The Maldives has announced its withdrawal from the Commonwealth in response to what it claimed was interference in its domestic politics and ‘punitive actions’ carried out against it by the international organisation.
The move by President Abdulla Yameen comes amid growing criticism of his government’s deteriorating human rights record and failure to meet democratic norms. There have also been allegations of high-level corruption. President Yameen denies all the allegations. The half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose autocratic 30-year rule only ended in 2008, Yameen took power in 2013 after Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, was ousted in what his supporters say was a coup.
The Commonwealth had been pressing the Maldives over its democratic governance and human rights for some years. In April, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) had highlighted six areas of concern: political dialogue, detention of opposition leaders, steps to promote freedom for civil society, the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, separation of powers and a politicised judiciary, and co-operation with international bodies trying to work with the Maldives. At its meeting on 23 September, CMAG had ‘expressed deep disappointment at the lack of progress’ and made it clear that suspension from the organisation was increasingly likely if the Maldives failed to address international concerns by March 2017.
However, in a statement issued by the Maldives foreign affairs ministry, the government suggested that the Commonwealth had failed to live up to the Maldives’ hopes that it would be a champion of small states and had, on the contrary, bullied the country to increase the Commonwealth’s ‘own relevance and leverage in international politics’.
The government claimed it had been forced into the ‘difficult but inevitable’ move because CMAG and the Commonwealth Secretariat had treated the Maldives ‘unjustly and unfairly’.
The foreign ministry’s statement said: ‘Regrettably, the Commonwealth has not recognised that progress and achievements that the Maldives accomplished in cultivating a culture of democracy in the country and in building and strengthening democratic institutions.’
It claimed that more than half the laws passed by the government had been ‘directly related to the core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter’ with the ‘overwhelming majority’ specifically to promote human rights, strengthen democratic governance, and reinforce the separation of powers. ‘These achievements have resulted in strengthening the rule of law and produced tangible outcomes in strengthening democratic institutions in the country.’
The statement issued by the Commonwealth Secretariat in response to the decision to leave the organisation did not address the Maldives’ accusations. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, said: ‘The Commonwealth family at large—its member governments and its peoples worldwide—will share my sadness and disappointment at this decision.
‘The Commonwealth Charter reflects the commitment of our member states to democracy and human rights, development and growth, and diversity. We will continue to champion these values and to support all member states, especially small and developing states, in upholding and advancing these practically for the enduring benefit of their citizens.
‘Therefore, we hope that this will be a temporary separation and that Maldives will feel able to return to the Commonwealth family and all that it represents in due course.’
Tensions had been rising for some time in the Maldives. In August, the New York Times reported allegations of corruption and sanctions-busting by Yameen. The following month, the Qatari-based news network Al-Jazeera broadcast a report detailing corruption claims against Yameen, alleging that the president’s ministers and aides had ‘plotted to launder up to $1.5bn through the south Asian nation’s central bank, with the help of secretive businessmen from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’ and ‘corruption and fraud within state-owned entities’.
In early September, police in the capital, Malé, raided the offices of the Maldivian Independent, a newspaper linked to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party. The editor of the Maldivian Independent, Zaheena Rasheed, had fled the country before the Al-Jazeera broadcast, as the government had made clear its attitude to dissent by making defamation a criminal offence (rather than just falling under civil law) only weeks earlier. She told the Guardian: ‘We’ve had one of our journalists disappear, a machete attack on our door, and our security cameras vandalised, so we’ve had to relocate once before. It’s not a safe place for journalists at all.’
As well as describing bags so full of cash to launder that they were ‘difficult to carry’, Al-Jazeera’s documentary alleged that the 13-year sentence handed down in absentia to the former president Mohamed Nasheed for ‘terrorism’ was decided personally by Yameen, that ‘senior judges have received money and luxury flats and meet regularly with the president and his deputy, who meddle in high-profile cases and judicial appointments’, and implicated the president in the disappearance of a well-known journalist.
Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives who is now the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, said the decision to leave the Commonwealth would backfire on Yameen. He told the New York Times: ‘He is getting deeper and deeper into isolation. He would think he’s insulating himself from Commonwealth criticism, but he will receive more and more.’
Amnesty International said: ‘The Maldives authorities should address their own human rights situation rather than lash out at legitimate criticism. Human rights have been in a complete freefall in the country over the past few years.’
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative suggested in an article for the Round Table earlier this month that the Maldives may have believed that it could ride out the criticism: ‘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.’
When that scenario appeared increasingly unlikely, Yameen clearly decided that it would be better for the Maldives to jump before it was pushed.