Maldives resumes CMAG participation ahead of presidential elections

The Maldives government said it has been “welcomed” back as a fully participating member in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) during the group’s 39th meeting held in London yesterday (April 26) following its suspension last year.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dhunya Maumoon stated this week that the invitation for the Maldives to attend the CMAG meeting reflected the “recognition” of the work by President Dr Mohamed Waheed government’s in “strengthening democracy in the Maldives”.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile said it understood the country’s participation in CMAG was a diplomatic attempt to ensure free and “inclusive” elections went ahead in September of this year. The opposition party contended that the elections were also expected to be scrutinised by a number of international groups including the Commonwealth.

The Maldives was suspended from CMAG – the Commonwealth’s democracy and human rights arm – back in February 2012 following the controversial transfer of power that saw former President Mohamed Nasheed resigning from office after a mutiny by sections of the police and military.

By September 2012, the suspension was revoked after a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) concluded the previous month that the transfer of power was legitimate, that former President Nasheed was not under duress, and that there was no police mutiny.

The findings were later accepted by former President Nasheed, albeit with reservations over evidence and witness statements he claimed had not been considered in the final report.

The stance was claimed to have been taken by the former president in order to facilitate the CNI’s recommendations concerning judicial independence and a strengthening of democratic institutions.

According to the Maldives government, CMAG is charged with reviewing “serious and persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values”.

Return to CMAG

Taking his place at the CMAG meeting on Friday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Abdullah joined his counterparts from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu to review developments in Fiji as part of the group’s formal agenda.

According to a commonwealth statement, CMAG’s latest meeting was focused predominantly on ensuring democratic developments in Fiji, including calls for constitutional reform to uphold the rule of law, while also ensuring structures were in place for hosting “credible elections” where all political parties and candidates can contest fairly.

CMAG alos used the meeting to welcome the adoption of the Charter of the Commonwealth by various heads of government, as well as other key figures in the intergovernmental organisation.

“The charter reaffirmed the Commonwealth’s commitment inter alia to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of expression, good governance, tolerance, respect and understanding and the role of civil society,” read an official statement. “As the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, [CMAG] pledged to continue to promote these commonly agreed goals.”

Political solution

Following yesterday’s meeting, MDP MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News that considering national democratic developments, he believed the Commonwealth continued to expect three key requirements of the Maldives ahead of elections.

Ghafoor claimed that along with conducting the CNI last year, the Commonwealth has also required free and “inclusive” elections that would allow former president Mohamed Nasheed to stand as the MDP’s candidate. He added that September’s elections were also required to be monitored by experts such as a Commonwealth team in the run up to, and during polling.

Nasheed’s participation in the elections has been in doubt over his ongoing trial for the controversial of a Criminal Court Judge while he was in power – charges that could see him unable to contest in polls this year should he be found guilty. The trial is presently suspended pending a court ruling on the legitimacy of the establishment of the court and panel of judges chosen to overhear the case.

Ghafoor claimed that the MDP, despite previous concerns about the CNI, welcomed the Commonwealth’s commitments for “inclusive” elections, especially considering findings by a number of international legal experts disputing whether Nasheed could expects a free trial as a result of alleged politicisation in the country’s courts.

However, he added that the party also hoped for a transitional administration to replace President Waheed’s government ahead of September’s voting.

“The Commonwealth’s three requirements are welcome, but we would also like to see an interim arrangement that would see this coup administration out,” he alleged. “This is something we believe that can be achieved.”

Ghafoor said that he remained unsure if the Maldives, which last September was retained on the CMAG agenda under its “Matters of Interest”, was still being monitored by the body in terms of the nation’s commitments to human rights.

Ahead of the Maldives removal from suspension of CMAG last September, former Foreign Minister and current UN Special Rapporteur to Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed said at the time that the country’s removal from the agenda would be “a travesty” – accusing the government of committing “reprehensible actions” following the CNI report’s release.

“Things are not going well in the Maldives – the government is intent on persecuting Nasheed and the MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party)”, he claimed at the time. “They seem hell bent on repressing the people.”

