[Maja Daruwala is the Director and Devyani Srivastava is the Senior Program Officer of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.]
Maldives is once again formally on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s agenda. The nine-member inter-ministerial body (CMAG) met on 23rd September 2016 and expressed “deep disappointment” at the deteriorating political situation in the Maldives.
What it means is this: The entire Commonwealth, a 53-nation body, disapproves of the meltdown of democracy in the Maldives and has put it on a watch list. CMAG, the Commonwealth watchdog, will monitor the Maldivian government and see if it mends its ways or persists in its disrespect of the Commonwealth’s core values. A suspension from the Commonwealth is in the offing.
As laid out in the 1991 Harare Declaration, these Commonwealth values include “democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government; [and] fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief.”
Two fact-finding missions from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an India-based international NGO, found the Maldives barely adheres to these values.
Currently Cyprus, Guyana, Kenya, India, Malta, Namibia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Solomon Islands are the CMAG. It has the power to bring a Commonwealth country in “serious or persistent violation of Commonwealth values” onto its formal agenda. This means the country will have to demonstrate improvement in its democratic credentials or face suspension from the Commonwealth. Suspension can take a limited form, where a country is removed from the Councils of the Commonwealth, or a full suspension.
A case for suspending the Maldives comes after long being patient with the island country playing fast and loose with Commonwealth values and its own democratic norms.
- After coming to power in November 2013 through dubious elections, President Abdulla Yameen has, through arbitrary legislative and administrative measures, diluted fundamental rights and subverted democratic institutions and processes.
- Swift convictions through deeply flawed trials of several opposition leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, points to a politicized judiciary.
- The parliament, dominated by the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), has been reduced to a rubber stamp. Cluster of recent laws either curtail or violate fundamental rights including freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association.
- Beyond systematically subverting institutional pillars of democracy, dissent has been stifled through a crackdown on protests, mysterious disappearances of journalists and an exodus from the archipelago of all but the most intrepid civil liberties advocates and political opponents.
- Added to this, is President Yameen’s failure of to take firm steps to address the spread of radical ideology. By the government’s own admission, at least 50 Maldivians have joined foreign conflicts. The opposition puts this figure more around 250. Yet, only opposition leaders have so far been charged and convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015. The openness with which Maldivians joining foreign conflicts have been allowed to propagate violent extremism on social media shows how much the current government is willing to countenance violent radicals.
The international community has tried to persuade Maldives to mend its ways but to no avail. The UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers, for instance, submitted detailed recommendations in 2013 for strengthening judicial independence but these have gone unheeded.
Taking note of the troubles in the island country, CMAG sent a three-member ministerial delegation to assess the situation in February 2016.
An out-of-turn meeting reviewed the mission’s findings and laid down six priority areas for urgent action by the government of Maldives. The then Secretary General further appointed a special envoy, Dr. Willy Mutunga, former Chief Justice of Kenya, to report on current concerns.
CMAGs deliberations, though not in the public domain, confirm failure of progress against the six given areas, finally pushing the body to put Maldives back on its formal agenda and threaten suspension if there is no improvement in the next six months. Concerns persist that despite strong evidence of brazen disregard in the past, the Maldives is now being allowed another six months till the next meeting to demonstrate progress on democracy and rule of law.
Given the Commonwealth is a toothless and largely invisible international organization, the Maldivian government may be tempted into thinking it has little to worry about, but it does.
With India and Pakistan both currently serving on CMAG, Maldives may be sanguine in the hope that current regional tensions, the usual North-South divide, India’s traditional protective stance and reluctance to interfere in affairs of sovereign states will play in its favour.
But the weight of its own intransigence set against Maldivian patronage of Chinese investment coupled with the need for the Commonwealth to assertively show it will defend its values or perish has worked to place it on a pathway to suspension.
Hopefully, CMAG putting the Maldives on notice will act as a warning shot for the country’s political executive, police and judiciary to turn away from repressive authoritarianism and towards allowing space for dissent, discussion and acceptance of democratic opposition.
[Opinions expressed in guest articles on this website do not reflect the editorial position of the Round Table.]