Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed is the Maldives Ambassador to the UN and was defacto non-resident Ambassador to the US, prior to the recent appointment of Ahmed Sareer to the position. He speaks to Minivan News about the Maldives-US relationship, climate politics and the challenges facing the country with the introduction of new interpretations of religion.
JJ Robinson: Why do you think countries such as the US and UK are interested in the Maldives considering it is such a small and remote nation?
Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed: Right now small states make up a substantial part of the international community and they have a loud voice. They not willing to sit back and take what comes, they are making their presence known and making waves, trying to assert their rights as they become more confident.
As they become more experienced in international affairs, they are becoming a much bigger presence than before. Sometimes small states are also able to act in ways larger, more powerful states are unable – other countries are much more wary of positions taken by larger states.
Small states have the opportunity to speak more openly and frankly on issues in an objective manner. I think when our views are consistent, eventually the international community does recognise that here is a country that does its homework and tries to be responsible within the resource constraints it has.
In particular the Maldives has undergone tremendous changes in the last few years; changes that present a symbol of hope for many other countries. The Maldives is a small island Muslim country, with relations with the Commonwealth and a wide range of membership which helps it have access to a large pool of friends, and the views of countries. It is also a founding member of SAARC, and although the Maldives and Bhutan are the smallest SAARC states, both played an important role in shaping its direction, especially this year as we take up the chairmanship.
Here’s a country that has had no political parties in its entire history. It went from an autocratic monarchy to an autocratic presidency. Although we moved from a sultanate, it was in some ways a change in name rather than a change in psyche, for the people and those in government.
Consequently it was a very difficult change to multiparty democracy, with new novel concepts such as independent institutions, and a President more constrained than the heads of governments we are used to having.
Yet despite the turmoil, I think the Maldives has showed that through dialogue and robust engagement, you can change a government through the ballot box. It is a credit to both the former President and the serving President that they were able to manage the transition so smoothly, given the potential for disruption.
JJ: Do you hold to the view that the Maldives is in some ways two years ahead of the current turmoil in the Middle East, and could perhaps set an example for some of these countries?
AGM: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that there are certain similarities: it was the ordinary people, and not just the poor and uncared for. It was the educated middle class and youth who took the lead in bringing the changes to the Maldives. And they demanded their rights on the streets.
But the Middle East is large and the countries complex, and a lot more people have vested interests in what happens there. We should note the success of the Maldives, in part because of the support and encouragement the international community gave to it. I’m not saying they interfered, but they certainly encouraged a democratic transition. They were engaged with both the government and the opposition, and keen to ensure the unrest did not become too costly, as a country that is dependent so much on tourism – peace and stability are important to the Maldives.
There are certainly things that can be learned from the Maldives’ experience. One of the things is the fast pace at which we moved, which made it very difficult to complete the institutions in time. Most people need time to adjust to the new thinking and new concepts.
In the Maldives we are lucky to have a homogenous religion and race, whereas in many Middle Eastern countries you have tribes and different religious and racial backgrounds. For them to come together to make sure a new political framework protects all the interests of this people may by more challenging than in the Maldives.
JJ: Since the Maldives joined the UN Human Rights Council, have you observed a difference in the way in which the Maldives is regarded and its diplomatic position?
AGM: The Maldives has always been fairly well received. We have good standing as a country run quite stably and with good development. Whatever problems we have had we have kept to ourselves.
The fact that we moved in 30-40 years from one of the least developed 16 countries to being a graduated non-LDC (least developed country) by end of first decade of the 21st century, means not only we but the last government achieved some things quite well.
The new government has taken a much more active position and is willing to be engaged with the international community even on issues of controversy, speaking its mind quite frankly.
This is the first time ever the Maldives is holding a position of this nature in the international arena. We have never been a member of a UN institution. We came in with a lot of good will because of our established record of engagement and a record of openness and transparency. We are one of the few countries which has a standing invitation to special rapporteurs.
We are also one of the few small countries – and a Muslim country – with a permanent presence in Geneva. As there are often misunderstandings about human rights instruments and values by the West and Muslim countries, many saw us, and we certainly promote ourselves, as a country that can provide a bridge for these views, as well as provide a voice for smaller states on the Council.
