Thank you, Walter, for that kind introduction and let me extend a warm welcome to my good friend Foreign Minister Naseem, as well as to Ambassador Schaffer, Professor Cohen, and all of you.
It is great to be back here at my alma mater, SAIS. I want to thank Walter and his colleagues for arranging this important event. We are privileged to have with us Foreign Minister Naseem who has had a very busy and productive schedule in New York and Washington D.C. this week. I’m pleased he is able to take some time out and speak here today about the Maldivian democratic transformation.
I know you all came to hear Minister Naseem, so I’ll only take a few minutes. I’d like to highlight the close and very productive relationship between the United States and Maldives and emphasize our appreciation for Maldives’ outstanding leadership on some of the great challenges of our time.
The United States has been pleased to be a close partner with Maldives for many years in helping to forge democracy. We were strong and active advocates for the process first of drafting a new constitution that then paved the way for the nation’s first multi-party elections in October 2008 that ended nearly thirty years of single party rule.
As in any democracy, there were many challenges to ensuring a democratic process. I recall intervening many times with former President Gayoum’s government to ensure, for example, that the opposition would have equal access to the media, to arrange for international observers, and to ensure that ballots would be counted in a transparent manner.
As you all know, President Nasheed won those elections, and former President Gayoum to his credit, acknowledged the results and stepped down, allowing for a peaceful democratic transition.
That democratic spirit has endured and grown – in February this year Maldivians voted in vigorously, but peacefully and fairly, contested local council elections. True, there have been partisan debates and protests between the governing party and the opposition, but these are normal growing pains in a young democracy.
We appreciate the great effort the President and his key advisors, such as Minister Naseem, are making to implement necessary reforms in the face of considerable challenges, such as high levels of youth unemployment, drug addiction, and a significant fiscal deficit. Through educational exchanges, natural resource management programs, and maritime security cooperation, to name just a few, the United States is pleased to partner with Maldives in key areas.
We look forward to continuing cooperative efforts to address the great challenges of our time -- from mitigating the effects of global climate change, to combating piracy, to countering the rise of extremist ideologies. Maldives has proven itself to be an able partner in these efforts, and, despite its small size, has great potential to serve as a model of a democratic and tolerant Muslim society that can have enormous influence on the thinking of countries around the world.
As much work as the Government of Maldives has to do at home, it has not turned its back on critical international issues. Under the leadership of President Nasheed and Foreign Minister Naseem, Maldives has taken principled stands in the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on Sudan and Syria.
The Maldives stepped forward to co-sponsor recent resolutions to remove Libya from the Human Rights Council and to create a special rapporteur for human rights in Iran—a position now held by my friend and Minister Naseem’s predecessor, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed. President Nasheed has also become an international advocate on climate change, highlighting the impact on island nations, and also challenging his own country to attain carbon neutrality. People still talk about the indelible image of the President presiding over a Cabinet meeting under water.
Maldives has not shied from leadership in the region, either. Maldives currently holds the Chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and is actively seeking ways to make the organization more robust. At last year’s Summit in Thimphu, President Nasheed challenged his neighbors to work together to make SAARC more productive for the people of South Asia. As a SAARC observer, we hope to work closely with the new Secretary General – also a Maldivian – to strengthen SAARC’s ability to integrate the region, which would enhance prosperity and peace in South Asia.
Considering the U.S. –Maldives partnership and the ground we have covered together, I am reminded of President Obama’s challenge to the international community at last year’s UN General Assembly to “strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world.” There is no caveat here for small countries or young democracies. Maldives has proven that courage and strong leadership are the necessary factors. That’s why Secretary Clinton was so pleased to welcome Minister Naseem to Washington and to spend time with him. Let me conclude by reaffirming that the United States is committed to deepening our cooperation with Maldives and pleased to be a friend and partner of the Maldives. Thank you.