Comment: Maldives introduces landmark UN Resolution on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Maldives played a key role in recent weeks for the fruition of this new resolution which was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council without a vote last Thursday. The resolution, which was jointly introduced by the United States, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Maldives, reaffirms that “the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are essential components of democracy … to, inter alia, express their political opinions, engage in literary and artistic pursuits and other cultural, economic and social activities, engage in religious observances or other beliefs, form and join trade unions and cooperatives, and elect leaders to represent their interests and hold them accountable.”

“Only a few years ago, these rights (to freedom of assembly and association) were strictly curtailed and there were no legal channels to hold leaders accountable. The current leadership of His Excellency President Mohamed Nasheed began as an opposition movement where he was regularly arrested while trying to assert his rights”, said Ambassador Iruthisham Adam, Permanent Representative of the Maldivian Mission in Geneva, when she introduced the draft resolution at the UN Human Rights Council last week, which decided to create the first-ever Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association.

The efforts at the UN level by the Maldives, which has made progressive strides in the transition from an essentially autocratic state after the fall of former President Maumoon Abul Gayoom’s 30-year term, have been widely welcomed amongst human rights groups.

In view of this landmark development contributed by the Maldives, the country should continue to lead in this initiative by ensuring that the provisions for the rights to assemble in peaceful demonstrations are consistently represented in the Maldivian legislation, to address the incidents of the violations of freedom of assembly and association in practice by law enforcement authorities.

The domestic regulation known as the “regulation concerning assembly” requires three organisers of public assemblies to submit a written form to the police 14 days prior to gathering. This appears to be in contradiction to Article 32 of the Maldivian Constitution which enshrines the right to freedom of assembly “without prior permission from the State”.

This irregularity has at times been used by authorities who selectively apply the provisions of the regulation for the purpose of ending peaceful demonstrations.

Ahmed Irfan, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), stressed that “the Maldives in addition to all other co-sponsors of the resolution must act swiftly to ensure that domestic laws and regulations regarding freedom of assembly and association fully respect and adhere to those rights.”

The newly established mandate of the Special Rapporteur includes, among others, studying trends, developments and challenges in relation to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and making recommendations.

The Special Rapporteur will also report on violations of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as well as discrimination, threats or use of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation or reprisals directed at persons exercising these rights. This mandate is one of the most relevant for Asian countries, particularly for human rights defenders, trade unionists and migrants in the region. Time and again, civil society organizations throughout Asia have faced brutality, suppression and severe restrictions when exercising their rights to assemble and associate.

The UN resolution has the potential to usher in new opportunities of significant importance, particularly if the provisions outlined in the resolution are implemented at the national level and close cooperation is sought by the State with the Special Rapporteur.

It is clear that the international community has benefited from contributions of the Maldives at the UN Human Rights Council, also exemplified by the groundbreaking resolution on “Human Rights and Climate Change” which was tabled by the Maldives in March 2008.

At the sub-regional level, human rights groups have been encouraged by the proposal of President Nasheed during the SAARC Summit in April 2010 to establish a South Asian human rights mechanism. It remains to be seen how the innovative and dedicated approach of the Maldives in its international capacities will resonate in the country for a full implementation of its human rights obligations, which is currently being compromised due to the political deadlock in the People’s Majlis.

As the Maldives will stand before the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in coming November, it would be prudent to view this as a national opportunity to raise awareness and publicity of human rights challenges and obligations with the view to overcome the deadlock so that the promotion and protection of human rights can be fully realised in the Maldives.

Yap Swee Seng is Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

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