A South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been put forward as a means of mending political and social divides in the Maldives, following President Mohamed Nasheed’s radio address last week calling for the investigation of past injustices.
“I am saying this as a person who has seen these things very closely. Many people have died. Many people were killed. The lives of many were ruined. Many people’s lives were destroyed to the point where they had no future,” Nasheed said, calling on the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) to look to the past and become “a commission that properly works for human rights in this country.”
In an interview today with Minivan News, President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem said while he agreed “that while the violations of the past need to be looked into, I also think that right now the country is divided and facing problems of politics and religion. I’m very concerned – we’re a small country of 300,000 people and we can’t afford to have such divisions,” he said.
An investigation spanning the time of the former government risked “setting a precedent for a witch-hunt whenever there is a change of government.”
“Personally, I don’t think the president wants to dig into the past,” Saleem said. “But he is under a lot of pressure from others in his government who suffered greatly under the former regime. He is a politician and he is doing what he has to do.”
An alternative to HRCM’s involvement, he suggested, was to create a separate commission “to look into the past with the intention to unify, rather than punish.”
Such a commission would not undermine HRCM “because our mandate states that we must send matters to the courts, and we [rarely] investigate anything that occurred before 2000. We try to mediate and find solutions.”
In contrast, the new commission would “allow those who were abused to ask for forgiveness, and those who were abused to forgive,” he said.
“It would need the approval of the People’s Majlis and the major political parties; such a set up would need the power to convict, the power to forgive, and also a lot of money, because the process would have to last at least two years.”
While the South African TRC had the power to convict following the abolition of apartheid, in practice many perpetrators of human rights abuses were given civil and criminal amnesty in exchange in return for truthful testimony. The project was widely considered successful and a key component of South Africa’s transition to a free democracy.
A similar commission in the Maldives would have to be agreed upon by major parties and protected from becoming a political weapon, Saleem suggested, questioning the wisdom of limiting the mandate of such a commission to 30 years.
“We need a strong opposition to keep the government accountable,” he said. “It’s very important for the president, the government and the Majilis to unite the country, and the opposition [DRP] will not agree to any investigation of less than 30 years.”
This would place Ibrahim Nasir’s government within the mandate of the TRC, including his brutal 1962 suppression of the United Suvadive Republic and destruction of Havaru Thinadhoo.
“The mandate must be to learn from past mistakes so as to avoid them in the future, and in the process unite the country and strengthen democracy,” Saleem proposed. “Democracy alone will not unite the country.”
Departure from promise
Shortly after his election, President Mohamed Nasheed famously asked Maldivians “to follow my example and leave Gayoom to grow old here”, a reconcillatory statement many interpreted as a mark of the new president’s forward-looking approach to governing the country. In this sense, Nasheed’s request last week that HRCM to investigate the previous government’s alleged human rights abuses appeared to reflect a change of heart.
“What he said was that he was not going to go after Gayoom,” speculated Shahindha Ismail, of the Police Integrity Commission and former head of the Maldivian Detainee Network.
“If we were to get technical, it could mean he was not going to file a case against him individually,” she said, suggesting Nasheed’s comment was not a reference to institutions with a mandate to investigate human rights abuses like HRCM.
“Now, I think [Nasheed] is plainly not happy with HCRM and the way they’ve been working.”
Shahindha said while she is not sure “we should go back to the time of the kings and dig up all these graves again”, she believes a TRC “would at least acknowledge what people have been through and at give others a chance to take responsbilitity for what they have done – a kind of self-remedy.”
In her experience working for the Police Integrity Commission, Shahindha observed that “many people report an incident in a fit of passion, but when it comes time to carry out the investigation they withdraw their complaints.”
“If I was going to explain [the concept of a TRC] I would describe it as ‘putting it all on the table so you can get on with your life,'” she said, suggesting that simply the process of being listened to might be curative.
But gaining political consensus for the idea would be a challenge, she thought, particuarly since “the DRP will jump to conclusions that this is about undermining their time in government.”
That much proved accurate: when Minivan News raised the idea with Secretary General of the DRP Dr Mohamed Mausoom, he said he suspected the President would use the opportunity to continue “passing all the blame for failure to the former government.”
“There are better things the government should be doing. People elected the them to govern the country, and in a democracy [the MDP] should listen to the people and deliver. Give HRCM enough money to do their job,” he added.
However Shahindha speculated that a TRC “would also likely see senior MDP people appear on the table.”
“It doesn’t have to be a replica [of the South African TRC], but the general concept has been tried and proven. I do think it would be quite effective. However there is likely to be an initial negative reaction from the public. It was the same in South Africa, it took them a while to understand the concept.”
If former police commissioner Adam Zahir, “who is accused of more human rights violations than anyone else in the Maldives”, could sit in open cafes in Male, Shahindha said, “I’m very sure Gayoom could walk down the street without facing any problems. If people come out I don’t think there will be a lot of people running after them. Maldivians might not forgive and forget, but I do think they let go.”