JJ: A US State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks documents your meeting with the State Department in February 2010. During the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake asks if the Maldives required “quiet US assistance” to take up the Human Rights Council position. Was that offer taken up, and what was the extent of US support for the Maldives in entering the Human Rights Council?
AGM: As a small country we didn’t have resources to run an election campaign in the way larger countries can run. Our record is of making ourselves heard and meeting as many ambassadors as possible, letter writing campaigns, and using our embassies in other parts of the world. Ministers also made contact at any international meetings.
Our campaign went on at a persistent and consistent level that didn’t cost us, because we didn’t have any money. We were obviously happy with the support that anyone extended to us, be it the US, UK or Canada. Most Western countries saw us as a moderate country that could play a constructive role.
While we appreciated the offer of help we were very keen to ensure than nobody viewed the Maldives as being sponsored. It was a conscious decision by the government because we felt we had a constructive role to play. We got 185 votes – the maximum number we could get.
JJ: The Maldives was running against Iran?
AGM: We were not running against Iran at the later stage, as they graciously withdrew and made way for the Maldives to run the race uncontested. We appreciated that, because while we were trying to win we didn’t want anyone to feel we were running against a particular country. We felt we had a strong case in running for the election in 2010, because this was the first time the Maldives had run for a position on a UN body.
There are very few small nations in Geneva who can be in the council. We had a history of positive engagement, and we wanted to use our membership in the council to improve the human rights situation at home as well.
Locally, not everyone agrees with some of the concepts. Either they are misunderstood, or seen as threatening. Our membership on the Human Rights Council also makes it easier for us to lobby the domestic community.
JJ: Later in the leaked document, Special Envoy to facilitate the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp offered the Maldives US$85,000 for the resettlement of a Guantanamo detainee.
AGM: This was at an informal level to see the possibility. With regard to the money offered to the government of the Maldives, this was to help the person settle in the Maldives, and for his upkeep. This was not prize money. Obviously housing a person in the Maldives, giving him a place to stay, trying to find him an employment opportunity – that is a cost, and obviously one the Maldives should not have to pay as we are doing a favour for the US.
JJ: What ultimately happened? Did the Maldives take the US up on that offer?
AGM: The matter became quite a stir in the country, and it later died down. To my knowledge there was been no transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the Maldives.
JJ: You also discussed the possibility of the US putting down US$50 million in climate change assistance, which the UK’s Guardian newspaper interpreted as in return for taking a particular position at the Copenhagen climate summit.
AGM: The Maldives was one of the few small countries that supported the Copenhagen Accord, because we felt that accepting Copenhagen was more helpful than not accepting it.
We also felt that if more states came on board, the likelihood that the commitments that were given would become reality much quicker. The government did try to encourage other small states to come on board. It was a catch 22 situation – some small countries wanted to wait and see commitments become reality.
The US felt that unless there were enough people committed to the Copenhagen Accord, it would be difficult to make money available. They have to sell the commitments to their people and Congress as well.
I remember the conversation. I said that if the US were to be more forthcoming with their commitments and put the money in, it may actually encourage small states to come on more quickly, because they would see there was value in taking on the Copenhagen Accord. It wasn’t just the Maldives – I was keen to see commitments available for small states, which would mean other small states would also benefit.
Even before my meeting with the State Department the President had written to many heads of state to try and encourage them to come on board. The Maldives sent its letter of acceptance of the accord immediately after the meeting.
Unfortunately there were allegations, but I can certainly say no money was exchanged for votes.
JJ: Did the US$50 million in climate assistance ever materialise?
AGM: I believe are a number of climate-related projects with which the US is now helping.
JJ: Do you think the Maldives’ international human rights agenda at times conflicts not only with the understanding of human rights here, but also the constitution?
AGM: I wouldn’t say conflicts. But I think there are various interpretations between those who are liberal and conservative in their interpretations. But it would be wrong to say a conflict as such. I think through dialogue and discussion we can find a common ground where human rights are universal.
JJ: This topic came up during your discussion with the US State Department – you mentioned the need for greater access in the Maldives to “Western liberal education” to counter some of the extremist views coming back from places such as Pakistan.
