The Maldives’ peaceful transition to democracy has “set an important precedent in the Asia-Pacific region and serves as a beacon in the broader Muslim world,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in parliament today.
In a keynote address titled ‘Responding to the Past while Safeguarding the Future: the Challenge of Protecting Human Rights in the context of Democratic Transition,’ Pillay observed that as democratic transitions “are always fragile,” the recent history of the Maldives contained lessons for newly-established democracies.
Pillay praised the reform milestones achieved by the Maldives since 2003, including the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, the introduction of political parties, accession to main international human rights instrument, the drafting of a “new and very progressive constitution” and the first multi-party elections that followed its ratification in August 2008.
“This year, we have witnessed the same strong aspirations for democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa which have brought dramatic and positive changes to the political environment of the region,” she said.
“After decades of oppression and systemic human rights violations, men and women of different ages, political orientations and social origins have come together in an unprecedented movement to bring about political change and to demand social justice.”
Strong and stable institutions
Pillay noted that successful transition to a functioning democracy was “very much contingent on the existence of independent institutions” and separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.
While acknowledging that the new institutions started working “with limited resources and within a volatile and politicised environment,” Pillay said it was imperative for all parties to “embrace the path of reform and develop a culture of dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect.”
She urged parliament to enact long-delayed legislation and the judiciary to be “independent and forward-looking in applying the law in accordance with the constitution and international human rights obligations of the Maldives.”
The executive should meanwhile “respect the roles and independence of the other arms of the state and ensure effective implementation of the rule of law.”
Islam and democracy
The reform movement of the Maldives and public uprisings of the Arab Spring has established “the congruence between rights guaranteed by Islam and universally recognised human rights,” Pillay stated, which is “proof that Islam is not incompatible with human rights and democracy.”
She welcomed the ‘House of Wisdom’ initiative led by the Maldives, “which will help to promote an open and constructive debate, both inside and outside the Maldives, on how to reconcile international human rights standards and Islamic law.”
A third lesson for democratic transitions, said Pillay, was use of the internet and new social media to mobilise the public.
Activists, journalists and bloggers in the Maldives “opened new spaces for debate,” she observed, noting the changes to “repressive habits of the past” through decriminalising defamation and removing restriction to freedom of assembly.
The Associated Press (AP) however reported yesterday that Pillay expressed concern with reports of rising religious intolerance in the Maldives during a meeting with President Mohamed Nasheed.
The AP referred to the vandalism of monuments donated by Pakistan and Sri Lanka for the recently-concluded SAARC summit over allegedly “idolatrous” and un-Islamic imagery.
While women were involved in the political mobilisation of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Pillay stressed that “rights and opportunities for women in these societies still face many challenges.”
“I strongly believe that democracy for the half the people is no democracy at all,” she asserted.
Acknowledging efforts by both previous and current administrations to promote gender equality and the removal of the gender bar for public office in the 2008 constitution, Pillay however noted that discrimination against women and girls continued in the country.
“A powerful illustration of this trend is the flogging of women found guilty of extra-marital sex,” she explained. “This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country.”
Pillay urged the authorities to foster national dialogue and debate “on this issue of major concern,” and called on parliament to pass legislation on domestic violence as well as other laws to ensure women’s rights.
In response to a Minivan News report in 2009 of an 18 year-old woman fainting after a 100 lashes, Amnesty International called for a moratorium on the “inhumane and degrading punishment.”
Of the 184 people sentenced to public flogging in 2006, 146 were female, making it nine times more likely for women to be punished.
“I also urge you to discuss the withdrawal of the remaining reservation to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women concerning equality in marriage,” Pillay said. “These are necessary steps, not only for protecting the human rights of women and girls in Maldives, but securing Maldives’ transition.”
On the problem of migrant workers in the country, Pillay urged the government to enforce the non-discrimination clause in the constitution by adopting a comprehensive law and ratifying the ‘Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.’
Lastly, the UN High Commissioner observed that new democracies faced a common problem of transitional justice or “establishing accountability for past human rights violations.”
“Addressing the past is often a complicated political dilemma, but we should never lose sight of the right victims have to truth, justice and redress,” she said.
Without coming to terms with human rights abuses and injustices committed by ousted regimes, said Pillay, “transitional democracies will face continued challenges in the path towards democracy, respect for human rights and ending impunity.”
Referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Pillay revealed that she urged President Mohamed Nasheed to “lead a national consultation on this important subject.”
Pillay concluded her address by predicting that the Maldives “will increasingly have a special role to play in the region and the Muslim world as it has pioneered a democratisation process that is both modern and Islamic.”
“I firmly believe that the Maldives can make history as a moderate Islamic democracy. This opportunity cannot be missed, for the benefit of Maldives and of the wider region,” she said.
“Difficult road ahead”
Pillay, a South African national of Tamil descent who served as President of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda for eight years, today concluded her three-day stay in the first-ever visit to the Maldives by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, in his remarks after the speech, Speaker Abdulla Shahid said the parliament was “honoured to have you here, a person who has fought tremendously for human rights in your country and is committed to the promotion of human rights all over the world.”
“As you have rightly said, Maldives has pioneered many of the experiences that the Arab Spring is spreading through the Arabian peninsula and the North African region,” he said.
“I can assure you, Madam High Commissioner, that we will not let our guard down. We know how difficult the job has been. We know how difficult the road ahead of us is. And we will continue to work in the national interest of this nation and we will succeed in this endeavor.”
He added that the leadership of the legislature, judiciary and executive is “fully committed” to upholding the liberal constitution of 2008, which is “a living document which we are going through everyday.”
“The experiences that we have had are strengthening the democratic structure of this country,” he said.