'Stronger, Greener and Bluer': UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid on Recovering Sustainably from COVID-19
UN in Indonesia spoke to the President of the 76th Session of the UNGA during his visit to Indonesia on the power of hope.
Mr. Abdulla Shahid is the President of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Prior to joining the UN, Mr. Shahid was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives. During his visit to the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR) in Bali in May 2022, we spoke to Mr. Shahid on a wide range of issues: from the power of hope amidst global challenges, his message at the GPDRR, youth and gender equality, and what leaving no one behind means to him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UN in Indonesia: Your campaign for the President of the General Assembly is called "Presidency of Hope". Given the inequalities exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, looming threats of climate change and food security, and conflicts around the world, what are your goals in this presidency and how do you spark hope at such a pivotal time?
Abdulla Shahid: The goal is to deliver for people, planet and prosperity – how do we do that? By focusing on first, recovering from COVID19. This means access to medical resources, universal access to vaccines, because no one is safe until everyone is safe. This also means recovering from the economic downturn.
The second priority is rebuilding sustainably, because we need to of course rebuild our economies and livelihoods, but also do so in a more sustainable manner, one that is stronger, greener and bluer. That looks at the 2030 Agenda as the framework.
Third, we need to look at the environment – the climate crisis, the pollution and loss of biodiversity, the degradation of our ocean and seas.
Fourth, ensure that people are at the centre of all our efforts, that the rights of all are realized. In order to do all this, we need multilateralism and a UN at the heart of it. A reformed, revitalized UN, that can address the needs of the people and the planet, effectively and efficiently.
How do we generate hope? By showing that there is a will, that there is a way. My goal, in every event I hold has been to highlight initiatives and partnerships that are making a difference. That are making changes possible. The goal is to highlight that there are resources, technology, and innovation, available. That we need the political will to make it happen.
UN in Indonesia: As someone from the Maldives, you witness firsthand how climate change poses severe risks to local communities and livelihoods. Now that you're in Indonesia, another island country with its unique challenges and risks. What is your message to the world leaders and experts here in the UN GPDRR do to support the vulnerable communities at risk of disasters?
Abdulla Shahid: Climate change is not something distant in the future. It is happening now. The impacts are being felt now. Lives and livelihoods are being impacted now. The weather is getting more extreme, more unpredictable. We need to start preparing ourselves right away.
The Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, or the GPDRR, brings together Governments, peoples, and ideas. Here, we can see the possibilities, share ideas and challenges and best practices to overcome them. Let us use this opportunity to build partnerships across countries and within countries.
UN in Indonesia: Like us here at the UN in Indonesia, you also support the #NoManel pledge, where you commit to not sit in any panel that is not gender balanced. What other gender initiatives do you have in your presidency?
Abdulla Shahid: My Presidency is based on five pillars or priorities. Each of my priority areas, my rays of Hope, can be seen through a gender lens. Be that recovering and rebuilding sustainably from the pandemic, responding to the planet, respecting the rights of all or revitalizing the United Nations. This is what I have instructed my team to do.
Over the past seven months of my Presidency, I am proud of the work we have accomplished to advance gender equality. I have endeavored to ensure that my Office is gender balanced. Rather, it would be apt to say that the Office has more women than men. I appointed a Special Adviser on Gender Equality – Ambassador Darja Bavdaz Kuret – to ensure that the women empowerment and gender equality dimension is mainstreamed through my Five Rays of Hope, mandated events and initiatives.
The Board of Advisors on Gender Equality has been upgraded and reconstituted to ensure synergies between the Member States, the UN Secretariat, the human rights pillar of the UN System including of course UN-Women, civil society and the private sector. This advisory board is my sounding board for ideas, and I am guided by their advice and suggestions.
Of the eight young Fellows who have joined my Youth Fellowship Programme, five are women diplomats.
And with the help of the UN Secretariat, we expanded and upgraded the lactation rooms at UNHQ New York. A brand-new room located behind the General Assembly Hall was inaugurated last week to ensure that all delegates, including those visiting during high-level week, will no longer require to leave the premises to feed their babies.
In addition, this March, I held an informal dialogue with women experts across the six committees of the United Nations on what can be done to empower women in diplomacy. To achieve gender parity comprehensively, we must do more to remove barriers, and empower women in all professional fields, including diplomacy. It is also critical to address the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls in Southeast Asia and worldwide, such as higher rates of gender-based violence, higher rates of unemployment amongst women and youth, school disruptions leading to dropouts, and teenage pregnancy and early marriage.
Beyond diplomacy, political representation is another area where we need more women. In March this year, I held a Special Event on Ending Violence Against Women in Politics. Ministers and M.P.s present recognized that violence is the most determinantal issue to women's equal participation in politics and that eradicating is critical to ensure that women have equal and safe space to participate meaningfully in politics.
What I have learnt through my discussions with female leaders, diplomats, scientists, and civil society across the countries I have visited, is that challenges, regardless of country or field, are the same. What I have also learnt is the importance of listening to women, and have you, women guide the discussions on how we can improve our work environments, and our societies to make them more inclusive.
UN in Indonesia: One of the programs in your presidency is called the President of the General Assembly Youth Fellowship Programme, where you offer young diplomats from under-represented countries an opportunity to work in your office. As a diplomat with an illustrious career, have you seen more young people participating in decision-making? How do you intend to bring more young people to a critical forum like the General Assembly?
Abdulla Shahid: Over the course of my career, I have seen repeatedly, bright young people who are passionate, driven, and committed. Young people’s role has certainly increased over the years. For example, in my country of Maldives, more and more young people are becoming active in politics. In my Ministry, I see young people rising to the top of the administration.
But we must do more to facilitate more opportunities. Especially at decision-making level, where young people’s perspectives need to be heard and respected. This is much needed at the national level, but more so at the international level as well.
“We must do more to facilitate more opportunities. Especially at decision-making level, where young people’s perspectives need to be heard and respected. This is much needed at the national level, but more so at the international level as well.”
One of the things I have done is what you just mentioned: the Fellowship. More and more young people are becoming increasingly disillusioned. And why would they not? The world is a bleak place and we face many challenges. But we have to rebuild faith in multilateralism. And the HOPE Fellowship was constituted for that. To build interest in multilateralism, to offer opportunities for young people from underrepresented countries who would have not usually been able to come, the opportunity to come to the UN, and experience how things are run.
Additionally, I make it a point to speak to young people when I travel and in New York – to learn their views, to hear their concerns. And I bring them back to the UN. I do my best to include young people in the meetings I hold and the events that I plan.
UN in Indonesia: In your words, what does "leaving no one behind" mean to you?
Abdulla Shahid: It is an often used phrase since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. For me, it means no one, in no country, in no community is left behind in our quest for development and prosperity.
That every country – small or big, developed or underdeveloped – is heard. And included. This is why I advocate for targeted interventions for least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), because we shouldn’t leave them behind in our quest to get ahead
It means that often marginalized people – women, young people and children, aged – are included. This is why I advocate for gender equality, for equal opportunities, for young people’s voices to be included in decision making.
Leaving no one behind is not just words or something nice to say. We should adopt it as our guiding principle.