Ahead of Friday’s CMAG meeting, several NGOs complied a so-called joint human rights brief accusing the Maldivian government of failing to create conditions conducive to free and fair elections

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) alleged there were “clear signs indicating that the coalition government in power since February 2012 has so far failed to set the conditions for free and fair elections in which ‘all parties and leaders are able freely to conduct election campaigns’.”

Meanwhile, Back in January this year, the Maldives was one of two countries to have been dropped from NGO Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies following the release of an annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.

Freedom House is an independent, non-government watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world. The NGO assesses and scores countries for political rights and civil liberties each year, and labels them ‘free’, ‘partly free’, or ‘not free’.

Contested inclusion

The Maldives government has continued to contest whether the Maldives should have ever been included on the CMAG agenda.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dhunya Maumoon has previously claimed that the country’s inclusion has been a result of a “lack of understanding of the true events that transpired in the Maldives.”

“Some countries” had realised this error and accused Nasheed of influencing CMAG members, she alleged.

In April 2012, Maldives’ permanent representative to the EU Ali Hussein Didi criticised the Commonwealth’s involvement in the Maldives, telling the European Parliament that CMAG lacked a clear mandate to place the Maldives on its agenda.


Fiji: a case study in the realities of Commonwealth suspension

As Maldivian politicians contemplate renouncing the country’s membership in the Commonwealth amidst threats of suspension, a sign of some of the implications the country may face should this come to pass can be seen in the Pacific Ocean-based island nation of Fiji.

In September 2009 Fiji was itself suspended from the Commonwealth, a 54 member state intergovernmental organisation rooted in the former British empire,  after Fiji’s military heads refused to hold previously-agreed elections in 2010 after coming to power.

Fiji’s suspension had significant economic and diplomatic ramifications for the island nation after some foreign powers began to see the country as a “rogue state”, resulting in a significant drop in aid and other assistance, according to New Zealand-based geopolitics consultancy, 36th Parallel Assessments.


Fiji found itself facing “estrangement” from western aid and other technical programmes after it was suspended from the Commonwealth three years ago.

Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth saw the country isolated from “aid donors aligned to western democracies”, observed Selywn Manning from 36th Parallel Assessments.

“This brand of authoritarian government caused aid donor nations and bodies (most significantly donor funds from the European Union) to be cut. Donors became reticent to commit development funds to Fiji, and indeed the Commonwealth member states in the Pacific region used this withdrawal of aid funds as a lever to pressure Fiji to return to democratic rule,” Manning explained.

The suspension also led to a shift in attitudes towards investment and business spending in the country, particularly tourism.

“Fiji’s isolation was made worse for its people due to the Commonwealth suspension decision following on from the position taken by the Pacific Islands Forum – a body consisting of 16 independent south/west Pacific islands states. The Pacific Islands Forum leaders had earlier decided to suspend Fiji until it recommitted to free and fair democratic elections,” Manning said.

“Fiji’s refusal to do so caused Australia and New Zealand to express a foreign policy that enforced travel and visitor sanctions levelled against Fiji’s ruling military elite and their families. The two western aligned nations also successfully lobbied the United Nations secretariat to de-commission, or discontinue, Fiji soldiers from taking part in peacekeeping operations around the world. The consequence of these moves caused Fiji’s economy to suffer. By late 2008, Fiji’s economy was in recession and this in-turn impacted on the livelihoods of ordinary Fiji families.”

International standing

The vacuum left by Western-aligned interests was quickly filled by other countries, especially China, Manning said.

China became the “most significant” of these external powers to befriend Fiji whilst more “Western aligned” bodies such as Australia, New Zealand and the wider Commonwealth organisation effectively enforced “estrangement” on the nation, he said.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) committed to aid and donor programmes and Fiji’s people began to notice positive change. PRC funds permitted the military regime to put its soldiers to work building new roads and improve infrastructure and government owned facilities. The military regime also permitted an increase in Chinese enterprise to establish inside Fiji, while western foreign and private investment stagnated or declined,” he said.

According to Manning, as Fiji has begun to accede to international pressure to host democratic elections by 2014, one of the key drivers towards the development was the belief that China’s donor support did not account for losses incurred by Commonwealth suspension.

“There are two elements that are able to be identified as significant influencers in [terms of scheduling elections for 2014]. The Peoples Republic Of China’s committed donor programme does not replace in dollar terms the loss Fiji has experienced to its total aid funds received ledger,” he explained.

