As we see in the stories carried daily in this newspaper, Maldives is deep into the difficult business of building a strong and democratic society. There is often an understandable impatience about the time it takes to see the fruits of democracy, but when you compare to other countries that have had to do the same thing, you realise that the Maldives is trying to achieve in a few years what others have taken decades or centuries to do.
This is possible, but the key to success continues to be mobilising everybody around issues that are in the national interest. This is particularly true in the area of justice, which is the foundation of all democratic societies and the development of any nation. Developing a strong and independent justice system needs a concerted effort from all three branches of government, and civil society.
Change in the Maldives has brought its own anxieties, and society is particularly concerned about increasing levels of crime. This lends new impetus to the reform of the Criminal Justice System.
A reliable and operational criminal justice delivery system is needed to sustain democracy and the rule of law, strengthen new democratic institutions, and protect security, economic development and foreign investment, based on the firmest of foundations of justice and human rights. Establishing a robust criminal justice system is a very complex, long and difficult exercise, requiring work across many areas.
A vital step, however, is ensuring that the legislative foundation is put in place as soon as possible. Of priority, therefore, is enactment of criminal reform legislation, particularly the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), Evidence Bill, and the Juvenile Justice Bill.
A solid and modern Penal Code gives consistency to legal systems and makes criminal law more understandable and transparent to people. The Penal Code defines the general principles of criminal responsibility, classifying crimes and their penalties. If there is a proper Penal Code, it is much less necessary to draft legislation defining every crime or procedure. The Criminal Procedure Code will define procedures in criminal matters, which then provide transparency and accountability.
Another important piece of legislation is the Juvenile Justice Bill. Statistics on crime demonstrate that children under 18 and youth are involved in a lot of the cases of violent crimes. However, currently there are no strategic crime prevention programmes or rehabilitation programmes specifically targeting juvenile offenders.
In addition, there is no detention facility that caters for juvenile offenders, and there are no separate spaces for juvenile offenders to be incarcerated. In light of the emerging challenges and the increase in juvenile crime, the current law does not adequately cover rights of children or address the need for proper treatment of children in conflict with the law to rehabilitate them back in to society.
Until August 2008, Maldives’ criminal justice depended heavily on confessions. However with Constitutional reform, we are moving from a confession based to an evidence-based system, which is in line with international standards. It is therefore vital that we have an Evidence legislation that is in line with the new Constitutional reform and best practice.
Strong and functioning criminal justice systems certainly depend on a solid foundation of law, and effective courts, police, prosecutors, prisons and other institutions and actors. But it is equally important that public confidence in the system is high – to know that criminal conduct will be investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the rule of law, that the streets will be safe, that rehabilitation of offenders is possible, that human rights will be protected. Public confidence is served by knowledge and certainty. This demands the process of investigation and prosecution to be independent of political pressure, that it is transparent and follows a process that is fair and just.
We have already seen this year that pressure to ‘do something’ about crime, combined with a lack of the legal and institutional foundations discussed in this Opinion Editorial, can lead to a tendency to find reactive short-term solutions to complex problems, and even violate human rights.
The Maldives, instead, needs a proper criminal legislative framework as a matter of urgency. A real opportunity is now before the Majlis, supported by the justice system and the Government, to deliver a unanimous and thorough response to crime. It is possible to pass these key pieces of legislation in this session of the Majlis.
Technical support is available, if it is needed, from the UN and others, but above all, it is now a matter of political will to take this important step, in the national interest, to finalise and pass these key legislations. I urge MPs of all parties to pass these Bills as a matter of priority, resolve areas of disagreement constructively, and present the Bills to the Majlis for passage.
Andrew Cox is the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System in the Maldives.
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