Monday, February 13, 2012

Small Island States Lose Powerful Voice

By highlighting their unusual plight, small island states have begun to shift the discussion of climate change mitigation from one of science and politics to ethics.  The atoll nations facing the specter of significant loss of territory due to sea level rise have symbolized the urgent need to ratify a binding and ambitious global agreement.  President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives - an archipelago of about 1,200 coral islands - was one of the most compelling voices speaking on behalf of the most vulnerable.

After several weeks of protests and clashes between defector police officers and the Maldivian army,  Nasheed, who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2008 and has since gained global attention for his activism on climate change, resigned last week.  As reported in BBC News, Nasheed stated he was forced to step down “at gunpoint” and insists that his predecessor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who won the country’s six previous presidential elections as the only candidate on the ballot, orchestrated the protests as part of a conspiratorial coup.

Since his resignation, Nasheed’s supporters from the Maldivian Democratic Party (“MDP”) have been rallying at the capital in Male calling for a snap election to determine the genuine wishes of the people.  The protests have, at times, erupted in violence and led to detainment.  Nasheed has rejected U.S. calls for compromise and expressed disappointment with India’s lack of engagement. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2013.

Nasheed was a journalist and political prisoner during Gayoom’s thirty-year autocracy.  As CNN reported, Nasheed was among Gayoom’s fiercest opponents and criticized Gayoom for “crushing dissent, amassing wealth, and stacking his administration with friends and relatives.”  Once in office, Nasheed pledged to complete the country’s transition to democracy and attracted worldwide attention for his campaign for action on climate change.  

The Maldives is situated 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) above sea level and faces threats from rising seas caused by climate change.  Its capital Male is already protected by sea walls - an impossible fix for all of the thousand plus islands of this Indian Ocean nation.

In one of his most creative attempts to call attention to impacts on small islands, Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight his cause in 2009.  It is not clear how his ouster will impact the future of his country, but to be sure the events of last week will cast a shadow worldwide.

 -Maxine Burkett

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