coming. They are most welcome.

This year, Maldives will have a presidential election. Do you think the ‘India Out’ campaign by the opposition will have an impact?

The so-called ‘India Out’ campaign is a hate-mongering policy of a party which has no solid principles and no policies to offer to the public. They haven’t come out with anything on economic or social issues. All they go on is shouting ‘India Out’. Just creating hatred. So it is the last call of a dying dictator.

Do you think former President Abdulla Yameen should be allowed to participate in the elections?

Not for me to comment because the Constitution will dictate who is able to contest.

If Yameen doesn’t contest, won’t it seem like a replication of what happened with the MDP when President Nasheed was not allowed to stand for election?

The one thing that you should appreciate about this administration is that we do not interfere in the judiciary. That has been clearly showcased by President Yameen’s previous case, in which the prosecutor general, who is under the constitution and independent institution, prosecuted an individual who had been accused of a crime. The lower court and the High Court found him guilty, and then the Supreme Court found him not guilty.

For the government, for our administration, that is the judicial process. We don’t intervene or interfere.

And, if the Supreme Court decision is something that we don’t agree (with), it is not for us to interfere in the Supreme Court and try to fix the trial. That has been very clearly seen in the previous case. The process is ongoing in the current case. So the courts will decide.

How does one look at the aftermath of the presidential primary within your party? Former President Mohamed Nasheed has not endorsed President Ibrahim Solih’s candidature. Isn’t that a problem for the party?

Well, this is a very early stage in the aftermath of the primary. It is sad that we are not yet coalescing behind the party-elected candidate, but I hope that things will change.

Last year, you were the president of the UN General Assembly. Can you give some insight on the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) that is the primary mechanism for discussing security council reforms? The context for asking about it today is because the Quad foreign ministers’ joint statement has new language that specifies more active engagement with the IGN process.

I am no more PGA [president of the General Assembly]. I can very clearly tell you the Maldives’ position. We back the G4 whereby we believe that India, Japan, Germany and Brazil should be given a seat at the Security Council.

Also, we firmly believe that Africa should be adequately represented because it has been an absolute injustice that, for the last 77 years, Africa as a continent has not been represented. All the other continents of the world are represented by permanent seats, and Africa has not. So the historical injustice needs to be rectified. The world is a very different place from 1945 today, and we need to relate to the current realities of the world if we want to be relative to the issues at hand.

Are you optimistic that the IGN process will work to bring about UNSC reforms?

So far, it has proved impossible. So if history is any indication, I’m not very optimistic. And if the question is why it is not happening – that’s because there are different groups who would not want the proceedings to go forward. A huge effort is required by many to reach a consensus. And I also believe that if we want to effectively maintain the integrity of the organisation, we should try and reach maximum consensus-building efforts.