This piece is adapted from the keynote address delivered by Abdulla Shahid, foreign minister of Maldives and former president of the United Nations General Assembly (a position known as PGA). The speech was given at Ocean Nations: An Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue on September 18.

It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I would not have gone very far if I believed that it is one’s size that should determine the scale of one’s ambition. Rather, I have always believed that we should do all that we can to stand tall. [As PGA,] I always pointed out that while I might not be the tallest person one would encounter, wherever I speak, I make sure that I stand on a platform—a moral platform. The small island states get their rights and voices thrown out, because as small island states on the front lines of climate change, we have the moral high ground on everything that we say. Throughout this session, I’m ready to emphasize that while small island states contribute the least to carbon emission pollution and biodiversity loss, we are the first to bear the consequences—and the obligations in terms of climate actions.

Abdulla Shahid
Abdulla Shahid is the Maldives minister of foreign affairs and was president of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

We cannot deny that small island developing states are exceptionally vulnerable, but I don't believe that we are powerless. On the contrary, throughout my tenure as PGA, I made it a point to emphasize the momentous achievements that small island developing states have made, and are capable of making, especially when we work together.

A really powerful example would be the formation of the Alliance of Small Island States and what we have been able to achieve. In 1989, in Malé, Maldives, the government convened fourteen island states to come together for the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise. A declaration was passed at that conference to get the small island states to coordinate their positions here in New York for the Earth Summit in 1992. . . . By the time we reached New York, we increased our numbers to over twenty-five, and we were able to hold our first summit on the sidelines of the Earth Summit. When we worked together, we were able to come up with our own chapter in Agenda 21, and the term “small island developing states” was coined. Small island states were able to bring the entire debate of oceans into the climate agenda, because we collectively worked together.

While climate change is of profound importance to small island developing states, it is not the only agenda item on which we should have a say. Now, having been the president of the General Assembly, I [saw] in real time how the international agenda is expanding exponentially. I have been asked many, many times, and I’m quite aware of the shortcomings that the small island developing states have because of resource difficulties. But will the international agenda pause because small island states don’t have the resources to deal? Are we going to be sidelined to be only talking about climate change? Do we not have an interest in other issues—on human rights, on development, and other major issues? Yes, we do. When it comes to outer space, are small states going to be relegated [to the sidelines]? No, we will not. We cannot, because very soon we will find that we will be without a voice.

I would be remiss if I did not mention our common agenda report. . . . Our common agenda of the Secretary General came out of the declaration—the seventy-sixth anniversary declaration, whereby the heads of state of the world came together and said, “We have reached a point where we need to move on from the United Nations to the UN 2.0. How do we do it?” They mandated the secretary general to come up with a report.

When the secretary general published this report, they found that there was quite a diversion of views between the 193 member states, and bringing them together was one of the main challenges that I had. . . . As the PGA, [I moved] to follow up on this report.

I reminded them, “Look, ambassadors, we are going fishing.” In the Maldives, when we go fish, there’s one thing that we try to avoid: getting our lines entangled in the reef or the line that is next to you. We could spend the entire session on disagreement, but we [need to] try to catch fish.

I had three baskets, I told the ambassadors. One is where we would be able to get agreement to proceed immediately: ready-to-consume sushi. The second basket was to be filled with fish that could move, that would need a bit of processing. The third was discard. At the end of the fishing journey with the member states, I found that I had to throw out the third basket. There was nothing to be discarded out of the ninety-three proposals in the agenda. All we had to do was start processing and consuming. I’m very happy that . . . I was able to get the member states to pass the resolution on establishing a Youth Office by consensus and also agree on the modalities of the future summit by consensus.

These processes that we were able to reach by consensus gave me hope—hope that at difficult times you are still able to come together on major issues. That is why I was so encouraged that the presidency of hope that I tried to deliver at the United Nations was a success.

I’ve also been asked to reflect on my perspective on the future of small states in the Indo-Pacific region. As famously noted by the late prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, “The Indo-Pacific represents the confluence of two seas, a bridge in two of the world’s greatest oceans, the Indian and the Pacific.” This vast region accounts for more than 60 percent of the world’s population. Indeed, I believe that over half of that number is reached by combining the populations of India, China—and the Maldives, of course. It is host to multiple great pasts, myriad cultures and nationalities, and some of the world’s most vibrant and dynamic economies. This is why it has come to the forefront of today’s global geopolitics.

It also contains some of the world’s most important states and some of its most strategic waterways and sea lanes of communications, including through the Maldives. It’s big ocean states that are stewards of the ocean, and this is of profound importance to small island developing states. These paths cut through several waters in the exclusive economic zones. The peace and security of the Indian Ocean is dependent on the continued stability of small islands, including the Maldives. The mere truth is that the continued stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region is heavily influenced by the actions of small island states. As such, we have a responsibility and interest to take the lead in advancing safety, security, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. We must take the initiative to ensure that our waters are open to free navigation and commerce to preserve our vibrancy, to preserve our safety and security, and to build sustainable economies.

Toward this end, it is critical that we recommit ourselves to the values of multilateralism enshrined in the charter of the United Nations. Small island states know that it is not escalating arms risks or greater expenditure on military budgets that will bring us a lasting peace. Rather, we need to cooperate, take collective action, and maintain a rules-based international system order. We cannot succeed alone. We will need the assistance of the international community to secure our seas to combat illegal use of our marine resources—including illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—and to halt the proliferation of transnational crimes such as human trafficking.

I reiterate my firm commitment to always prioritize the values and interests of the small island developing states and to ensuring a brighter destiny for the Indo-Pacific region. I will continue to advocate for stronger climate action, greater multilevel cooperation, assistance to countries in vulnerable situations—ensuring that the Indo-Pacific region is characterized by peace, security, and prosperity. Rest assured that I will continue to advocate for these values and priorities as foreign minister of the Maldives, and I will always stand alongside with my colleagues from fellow island nations to protect and promote our interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

View the full event on YouTube or use the player below. Watch more panels from the event, view an interactive Indo-Pacific map, or read more about Carnegie’s Indian Ocean Initiative.