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Interview

Incoming UNGA chief says climate financing 'life or death' matter

Abdulla Shahid says UN committee to decide on which Afghan government to recognize

Maldives' Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid poses after an interview with Reuters in New Delhi in January 2020. (File photo by Reuters) 

TOKYO -- The incoming president of the United Nations General Assembly said that getting a positive result at November's COP26 international climate change conference was a matter of "life or death."

Abdulla Shahid, foreign minister of the Maldives, will begin his term presiding over the UN's main body just weeks before the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland -- a gathering that will be crucial to limiting the global temperature rise.

"It is of great importance that during COP26, the presidency of the United Nations is going to be held by a small-island developing state," Shahid told Nikkei Asia on Thursday. The Maldives is only the sixth such country to hold the presidency.

"For us, climate change is not a scientific phenomenon. It is an existential issue," he said. "Life or death depends on what we are able to reach through these processes."

Pressure on governments to set more ambitious targets has grown since U.S. President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement. The stakes were further raised this month after scientists with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of "rapid and intensifying" consequences of global warming.

Shahid, who was elected in June, will take over the reins of the 193-member body on September 14. He said he will convene a special U.N. meeting on climate, a last-minute push to raise nationally determined contributions to emissions reduction, as well as $100 billion for mitigation and adaptation efforts.

"The political commitment to be able to take the challenge of more ambitious NDCs is number one," he said. "We need to be able to make sure we come out of COP26 not once again at a stalemate," like at COP25 in Madrid two years ago.

Small island developing states like the Maldives depend on international financing to adapt to climate change, as they bear the worst of rising sea levels and severe weather on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Whatever we have budgeted for climate finance in our national budgets has gone to dealing with the pandemic," said Shahid. "We can't focus on one and sideline the other. And of that, the international community should be continuously reminded."

In his first address after winning the UNGA presidency, Shahid set a deadline of vaccinating the world's population by the end of 2022. To that end, he plans to convene heads of government for a special meeting in three weeks, when they converge in New York for the opening of the General Assembly session.

Several of the UN's wealthiest members, including the U.K., France, Germany, Israel and the U.S., have begun distributing COVID booster shots. Meanwhile, developing states still wait for initial supplies.

"Many of the donor countries have been active in making sure there is more access to the vaccine, but this has not been enough. What I'm seeking and what the people of the world require is the comfort that the countries who have will do more to give and provide vaccines to those who have not," Shahid said.

Climate and COVID aside, the situation in Afghanistan is another challenge for global bodies such as the UN.

Asked whether the UN would accept envoys from the Taliban in Afghanistan or the military junta in Myanmar, the incoming General Assembly president deferred to the UN's other bodies.

"In Afghanistan and in many other areas where there is a threat to international peace and security, it's the mandate of the Security Council," Shahid said.

The assembly's credentials committee will decide which government in Afghanistan or Myanmar to recognize, he added. "As the president of the general assembly, my prerogative is to facilitate these discussions and also implement the decisions."

Shahid has also set a goal of gender balance in the UN's vast bureaucracy. His track record at the Maldives foreign ministry, where there is a roughly equal number of male and female ambassadors and senior executives, is promising.

"I also promise that I, as president of the General Assembly, will not participate in any panel that is not gender balanced," he told Nikkei Asia.

But like many of his predecessors, he may find himself out of time or political will to reform the General Assembly and Security Council.

"Maldives was one of the first countries who requested Security Council reform way back in the 1970s. I must have been around 10 years old when this happened, and now I am the president of the General Assembly and the matter is still pending on the agenda," Shahid said.

His reform campaign secured the backing of India, which has long sought a permanent seat -- and veto power -- on the Security Council. With India's canvassing, Shahid won votes from 143 out of 193 member states, a landslide over Zalmai Rassoul of Afghanistan.

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