“This has caused Fiji’s military government to move to sustain donor funds from the PRC while inching toward recreating Fiji as a post-coup democratic state,” he added. “Should elections be held in 2014, Fiji anticipates western aid funders will re-establish contact with its government and re-commit to assistance programmes.

“The second element is the United States’ position to establish warm relations with Fiji, encourage foreign investment in a post-election period and welcome Fiji back as a nation on friendly-nation status terms.”

While it remains suspended from the Commonwealth, Manning said Fiji has still been able to represent itself before the general assembly of the United Nations. However Fiji’s relationship with its wealthy neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, remained terse.

Manning added that Fiji had also retained membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a four member inter-governmental body that includes Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands and Vanuatu among its representatives.

“The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) did not suspend Fiji but has given Fiji a degree of legitimacy around the Pacific region,” he noted.

“The MSG was usually dominated by Papua New Guinea’s wishes, but since 2010, PNG has supported Fiji’s Prime Minister and military leader Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s chairmanship of the Melanesian bloc,” he said. “Once stable in the role, under Bainimarama’s leadership, Melanesian nations have moved to establish unprecedented independence – most recently Melanesian leaders agreed to establish a regional security force called The Legion which would arguably replace regional assistance missions led by Australia and New Zealand should civil unrest cause a Melanesian state to require external assistance to quell an uprising.”

As well as defence agreements, the MSG is also said to have moved to represent its members among global bodies without having Melanesian countries go through the Pacific Islands Forum. Funding to do this has come from donors including the People’s Republic of China, Timor Leste, and Luxembourg.

National mood

Asked how the Fijian public viewed the Commonwealth’s actions to suspend its membership, Selwyn responded that it was hard to identify a particular national mood, owing to the country’s strongly-polarised society around two distinct ethnic groups.

Of these two groups, indigenous Fijians and the Indo-Fijian population, Selwyn claimed the latter had benefited from a move by the present military regime towards a less racially segregated societal system.

“The regime’s goal is to legislate and enforce a new constitution which will remove political protections for Fiji’s indigenous peoples and stamp out so-called corrupt practice by Fiji’s former power-elite. It appears many Fijians, subscribing to both ethnic groups, support Bainimarama’s plan,” he said. “Also, due to staunch censorship decrees enforced in post-coup Fiji it is difficult to analyse a statistically accurate poll of public opinion.”

However, 36 Parallel Assessments, in its research, said that what support the current government did have among its people and international partners could well be dented by a failure to adhere to the 2014 election timetable.

In terms of the immediate future for Fiji, the nation still remains suspended from the Commonwealth, a decision that will be maintained until scheduled democratic elections are held in 2014.

However, Selwyn said that in terms of the Commonwealth’s success or failure in resolving the country’s political upheavals, it was important to look at the organisation’s work within the wider international community.

“The Commonwealth’s demand that Fiji must return to democracy has not set it apart as the stand-alone entity that will cause Fiji to return to democracy. Rather it is a voice among numerous bodies that are pressing the argument,” Manning said.

“It is the cumulative voice that has caused Fiji to take notice and to express a willingness to hold elections in 2014 post establishing a new constitution,” he added. “Should Fiji’s prime minister Commodore Bainimarama be elected as leader in 2014, then he will have pulled off a political coup, South-Pacific style. And that is a tempting proposition for an isolated military man to ponder.”

Maldives and CMAG

The Maldives has already been suspended from Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy arm, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). However, Commonwealth Secretariat Spokesperson Richard Uku cautioned against comparing the Maldives against a former member state like Fiji.

“Each country situation that CMAG has considered in the past has had its own particular characteristics. It would not be fair to compare one situation against the other,” Uku said.

As one of the more active elements of the international community in the Maldives following the controversial events of February 7, the Commonwealth has become a bellweather for the response of the wider international community.

The European Union told Minivan News last week that it continued to back CMAG and its Special Envoy Sir Donald Mckinnon in pursuing early elections, and an independent inquiry into the transfer of power that saw President Mohamed Waheed brought to office amid violent demonstrations, an assault on Male’s military base by mutinying police, and the storming of the state broadcaster.

