Comment: Weathering the storm – the Commonwealth and Maldives

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is in the eye of a storm in Maldives. In its last meeting on 16 April it warned that it will consider “stronger measures” if the terms and reference and composition of the Maldivian National Commission of Inquiry is not “amended within four weeks in a manner that is generally acceptable and enhances its credibility”.

“Stronger measures” is probably a hint at suspension from the Commonwealth. Over two weeks have passed since that decision, now in Maldives there is talk about withdrawing the country’s membership from the Commonwealth.

How did all this come about? In the past few months, events in the Maldives have caught headlines and raised eyebrows across the world. These months saw the country’s democratic transition plagued by serious uncertainty. The most sensational part of this turn of events is mystery around the exit of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

The National Commission of Inquiry (NCI) was set up by the government to look into what transpired on the fateful day of 7 February 2012 when Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hussain took over following Mr Nasheed’s resignation – which the latter subsequently claimed was forced at gun point. The immediate backdrop for this is the military’s arrest the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court on 16 January 2012 under Mr Nasheed’s orders – a move that attracted international condemnation and regular protests in Maldives.

Mr Nasheed claimed that the judge who was under investigation by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) represents a judiciary that is dysfunctional – while protests continued to rage and reports of a possible police mutiny began to emerge as 7 February unfolded.

Storm clouds have gathered over Maldives for long and the recent series of events are a culmination of what has been brewing for a while. Following a drawn out pro-democracy struggle in the Maldives led by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the 2008 Presidential elections saw Mr Nasheed contested against the incumbent Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and winning – albeit by a margin of about eight percent.

The end of the 30 year regime of former President Gayoom was widely perceived as the beginning of full-fledged democracy in the Maldives. Since then, what began as a smooth ride eventually began to get bumpy. Rising prices, drug and crime issues, economic disparity, corruption allegations and concerns over the transparency of increasing foreign investments all began to cause unrest. Towards the end there were frequent public demonstrations and political standoffs.

While stalemates between the opposition dominated Parliament and the executive has been an issue, divisions also emerged between the executive and the judiciary – most of the appointments in the latter had been made during Gayoom’s tenure and the executive viewed this wing of state as being unreformed and loyal to the former regime.

The international community including the Commonwealth eased out of their heightened scrutiny of Maldives following the 2008 Presidential elections. In the aftermath the country’s nascent democracy has faced severe tribulations. Maldives is precariously located in the tip of South Asia, in the middle of strategic sea lanes making it important economically and politically both for the West and the two Asian giants – China and India. The crisis in the Maldives is an important bellwether of the edgy geopolitical climate in this region which has already found reflection in other countries of the region such as Sri Lanka.

While a lot of the current focus is mired over opposing political views within Maldives, it is important to remember that the vagaries of politics inside and outside the country should not ultimately lead to the Maldivian people viewing the values of human rights and democracy with blighted hope. It is important that these values are upheld and the protections that they afford are ensured.

An important step in doing this is to make sure that truth is both told and is seen to be told, freely sans politicisation. In this context, it is important that the National Commission of Inquiry is credible and is able to investigate and report freely and publicly. This call for credibility and impartiality has also been aptly echoed and elaborated by several Maldivian NGOs coming together in a new civil society coalition called ‘Thinvana Adu’ or ‘Third Voice’. Independent institutions in the Maldives such as the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) should follow this lead and conduct their own parallel investigations and report publicly at the earliest.

Even though the Commonwealth should have made more early and transparent efforts to scrutinise the progress of democracy in the Maldives, it is a good sign that after years of being dormant CMAG has now taken the directions given to it in the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting seriously. It is also important that CMAG has recognised the need for a credible National Commission of Inquiry. If Maldives decides to leave the Commonwealth it will be the only other country after Zimbabwe to do so – a parallel that may be politically damaging for Maldives to equate itself with at this time of crisis.

