“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… 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.”
- Abdulla Shahid, Foreign Minister of Republic of Maldives
The above observation of Abdulla Shahid reinforces that Maldives is on its voyage to increase its active participation in international law. Initially, Maldives foreign policy projected the framework of a third world country and favored principles of non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and declaration of Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace and Independent of colonial countries. Currently, the foreign policy of Maldives focuses on the principles of Sovereign Equality, rule-based international law system, non-interference in internal affairs and supremacy of diplomacy in resolving global problems. As of 2022, Maldives is a member of 63 international organisations including founding member of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and is party to more than 200 bilateral and multilateral treaties.
Despite its active participation in international organisations and voicing the cause of several small island developing states, Maldives is rarely discussed, if at all, in South Asian literature on international law, or in international legal literature about South Asian affairs. In this context, this Symposium is a new beginning about an old participant of international trade in the region. From giving a short glimpse about the contribution of Maldives in world economy through cowries, the ambition is that this Symposium exposes readers to Maldivian approaches to foreign investment and arbitration law, issues that remain within the system, and the possibility for improvement and reform.
But this is not the end!
As a future research agenda, we are hopeful that scholars and academics interested in the South Asian historiography of international law will choose Maldives as a case study. A country that began its international trade with Arabs in 9th century, also became a county of interest for Dutch East India Company and British East India Company. Maldives is excessively dependent on international trade which also compelled Maldivian diplomats to focus on commercial diplomacy. Although, Maldives fulfils all the essentials of Montevideo Convention, its existence largely benefits from capitalism in the global order, viz. international trade, liberal economic policies, etc.
Though climate change is an existential issue for Maldives, its interlinked challenges of food security and sustainable life are critical issues Maldives contends with on a daily basis. Against this backdrop, it would be incorrect to suggest that Maldives has free choices like other countries, i.e., environment or development. In fact, development in the form of land reclamation is as important as the environment for Maldives.
Today, international law does not provide any substantive protection to countries who are victim of sea level rise. Thus, countries like Maldives must resort other means to exist. A reference can also be made to Maldives submission to United Nations office of legal affairs on sea level rise in relation to international law. Two quick observations can be made from Maldives position on sea level rise; (a) once a State has determined the extent of its maritime entitlements in accordance with UNCLOS, these entitlements are fixed and will not be altered by any subsequent physical changes to a States’ geography as a result of sea-level rise, and (b) the Maldives considers that sea-level rise does not have any effect on maritime boundaries between two States when they have been fixed by a treaty. Maritime boundary treaties are binding under the rule of pacta sunt servanda, and sea-level rise does not constitute a fundamental change of circumstances that would allow termination or suspension of such treaties. However, this submission is silent on the question of changes in baseline due to land reclamation.
There is work to be done in re-centering and repositioning Maldives within our general understanding of international law. We are grateful for readers’ engagement and to the CILJ Blog Team, and look forward to taking this conversation forward.
Mohd. Imran is Lecturer, Faculty of Shariah and Law, Villa College, Maldives.