While the Commonwealth has been criticised by Maldivian politicians associated with the new government, Secretariat Spokesperson Uku claimed the organisation’s experience had shown that no member state wished to be placed in such a situation as to be suspended from the group.

“Commonwealth membership carries political, economic and social benefits for member states and is valued by our member states. It also carries obligations about adhering to certain fundamental political values,” he said.

“Suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth has practical ramifications in terms of a member state being excluded from official Commonwealth meetings at various levels and being barred from receiving new technical assistance in many areas.”

Following its most recent meeting on April 16, Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (GMAG) warned of  “stronger measures” against the Maldives if conditions regarding the independence of Dr Waheed’s Commission of Independent Inquiry (CNI) were not met. Some MPs aligned with the government subsequently called for the Maldives to preemptively disassociate itself from the Commonwealth.

State Minister for Foreign Affairs and daughter of former President Gayoom, Dunya Maumoon,  meanwhile accused the organisation of showing “bias” against the new President in its calls for early elections, claiming it had been misinformed. President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said last week that the Maldives was committed to remaining a Commonwealth Member, but “only under the regulations of our constitution”.


Fijian man sentenced for two years imprisonment for sexual assault

The Criminal Court of the Maldives has sentenced a Fiji man to two years imprisonment for sexually assaulting a Canadian woman.

The man identified as Thomas Cunningham Newton was arrested in June 2011 for sexually assaulting a female pilot at the sea plane operator TransMaldivian Airways (TMA) while he was employed as the Chief Engineer at the same company.

TMA’s Managing Director Alsford Edward James declined to comment on the case citing that it is “not a company matter”.

However, he confirmed that Newton’s employment was terminated following the arrest, but the female pilot still works for the company.


Comment: India speaks for small countries and establishes its credential in the CHOGM

In the recently conducted Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in
Perth from October 28-30, it was established that in the 21st century, the head of
the Commonwealth is shifting from London to New Delhi with the rise of India as
a Great Power.

Looking at the events leading up to the CHOGM and the outcome proves that
India has elbowed other countries in the CHOGM, which includes its former colonial
master Britain and aspiring Great Power in the Asia Pacific, Australia.

The western countries in the CHOGM, namely Britain, Australia and New
Zealand, wanted to pin the countries which were ruled by colonial masters before
by bringing about an institution which monitor the human rights in those
countries. This move was scuttled by India saying quite bluntly that CHOGM
should focus more on developmental challenges rather than bringing up the
issue of human rights for which there’s a better multi-lateral institution called the
United Nations.

India also went on to highlight the hypocrisy of the western nations and the
double-standards that they follow in pursuing lofty utopian concepts called human
rights. While the western world is keen to have the status-quo monarchies in
power in the Middle-East to serve their oil-benefits, they’re ready to wield a big
stick against countries like Fiji, Maldives and Sri Lanka which are in the fringes of
their geo-strategic objectives.

If the CHOGM is anything to go by, it’s clear that India has graduated itself from a regional power in South Asia to a Great Power in Asia Pacific that
can speak for the smaller nations in Africa, Latin America and Africa. India’s
pursuance of tactful diplomacy is done with an objective; it understands that
it needs the support of these countries for its candidature in the United Nations
Security Council.

Second, India would also not be conducting its diplomacy based on utopian
concepts like Human Rights while its near competitor is having a free-run for the resources in the Global South’s developing countries. It’s just a matter of time
before India will join the race with China to carve out “Spheres of Influence” in these regions, defining its neo-colonial pursuits. The last image that India will try to project is a torch-bearer of old power players from the West.

On the other hand, it’s good that India has finally understood its diplomatic strength. As the country which houses the most English speakers in the world, it has lived up to the expectation of filling the void left by Great Britain in the realm of Great Powers through the Commonwealth Nations. This point has been stated in the book “Reconnecting Britain and India,” published in 2010.

It’s here that a bit of appreciation for India’s founding fathers is needed.

Despite coming out of the colonial rule from the British and having staunch
opposition from the Indian population against joining the Commonwealth nations,
it was felt that a day will come when India as a Great Power could use its past for
the future. CHOGM has been the starting point of that ambition.

On that note, it will interesting to see on how India conducts its affairs in the
much-expected South Asian Affairs of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit scheduled in Maldives from 10th to 11th of this month.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]