New Arena

A new democ­racy flexes its mus­cles in the Mal­dives, ad­dress­ing is­sues of hu­man rights and cli­mate change.

Southasia - - Region - By Shahzeb Na­jam

From a land that was vir­tu­ally terra incog­nita be­fore the 1970s to one of the most pop­u­lar spots on the global tourist map, the Mal­dives has come a long way from its hum­ble ori­gins. Though it is no longer the world’s source of cowries, it has com­pleted a tran­si­tion to democ­racy, it has emerged as one of the most prom­i­nent voices on cli­mate change and has been named as one of the seven most im­por­tant coun­tries on the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil (UNHCR). Such feats are im­pres­sive for Asia’s small­est coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of just 350,000 and an av­er­age land level of only 1.5 me­tres above sea level.

Not too long ago, Mal­dives was con­sid­ered “a hu­man rights pariah,” says Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs, Dr Ahmed Sha­heed. “To­day, our bid to se­cure a [UN Hu­man Rights] Coun­cil seat has won al­most univer­sal sup­port.” And he is right. The Mal­dives re­ceived the high­est num­ber of votes ever won by any state, gain­ing an im­pres­sive 185 votes from the 192 mem­ber states.

This may be the first time the is­land na­tion is on a ma­jor UN body, but that hasn’t stopped it from mak­ing its stance clear on a num­ber of con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. Along with the Euro­pean Union (EU), the United States (US) and the Arab League, the tiny coun­try has con­demned the “vi­o­la­tions [by Syria] that amount to crimes against hu­man­ity.” For­eign Min­is­ter Ahmed Nassem firmly de­clared that “the time for prom­ises is over — it is now time for ac­tion.”

In­ter­est­ingly, while it sup­ports the pres­sure on Syria, the Mal­dives has re­mained silent amidst ris­ing de­mand for an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions com­mit­ted by neigh­bor­ing Sri Lanka at the end of its bru­tal civil war.

The Mal­dives is the first coun­try in the world that has pledged to be­come car­bon-neu­tral by 2020. It is the first in the world to es­tab­lish a na­tional trust fund to pay for evac­u­a­tion to a new home­land. It has also be­gun to flex its mus­cles in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums, in an at­tempt to cre­ate some sort of con­sen­sus on cli­mate change.

The Mal­dives led a group of 80 mem­ber states (from all regions) which adopted the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 7/23 that for the first time in an of­fi­cial UN res­o­lu­tion linked global warm­ing to an in­fringe­ment of hu­man rights. It es­tab­lished the Cli­mate Vul­ner­a­ble Forum - a group of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries, ded­i­cated to tak­ing moral lead in com­bat­ing

cli­mate change. The tiny coun­try was also cru­cial in help­ing to for­mu­late a South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion (SAARC) Dec­la­ra­tion on Cli­mate Change in Delhi, In­dia which stated that cli­mate change im­pacts the right to de­vel­op­ment.

The con­sul­ta­tive ap­proach taken dur­ing the lead up to the final draft of the UNHCR res­o­lu­tion was com­mended by SAARC com­pa­tri­ots, Pak­istan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, show­ing that the Mal­dives be­lieves in an in­clu­sive, con­sen­sus-fos­ter­ing ap­proach. It seems to have learnt much from the failed Inuit pe­ti­tion of 2005, which en­deav­oured to ob­tain manda­tory mea­sures against green­house emis­sions of the US, pre­fer­ring a more non-con­fronta­tional and, ul­ti­mately, more suc­cess­ful process. In­stead of at­tempt­ing to al­ter the cli­mate change poli­cies of a par­tic­u­lar state, the Mal- dives has tried to in­flu­ence the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion of a new cli­mate agree­ment.

Global warm­ing rep­re­sents an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the is­land state. New stud­ies in­di­cate that sea lev­els will rise be­tween 0.5 and 1 me­tre by 2100 (Econ­o­mist, March 14, 2009). A rise of just un­der 0.5 me­tres would in­un­date 15% of Male, the cap­i­tal and home to a third of the pop­u­la­tion. Four in ten peo­ple live within 100 me­tres of the ocean. Ris­ing wa­ters would con­tam­i­nate the Mal­dives’ limited fresh­wa­ter re­serves, ren­der its land un­suit­able for agri­cul­ture and erode the beaches that tourists flock to; an at­trac­tion that the en­tire econ­omy de­pends on. Even­tu­ally, in­creased flood­ing would make the is­lands in­hos­pitable, even be­fore the tem­pes­tu­ous seas in­un­date them com­pletely (Har­vard En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Re­view, Vol. 33).

Mean­while, the coun­try pre­pares for the worst. “For the sake of the Mal­dives and the rest of the world,” said the newly elected Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Nasheed in 2008, on es­tab­lish­ing a sov­er­eign wealth fund in the event of re­lo­ca­tion, “I hope this fund never needs to be used for its ul­ti­mate pur­pose. If we are un­able to save a coun­try like the Mal­dives, it may be too late to save the rest of the world from the apoc­a­lyp­tic ef­fects of self-re­in­forc­ing, run­away global warm­ing.” Though wise words in dif­fi­cult times, how long can the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity af­ford to spurn this Mal­di­vian Cas­san­dra?

Mal­di­vian cab­i­net min­is­ters dive un­der­wa­ter to high­light cli­mate change.

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