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Exclusive interview with Shahid, UN General Assembly president

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
UNGA President Abdulla Shahid provides an exclusive interview to The Phnom Penh Post on August 22. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Exclusive interview with Shahid, UN General Assembly president

At the centre of the existing multilateral order is the UN and the international organisation’s main policy-making organ, the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

UNGA president and Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid was in Cambodia on an official visit from August 21-22 during which he commended the Kingdom for successfully chairing ASEAN this year and for sending peacekeeping forces under the UN umbrella to a range of countries.

Shahid sat down with The Post’s Niem Chheng for an exclusive interview before leaving the country.

I am positive that you knew Cambodia quite well before your visit, our history, legacy, the war, until the peace and stability we have today. As a citizen of the world, what is your first impression when you arrived and how do you review this bittersweet journey that Cambodia’s been through?

Over the two decades before the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodia underwent a significant transition, reaching lower middle-income status in 2015 and expressing the aspiration of attaining upper middle-income status by 2030.

Driven by garment exports and tourism, Cambodia’s economy sustained an average annual growth rate of 7.7 per cent between 1998 and 2019, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

In 2020, however, the crisis unleashed by Covid-19 negatively affected three main sectors of Cambodia’s economy, – tourism, manufacturing exports and construction – which contributed more than 70 per cent of the country’s economic growth and provided 39 per cent of its total paid employment in 2019.

About 94 per cent of the population have received two doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

Amid eased mobility restrictions, economic recovery is underpinned by a strong rebound in manufacturing, especially the garment, travel goods, footwear, and bicycle industries, and agriculture.

Cambodia has made considerable strides in improving health outcomes, early childhood development, and primary education in rural areas.

Going forward, further diversification of the economy is required for fostering entrepreneurship, expanding the use of technology, and building new skills to address emerging labour market needs.

Cambodia, as the Chair of ASEAN this year, has just concluded the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meetings (AMM). I believed you must have followed the meeting closely and reckoned that Cambodia had taken this responsibility seriously. Amid the chaos: The crisis in Myanmar, the War in Ukraine, not to mention the issue in Taiwan Strait. Yet, Cambodia as the Chair of the 55th AMM had managed to issue several statements, including a joint communique. What is your impression of this accomplishment? And what is your expectation for the upcoming ASEAN Summit in November this year?

I have been closely following Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN. I am glad to note that the joint communique issued after the 55th AMM held in Phnom Penh under the chairmanship of Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn has vowed to strengthen ASEAN centrality and credibility for the sake of peace, stability and prosperity in the region and in the world.

The Joint Communique reaffirms the importance of multilateralism, regionalism, international cooperation, and the need to promote sustainable development. The ministers also reaffirmed their shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.

On the economic front, the communique reiterated its commitment to keeping the bloc’s markets open for trade and investment, and to refrain from non-tariff measures.

As far as Myanmar is concerned, the foreign ministers in the joint communique have expressed their disappointment with the limited progress and lack of commitment of the Naypyidaw authorities to the timely implement the Five-Point Consensus. They also expressed their concerns over the prolonged political crisis in the country including the execution of the four political activists last month.

As far as the ASEAN Summit in November is concerned, I understand that the preparations are fully underway, and I am confident that it will be a very successful Summit under the Chairmanship of Cambodia.

Excellency, aside from being the Chair of ASEAN this year, Cambodia has significantly contributed to the UN peacekeeping mission. Since 2006, Cambodia has sent more than 8,000 troops to serve in various UN peacekeeping missions across the globe, and a number of them have made the ultimate sacrifice during their mission to protect the innocent.In parallel, Cambodia is the first country to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to station and monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia. Unfortunately, in return, Cambodia is still targeted with criticism from the UN and various western countries including sanctions. Is there any remedy for that?

When we speak of Cambodia and UN peacekeeping, it’s interesting to note that in 1993 Cambodia received peacekeeping troops as part of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), but today Cambodia contributes peacekeepers to UN peacekeeping missions. This is a reflection of how far Cambodia has come.

Whether it is South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Lebanon or Abyei, Cambodian peacekeepers are well received for their professionalism and sacrifice.

I gather that the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn will conduct his first in-person official visit to Cambodia from August 15-26 on the invitation of the government.

Since the visit is happening at the invitation of the Cambodian government, this is a reflection of the confidence of the Cambodian government in its systems and policies that ensure the protection of human rights of its citizens.

The Special Rapporteur will meet with national and local government officials, international and local civil society representatives, and other relevant representatives during his visit.

He will assess the situation of human rights in the country and the government’s efforts towards creating an enabling environment for the enjoyment of all human rights including political and civil rights and economic, social and cultural rights following the Covid-19 pandemic.

In term of social-cultural experience in Cambodia, what would you bring back to the UN?

Over nearly two millennia, the Cambodians have developed a unique Khmer culture which is a melting pot of indigenous beliefs with those of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Cambodia’s unparalleled achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance have had a great influence on many neighbouring countries including Thailand and Laos.

The epitome of Khmer art and architecture is reflected in the Angkor Wat temple, which I had the privilege to visit.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid visits Angkor Wat temple on August 21. UN in Cambodia

I have not seen any construction that is so vast and rich in its conception and execution.

As far as Cambodian cuisine is concerned, I look forward to sampling the delicacies during my stay. I have been told to sample the famous Kampot Pepper Crab.

I am also told that two days is not enough to experience the rich tapestry of Cambodian culture. I look forward to visiting beautiful Cambodia again with my family.

For this last question, Excellency, through The Phnom Penh Post, what would be your wishes for Cambodian people?

I would wish the people and the Government of Cambodia all success in their journey to meet the Agenda 2030 targets. This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity. We just have eight more years left.

All countries including Cambodia will need to act in a collaborative partnership to implement this plan. If we are to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want to heal and secure our planet, we need to take bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.

I am hopeful that Cambodia will make this happen.

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