R Iniyan Ilango is a Coordinator for the Strategic Initiatives Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Commonwealth members descend from deeds to words on human rights

Today Commonwealth Day will be celebrated across 54 countries. The association holds about a third of the World’s population. It prides itself on having high human rights and democracy based fundamental principles.

But do these translate into the lives of its 1.4 billion population, or make any impact at international fora that debate and decide rights and freedoms? Sadly even the kindest and gentlest answer would come up with a definite ‘no’.

This conclusion is once again affirmed by the latest report of The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The third in a series entitled ‘Easier Said than Done’ the report analyses the performance of the 12 Commonwealth countries [on the Human Rights Council 2008 to mid 2010, prior to the Maldives’ membership] – Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Zambia – who sit on the Human Rights Council. Together they also account for about one third of the body’s 47 members.

Before getting elected to the Council each had made specific pledges in the spirit of upholding “the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Comparing promises to actual performance both at the domestic and UN levels between mid- 2008 and mid-2010 the report shows that many Commonwealth members were in fact at the forefront of efforts to undermine human rights mechanisms such as the Special Procedures, the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, the Universal Periodic Review and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Several actively campaigned against country specific scrutiny of gross human rights violators.

At the domestic level, as well, no country entirely fulfilled all its Council pledges. The report also discovers that, except on one resolution the Commonwealth members could not act together to agree on any Council resolution.

The Commonwealth, whose members carry strong memories of their own struggles for rights and freedom, may have had its finest hour – or perhaps its last hurrah – during the struggle against Apartheid. But today, in the midst of Commonwealth Day celebrations, it is hard not to notice its reduced zeal for preserving civil liberties or its dismal record in upholding human rights beyond grandiose words.

The descent from deeds to words is evidenced in the reluctance of its oversight mechanisms – such as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group -to take to task seriously erring members or to activate its mandate to scrutinise Commonwealth countries that persistently or seriously violate fundamental values such as human rights

Today, aged almost 62 the Commonwealth appears ever more infirm in its convictions as it’s Secretary-General suggests that perhaps human rights precepts are merely “aspirational” while deeds are more realistic and different.

Speaking about the UDHR, the response by the current Commonwealth Secretary-General to an article in the Guardian on attempts to silence human rights within the Commonwealth Secretariat is indicative. He says, “The 1948 Declaration remains at best an aspiration, at worst a loose promise. Such is the grey area of words, which is perhaps best set aside for the more prosaic reality of deeds.”

The assertion seems to give short shrift to the binding norms that, born out of the Universal Declaration, have found their way into the constitutions of Commonwealth member states and become legal obligations owed by governments to their people and to the international community. The hardnosed approach also clearly sights the Secretary-General in empathy with the worst performing Commonwealth members at the Council who make identical arguments about the primacy of sovereignty and use realpolitik excuses to avoid human rights compliance and the responsibility to protect.

CHRI has always held that the Commonwealth is about human rights or it is about nothing at all. Soft pedalling its self-professed premier values can only lead to the diminution of the Commonwealth into eventual oblivion: and disparaging the canons that underpin the practical realisation of rule of law good governance and development in the lives of ordinary people across the association will also mortgage the future of the mostly poor and vulnerable populations that live in member countries.

This October the Commonwealth Heads of Governments will once again meet in Perth Australia. This will mark the 20th anniversary of the Harare Declaration – the high noon of Commonwealth activities in human rights.

An Eminent Persons Group on Commonwealth Reforms will present its findings to the Heads. After studying the Commonwealth’s track record on human rights the Group stated, around the same time as the Secretary-General’s response to the Guardian, that “silence is not an option” for the Commonwealth.

Unless it energetically reclaims the outspoken, leading role in promoting and protecting human rights it once displayed in international fora such as the UN, future Commonwealth Day celebrations will only symbolise the last gasps of a moribund association.

R Iniyan Ilango is the Cooridinator of the Strategic Initiatives Programme for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, headquartered in New Delhi.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]