AGM: Again, different people interpreted the comment differently. Some people interpret it as though I was trying to stop Maldivian students from traveling to places like Egypt to study. I was not – the point I was making was that many of the educational opportunities we get are in the Middle East, and sometimes for free – especially in Pakistan, where the madrassas offer free education.
Given the limited resources many parents have, it is very appealing to send children, especially sons, to these places that offer free education – in religion. The Maldives has traditionally been a very religious country. There is a love of religion and a very strong identity held about being Muslim.
When they have an opportunity for free education in Islam, many parents send their children. We have also relied on scholarships from other countries to educate children in higher studies. The more we receive these from Western countries, the more children will come back and have an influence on society. Many leading public figures have been educated abroad.
The US was one of the prime sponsors of Maldivians some time back in the 80s – we had 50 plus students in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Some of the best and brightest of that generation were educated in Beirut.
So we are trying to encourage especially the US to grant more scholarships for Maldivian students. It is an expensive place to study, especially for undergraduates. We felt quite keenly the loss of opportunities in Beirut. We looked to revive such opportunities.
JJ: People talk here about views from overseas being brought back to the Maldives. To what extent do you think that the Arab or Saudi interpretations of religion have been brought to the Maldives in this way, and to what extent have they supplanted traditional Maldivian interpretations of Islam?
AGM: This is my own very personal opinion: our earliest scholars studied at Azhar University in Egypt, and they were highly regarded [back in the Maldives]. There is a strong connection between religion taught in Azhar university, and religion practiced in the Maldives.
The one book that taught religion to a generation of Maldivians was a religious book by Mohamed Jameel, the father of the former Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel. He was known as the teacher of a generation in terms of educating the public in religion.
That was the basis. These days, with the advent of modern communications and transport, we have many people coming from many schools. Even in the Middle East you have many ways of teaching and practicing religion, from the Gulf states to the more conservative Saudi Arabia. When they come back, they bring their own views of Islam, and how they have been taught.
In some ways this is unfortunate in a society that has had a very strong accord with religion. People are coming back with different religious experiences, and when they try to practice it here it sows discord. We have always seen religion as a force that bound the people of Maldives together as one, we are now seeing it as a source of discord. And that is a pity.
We hope that rather than stick to dogmatic views, we will be able to stick to a point of view that brings us together as one. The more you study the more you become aware of the complexities – whereas when you have only the basics, you can accept unquestioningly. Now there are questions being asked – people are more willing to question religious and political leaders.
There is also the internet. But it takes a strong intellect and a very good sense of right and wrong to determine sense from nonsense on the internet.
JJ: With more people talking about this, questions being asked and different interpretations coming forward, does this not conflict with what you said earlier about the Maldives being a homogenous society with one interpretation of religion binding it together?
AGM: I think this is part of progress and development. People are becoming more open to new ways of thinking and alternative view points. I think it is becoming more mature. Even if we were to hold different views on religion, we are learning to disagree without being disagreeable.
JJ: What has been the impact of the Maldives’ graduation from the UN’s definition of a least developed country to a middle income country? Has this affected countries’ willingness to engage with the Maldives as a development partner? Does this risk the Maldives being cut off from support?
AGM: I don’t think we will be cut off. This a point we have with the international community. Although we graduated in 2011, this was not a cause for celebration because it meant we had more challenges. Many of the challenges we faced before we will continue to face as a developing island nation: our small resource base, our transport costs, our dependence on one or two resources, and vulnerability to what happens outside in tourism and fishing – we have little control over the world market.
We have a fairly small economy and we do not have the economies of scale. One of the things the donor countries promised was a smooth transition. The Maldives’ efforts during the LDC conference meant we were able to adopt a resolution on transition, which would continue to provide certain benefits to a country for three years, as well as call on donor countries to continue assisting with the transition.
The worst message the international community could give to other potential countries graduating would be to see us revert to an LDC. There should not be a fear of slipping back. There is a very ambitious document that came out in the LDC conference in Turkey, which pledged to graduate 10-12 countries in the next 10 year period. It is important that these countries welcome rather than fear graduation.
There should be certain benefits we receive after graduating and showing that we are on the right path, and a country worth investing in. Certainly we have challenges, but we also have opportunities, and become exploit to our benefit, and show we are successful, be our partner in development.