Hugo Swire is Minister of State for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Swire was previously Minister of State in the Northern Ireland office 2010-2012, before moving to the FCO with responsibility for Latin America, Cuba, Australasia, Commonwealth countries and now Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
JJ Robinson: Following the recent election are there any concerns about a potential authoritarian reversal in the Maldives, given that many of the same cabinet have been reappointed, including senior figures during Gayoom’s regime, and that the new Foreign Minister is the daughter of the former 30 year autocrat?
Hugo Swire: They’ve only made five appointments so it’s early days. In a small community you have the political class is a small pool to choose from, so you would expect to continuity to some extent.
Regarding the new government, we’ve issued our congratulations. It’s clear how we felt about the delayed elections – we felt that was wrong and we made our views very clear. But at the end of the day what we wanted were clear, transparent and fair elections. I’ve spoken to a number of people and election observers, and they say unanimously these elections may have been delayed, but they were transparent and fair.
It’s not for us to tell a sovereign government how to put together their cabinet. I had lunch with the new foreign minister and I find her very agreeable and very positive, and I’m sure she’s someone we will work together with very closely. I also met the acting Foreign Secretary; we are getting to know them and talked about areas of mutual concern. A good start – I’m the first minister to be in the Maldives following the recent general election, and I’m proud the UK was here first.
JJ: Some observers, while praising the conduct of the polls, have also privately questioned their fairness given the high level of Supreme Court involvement in deciding when they went ahead, the veto that was exercised over the polls on multiple occasions by candidates due to the Supreme Court’s judgement, obstruction on one occasion by the police, and finally the delay by a week which saw the winning coalition negotiation reached. Given that the polls were credible, to what extent to you consider them to have been fair?
HS: At the end of the day we saw a very high turnout – one which many countries such as the UK would be very proud to achieve, which shows that this is a maturing democracy where people engaged in the system. They’ve come up with a solution, there have been no complaints to us or the international community about the transparency or fairness of the elections, and there were a huge number of observers here.
We thought the elections should not have been delayed and we made our position very clear as I’ve said. At the end of the day I like to look forward, and we’re got these local council elections that have just been announced today that are now going to be in January, and also the Majlis elections in May.
Of course I think there are some issues with the Supreme Court’s decision requiring every candidate to sign every bit of paper, and I think that becomes very difficult with local council elections. There are issues like that which should probably be looked at
The Elections Commission has its work cut out for in over the next six months. They did a great job, incidentally.
JJ: You yourself speaking recently in the UK parliament on this topic referred to the conduct of the Supreme Court, in particular the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s statement on the behaviour of the Supreme Court and the judiciary.
What is the prospect now for judicial reform in the Maldives? Is there a need for that reform, and lastly how do you think the international community would react if, for example, the Nasheed trial was now reopened?
HS: In terms of judicial reform there is an issue with the training of judges here, of which there are about 170 around the country. Then you have the Supreme Court itself, and I know this has been an issue during the elections as to the power of the Supreme Court versus Parliament. This is something I’ve discussed with parliamentarians and others, and something that clearly needs to be resolved. I think the Commonwealth, and the UK independently, are in a good position to bring some of our expertise if asked to do so.
But at the end of the day you are dealing with a sovereign country so we’re not going to insist on anything.
In terms of your remarks about Nasheed, we’ve made it very clear that we think this is a government that has a mandate to govern in coalition and should be a government that reaches out to all. After all, an awful lot of people voted for Nasheed, and if they want to have a harmonious government going forward in the spirit they all signed up to in their speeches over the last 24 hours, we think it would be most unwise to start dividing society again by pursuing any kind of retribution or recrimination as a result of these elections. So we’re pretty clear on that front.
JJ: You mention the Commonwealth’s engagement. When the Maldives was placed on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)’s agenda (it has since been taken off), the outgoing President Mohamed Waheed declared this was something “of no concern”. Former President Gayoom has also publicly called for the Maldives to leave the Commonwealth. Do you think this is something that would damage the Maldives, or do you think the Maldives should make up its mind as to whether [being in the Commonwealth] is in its sovereign interest?
HS: I think both. I think it is absolutely the up to the Maldives to make up its mind on the subject, after all it is as you say a sovereign government and the Commonwealth is a coalition of the willing, a club of like-minded people who share common approaches and ideals; it’s not a compulsory club. But is it in the Maldives’ best interests to be in the Commonwealth? Most certainly it is.
The Commonwealth stretches across the world, it is 53 countries, trade is anything up to 50 percent cheaper to conduct inside the Commonwealth. It is a good family of nations and we’ve all signed up to the Commonwealth charter which is very strong on universal human rights. It’s a great club to be a member of and I think the Maldives should be proud of being a Commonwealth member, and I think they have a part to play.
JJ: The Maldives’ economic situation is pretty dire, and one of the ongoing challenges has been because of the democratic uncertainty up until the election, a lot of the donor aid was reticent. Do you see the Maldives receiving more bilateral aid now it has a clear democratic mandate, and what kind of aid do you think the UK might be in a position to provide?
HS: Putting together a coalition government when you’ve inherited a difficult economic legacy is something which is pretty familiar to us, because it’s something we did in May 2010. So I can empathise.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) came up with five major things some time ago, and I’m not sure if they’ve been enacted in the way they might have been, such as cutting the size of the state and finding other ways to get more taxation.
I think the government has done a lot in terms of taxation and there is a wider tax base than there was before, but I think there are clearly other things they could do. The two main industries are fishing and tourism – there are up to 1500 British tourists in the Maldives at any one time so we’re a major player here. I was talking today about it – they are looking at other ways of expanding on the tourism theme, and other ways of doing it.
Clearly the economy here is dependent on just a few things. One of things [the new government] is going to look at is whether there are hydrocarbons here – drilling. I understand there was some offshore exploration some years ago. That would be a game-changer if they found oil.
In terms of international aid that is something that would be looked at by my colleagues, if the Maldives meets the criteria. But I think there are huge opportunities here that are unexploited, and the government needs to show some determination to get the budget under control and grow the economy: reducing the public sector, growing the private sector and increasing the tax take, and attracting inward investment.
It comes back to the same argument. In order to attract inward investment, you have to have a certainty and clarity for people investing, and that means judicial independence, transparency of government and lack of corruption. That’s how you attract inward investment, that’s how the UK does it, that’s the road any country seeking to attract serious investment needs to go down.
JJ: Final questioned – you mentioned oil drilling, which is one of the things the new President and his coalition partner have suggested. That would seem to move the Maldives away from this eco-friendly, carbon-neutral image that the Nasheed government sought to promote. How do you think a move towards drilling would affect the Maldives, and would it impact things like climate change donors?
HS: We do this in the UK – we consider ourselves quite a green government. We have green taxes and we promote renewable energy, biomass, offshore and onshore wind, and yet we have drilling in the North Sea. So I dont think the two are confused or conflated.
Obviously in terms of the economy, as I said, if they find oil here that is a game-changer. We did have a long discussion at lunch about alternative energy, offshore windfarms and solar, and other such ways the Maldives could meet its targets. It’s enormously important – rising sea levels represent a real threat, and after the tsunami’s various populations were relocated. Of course if you’re living here climate change is a real problem for you. But I don’t think oil drilling necessarily can be anything other than beneficial, if done in a sensitive way.