A delegation from the Maldives headed by Attorney General Abdulla Muiz has reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which will release its findings in early September.
According to a UN report summarising the meeting, the delegation was questioned on “restrictions on the practice of religion, the rights of migrant workers, human trafficking, the lack of anti-discrimination laws in the country, the role of the Human Rights Commission and the requirement that all members be Muslim, citizenship laws and the stipulation that non-Muslims could not become citizens nor could they openly practice their religion, the discrepancy in secondary school enrolment rates between boys and girls, and the interaction between English common law and Islam in the legal system of the Maldives.”
The committee noted that the government’s historical position had “been to deny the existence of racial discrimination in the country as the Maldives has a small homogeneous population, of the same origin, pursuing the same religion, and speaking the same language.”
However it had acknowledged that a substantial increase in migrant workers “requires legislative attention”, the UN committee noted.
“In the absence of prejudices leading to racial discrimination in the Maldives, the government did not take specific steps in terms of education and teaching, and culture and information, to address racial discrimination. However, the report says in the Maldives the teaching of Islam promotes understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and all groups,” the committee noted.
The report was presented to the committee by Muiz, who emphasised the “enormous progress” the country had made in recent years towards guaranteeing “fundamental freedoms and individual liberties”.
He did, however, acknowledge the “enormous challenges” the Maldives faced in ensuring that those rights now protected by law were actually enjoyed in practice. In particular, the Maldives delegation identified these as including “fragile democratic fabric, infant democratic institutions, religious fundamentalism, heavy drug abuse, the vulnerability of the country to environmental threats and most recently, human trafficking.”
Furthermore, the delegation claimed, the country’s Human Rights Commission “was one of the most active national institutions in Asia” and “fully compliant with the Paris Principles”, apart from the requirement that all members of the Commission be Muslim.
“Maldivian law did not provide for freedom of religion, although in practice foreigners were allowed to practice religions other than Islam in private,” the delegation informed the committee.
Nonetheless, the Maldives was “a culturally diverse society” that protected its vulnerable migrant labour population by imposing duties on employers, “including responsibility for the employee during their stay and other requirements”, despite the absence of health and safety laws.
“The right to association and the right to strike were now guaranteed under the Maldives’ Constitution,” the delegation informed the committee.
It noted that while the Maldives did not have any laws prohibiting trafficking in persons “and no official studies or reports had been conducted”, the government had a “strong policy to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for traffickers.”
“Muiz asked the Committee to bear in mind that the democratic and legal framework of the Maldives was a work-in-progress,” the committee noted.
In contrast to the Maldives’ position that racial discrimination did not exist, the committee observed that cases of hostility and ill-treatment of the country’s increasingly large number of migrant workers – half the country’s total workforce – had been reported.
“The Maldives should consider acceding to conventions concerned with the rights of non-citizens and amend relevant regulations to allow non-Muslims to acquire Maldivian citizenship,” the committee suggested, and noted that there was “still no anti-discrimination legislation” active in the Maldives.
“It is necessary for the State party to enact legislation on prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred,” the committee stated.
The committee observed that there was a lack of demographic information on the Maldives, given the extensive size of its foreign labour force, and that “it would be useful to investigate whether there are tensions between Maldivian citizens and foreign workers.”
“Restrictions on the rights of migrants and other foreigners to prohibit the practice of religions other than Islam, except in private, were of concern as well. Was any one Maldivian citizen married to an individual practicing a different religion?” one committee member asked.
In response to the committee’s questioning, the Maldives delegation contended that the Maldives had “capacity constraints” and “relied on the support of international organisations”, in which case the committee noted “a report longer than three pages would have been appreciated.”
Regarding the committee’s questioning on freedom of religion, the delegation noted that the Maldives maintained a reservation to article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of religion “and there were currently no plans to withdraw that reservation.
“This was a reflection of the deep societal belief that the Maldives always had been and wished to remain a 100 percent Muslim nation,” the delegation informed the committee, adding that “Muslims and non-Muslims lived harmoniously in the Maldives.”
“It was not true that under the new Constitution existing citizens could be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality if they were to stop practicing Islam. The Constitution was very clear on this point: no citizen could be deprived of his or her nationality under any circumstance. The Muslim-only clause under the citizenship article of the Constitution only applied to non-Maldivians wishing to become naturalised,” the committee reported.
The delegation acknowledged “increased reports of mistreatment of migrant workers by their employers”, but noted that the Maldives placed high importance on acceding to the eight core Conventions of the International Labor Organisation (ILO).
It also argued that “some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by foreign workers were even better that those enjoyed by Maldivians themselves”, such as those mandating the provision of food and accommodation for foreign workers.
“Foreign workers were not discriminated against in any way in the Maldives,” the delegation informed the committee.
In his concluding remarks, Muiz observed that the exercise of appearing before the committee “was tougher than even appearing before the parliament of the Maldives.”