Maldives: New Arena

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Maldives: New Arena

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 Maldives 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?