Maldives' Mohamed Nasheed with the Rt Hon Patricia ScotlandEx-President Nasheed and his team met Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland in April [picture: Mohamed Nasheed's Facebook site]

This Opinion by Kai Reddy & Uladzimir Dsenisevich is from the latest edition of The Round Table Journal: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 

The Maldives has been on the Commonwealth’s radar since the ousting of President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012. The oppressive political climate, with civil liberties being strictly curtailed and threats to the rule of law and democracy, has led to a global outcry. While the Commonwealth has certainly stepped in and exerted pressure on the Maldives government, it has stopped short of taking the firm decisive action needed to save democracy in the island country. Truly, the very survival of democracy is what is at stake in the Maldives today.

A string of international delegations and fact-finding missions to the country has visited the Maldives since 2012, including one from the Commonwealth. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta 2015, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the guardian of Commonwealth values made up of eight foreign ministers of Commonwealth states, placed Maldives on its formal agenda.

Three months after CHOGM, a three-member CMAG delegation visited the state with a view to engage with the Maldives in a ‘positive way’. Accompanied by Commonwealth Secretariat staff, the delegation’s findings were in contrast to what the government of Maldives would have you believe.

A close look at its outcome statement confirms the deteriorated situation in the archipelago. CMAG called for five reforms as a ‘matter of priority and urgency’. These included political dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition, release of detained political leaders, cessation of arbitrary use of legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, implementation of previous recommendations regarding independence of the judiciary and separation of powers, and the promotion of civil society space. The ‘reforms’ asked for point to a frontal assault on the country’s (nascent) democratic foundations. Yet, the statement does not contain consequences for inaction or refusal to act. Given continued disregard of core Commonwealth values by the Maldivian government, the time has come, and is fast diminishing, for the Commonwealth to take resolute and firm action against the Maldives.

Following the controversial state of emergency imposed by President Abdulla Yameen in November 2015, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) led an independent fact-finding mission composed of a diverse team of experts. The final report evaluates the Maldivian government’s compliance with Commonwealth values laid out in the Charter and the Latimer House Principles.

Prior to CMAG’s meeting on 24 February, CHRI circulated its fact-finding report to the members. Our recommendations included the necessity for ministers to keep a close watch on the country’s government. Should the Maldives continue to flaunt Commonwealth values such as democracy, rule of law and human rights, CMAG must seriously consider strong action, including suspension or expulsion.

The fact-finding team observed a clear slide to authoritarianism, generously peppered with illustrations of widespread police violence and intimidation, as well as a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, human rights, good governance and separation of powers. At the centre of it all was an omnipotent executive, spearheading the adoption of repressive laws and regulations that restrict fundamental constitutional rights and stifle dissent.

The judiciary has become increasingly politicised, partisan and tyrannical, with the Supreme Court playing a lead role. The highly publicised trials of prominent political figures, including former President Nasheed, are only the facade of the problem. On many other occasions the Supreme Court has overstepped its constitutional mandate by intervening in the electoral process, punishing constitutionally mandated institutions for independently doing their job, and punishing ‘disloyal’ lawyers.

This visible authoritarianism is compounded by the rise of radicalised non-state actors targeting those perceived to be secular, unorthodox or ‘un-Islamic’. The government has been unwilling to punish these perpetrators, tolerating them instead and efficiently threatening core democratic and Commonwealth values. Government policies are disenfranchising and in some cases jeopardising political opposition, endangering the functioning of human rights organisations, activists and journalists, and fast narrowing the space for free expression.

The Commonwealth taking the lead

It is clear that the Maldives is in direct violation of Commonwealth values. Constriction of civil society space stifles the breath of democracy and threatens the ability of a society and its governance institutions to function in a proper manner. These concerns are neither new nor unique—they have been expressed before by a range of civil society groups and international organisations.

Reverberating across the globe are strong, loud calls from the international community for assertive measures to be taken against the Maldives. The Commonwealth would benefit from leading this. The question is: what can be gained by taking action against a rogue country which threatens to quit the group at any hint of punitive action?

For the Commonwealth, gains are plenty. The Commonwealth has historically been an effective champion of human rights. It wielded power and influence, helping bring about the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, but in recent years its power has dissipated and become diluted. The Commonwealth must stand by and safeguard its values, especially when a state attempts to hold them to ransom.

The Commonwealth is a soft power, but a power nevertheless, and it must use its strengths to gain prominence. Three years after the Maldives was first placed on the agenda, there has been little progress, thus bringing us to the present state of affairs. If the Maldives continues to pay lip service to its obligations, one option remains for the Commonwealth: to suspend it until such time that the rule of law and democracy are visibly restored.

It is also vital for the Maldives to recognise the dangers of hypocrisy in touting Commonwealth values and then not observing them; it is imperative that the Commonwealth show its ability and determination to defend those values fearlessly. CMAG, of course, must exercise prudence and proceed in a manner that encourages the Maldives to cooperate with the Commonwealth. However, this cannot and must not be at the risk of being perceived as a toothless organisation.

CMAG and the Commonwealth must, as they have done in the past, continue to demonstrate that non-adherence to, and repeated violation of, Commonwealth values have consequences. Most importantly, the Commonwealth needs to demonstrate that it is a values-based organisation with an enviable reach across continents. It must prove that it walks the talk.