The Maldives has secured a seat in the UN Human Rights Council, the first time the country has won a seat at a major UN body.
Lobbying for candidature began in March this year, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Ahmed Shaheed spoke in front of an audience of world leaders at the 13th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
At the time, Dr Shaheed told Minivan News the Maldives was running for candidature because of the country’s “own positive experience with the international human rights system,” and added, “we understand, through first-hand experience, [the council’s] value and its capacity to bring about change.”
Dr Shaheed then visited New York in April to seek further support from UN member states and had a special meeting with members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
There were four available seats for Asia in the Human Rights Council and five candidates. The other four candidates were Malaysia, Thailand, Qatar and Iran.
How the seat was won
Iran recently withdrew its candidature, leaving the four seats open for all four remaining candidates to win a seat on the council. Dr Shaheed said Iran withdrew its candidacy “because they knew they would not be able to contest against the other countries.”
When hearing of the secured seat in the council, Dr Shaheed said, “as the smallest and poorest country in the race, there was a lot of speculation as to whether the Maldives would be able to stay in the race and compete against the more influential states, but in the end we were able to mount the most intensive campaign and perhaps the most credible candidature.”
Dr Shaheed said, “in March, I estimated we would lose. But we worked very hard and within two weeks it was made clear we would take one of the four [winning seats].”
Because of Iran’s withdrawal, all four remaining countries are guaranteed a seat in the council, although elections are still required to take place. A vote will be cast at the UN’s Headquarters in New York on 13 May, when the final results will be announced.
Dr Shaheed said he suspects not every country will get the necessary 51% of votes from UN member states that are required to attain candidacy, but since there is no more competition, the results will simply show the ranking. He believes the Maldives could even be number one.
The minister said he believed gaining a seat in the Human Rights Council would improve human rights within the country because it will give the Maldives greater access to resources and more UN systems which will help regulate and improve current laws and regulations in the country.
“There will be more opportunities to reinforce strength in the domestic agenda of human rights,” he said.
Dr Shaheed said the Human Rights Council is seen as “top players” in the international human rights arena, and a seat for the Maldives shows “we are seen as a country doing quite well regarding human rights.”
The Maldives will hold a seat in the council for three years, and the current mission in Geneva will be in charge of the work relating to the council.
Human Rights Commission of the Maldives
President of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Ahmed Saleem said he was “very delighted” the Maldives won the seat in the council, as it “reflects well on us, as well.”
He said although the HRCM “are not part of the government, the membership has been possible also partly because of the way the human rights commission has performed.”
Saleem said the membership “comes with a lot of responsibility” as they will now deal with “everything” concerning international human rights. He noted the Maldives will now be under “very close scrutiny, so we have to set an example for everybody else.”
He said the government works very closely with the commission, and “I have seen positive change. This is a very good opportunity for the government to realise [they have] to make necessary changes.”
Saleem noted the commission “does not criticise the government unnecessarily” but tries to help the government by pointing out the problems the country is facing concerning human rights. He said unless the government takes the HRCM’s recommendations seriously, “the international community is not going to look positively on the government.”
He is sure the Maldives’ membership in the council will improve human rights in the country, “because the government also will have to act very positively now, there has to be room for improvement in the way the government reacts to human rights issues.”
Saleem added he had “always been very positive about this commitment because it’s good for us. We can take advantage.”
Saleem said membership also meant the Maldives could run for presidency of the Human Rights Council as it’s the Asian group’s turn, “but I think it’s too early. We should be content in being a member of the Human Rights Council itself. It’s the first time we are there.”
He said if the Maldives performed well, they could think of running for presidency the next time they have the opportunity.
He claimed HRCM was “one of the best in South Asia”, as most other countries in the region except India “don’t have commissions that are credible.” But he noted the HRCM was not working at its full potential because it is not yet a full member of either the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the Asia Pacific Forum (APF).
“We want very badly to be full members of the ICC and APF,” Saleem said, “our work suffers because we’re not full members. Everybody knows we work much better than most other members that are full members…but there is nothing they can do.”
The reason the HRCM can’t become a full member of these organisations is directly related to freedom of religion, he claimed.
“The HRCM legislation states that all members be Muslim,” Saleem explained, and noted that international human rights bodies see this as a violation of human rights.
Saleem proposed it be changed to say “all members must be Maldivian” but not to specify they must be Muslim, as the country’s Constitution already states that all citizens must be Muslim. “That would fix everything,” he said.
He added the government and the Attorney General “are working on it. It’s no big deal.”
“HRCM should be able to work well, fully and effectively, but we are not able to work to our full capacity,” Saleem said. He noted membership in the Human Rights Council was “a very good opportunity” for the government to do something about the Maldives gaining full membership in the ICC and APF.
He said, overall, “I am very delighted. I hope things will change positively…and hopefully there will be marked improvements.”