Dr Ahmed Shaheed has served as a Foreign Minister across two successive (and opposing) governments, and remains one of the country’s most astute politicians. Recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, he tells Minivan News about being on both sides of the country’s first democratic election, reveals the extent of PR firm Hill & Knowlton’s involvement in drafting reforms and the former government’s use of private security firms to investigate the origins of the MDP, and the realities of prosecuting complex human rights abuses with a criticised judiciary.
JJ Robinson: How does the Iranian government’s refusal to allow you into the country affect your role as UN special rapporteur on Iran?
Dr Ahmed Shaheed: Whenever special rapporteur mandates are country-specific they always have the issue of not being able to access the country they are investigating. Often the country itself feels unfairly singled out for scrutiny, or that they don’t have a problem.
This is always a challenge, but by and large they come around in the end. The last time a Special Rapporteur was in Iran was in 1996. Countries eventually come round, but it takes time.
The work of the special rapporteur is structured in such a way that even if a field visit is not possible the work can continue. I will take up the assignment in August.
JJ: Will you continue in your capacity as a political advisor to the President during the mandate?
AS: No I will not. I will speak with the President and terminate my work with the government before I take on this role.
JJ: Following your resignation as Foreign Minister in the wake of Parliament’s decision in November 2010 to not approve the reappointment of seven members of cabinet, you were appointed to the Presidential Commission. What were you working on?
AS: Even as Foreign Minister I was involved in transitional justice and [pursuing] embezzled funds. It started during a conference we had in March 2009, when a number of donor countries and institutions met President Mohamed Nasheed and requested he look into the allegations of corruption.
Looking for the embezzled funds was important and the Foreign Ministry obviously had to pay attention to that. So I keep tabs on it as part of my work. In that time, one of the major issues we focused on concerned the leaked report [by forensic accountancy firm Grant Thorton, documenting the State Trading Organisation (STO)’s sale of discounted oil to the Burmese military junta on the blackmarket].
You will recall that in the furor last year over [the Maldives accepting an former inmate from] Guantanamo Bay, one of the memos showed a conversation between Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed and US Government authorities regarding the potential for US help with asset recovery.
JJ: This was StAR, the Stolen Asset Recovery programme?
AS: StAR was the World Bank’s program. We were also in discussion with other authorities. It showed the importance we attached to the issue.
My assignment to the Presidential Commission was a means of continuing the work I had done while in cabinet.
JJ: The leaked Grant Thorton report revealed that the Maldives had been selling oil on the blackmarket to Burma for years, and named former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen as a person of interest. What is the current status of the investigation?
AS: I haven’t resigned my post from the Commission so I am bound by their code of silence. The report that was leaked was a very preliminary report. What was surprising was Yameen’s reaction. He has since realised his error and stopped commenting, not wanting to incriminate himself further.
JJ: Did the leak compromise the investigation?
AS: The leak has not compromised anything. Of course there were worries that it would, but the report was very preliminary. Much work has been done subsequently.
JJ: Has there been any effort to trace the source of the leak to avoid further compromise of the investigation?
AS: There was an attempt to identity the leak, but leaks are always hard to plug or identify. I’m aware measures were taken to ensure material handled remains confidential. I am satisfied that nothing else has been compromised.
JJ: The government to some extent seems to be relying on the court of public opinion. Even if it accumulates considerable evidence against Yameen or Gayoom, or any minister of the former government, given the intense politicisation is it even possible to conduct a trial locally?
AS: Let me correct the initial presumption. No, we are not relying on the court of public opinion. If we did, then everything we knew would be published. We are aware of the limitations the judiciary have here in terms of handling cases of commerical fraud and corruption cases. There’s a damper on what can be achieved here.
This is about asset recovery – we do not necessarily want to see anybody behind bars. We want to establish the fact that money was stolen and recover it. The real benefit lies in recovering the funds.
JJ: The Democratic Voice of Burma, reporting on this story, raised a number of points regarding drug links and noted that people who were listed as board members of MOCOM, the STO joint venture involved in this deal, were also connected to senior members of the Golden Triangle. Has there been anything in the government’s investigation so far to suggest there may have been a drug element in this?
AS: No, we are not pursuing it as broadly as this. We are focused on asset recovery. The investigation is making progress, and I think the government might be in a position to give out more details in a month’s time.
JJ: On the subject of the judiciary – there is periodic push by the senior figures in the government, such as the present Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem, to investigate and prosecute human abuses committed under the former administration. Again, given the politicisation of the issue, is this viable and are fair trials of such cases even possible given the current state of the judiciary?
AS: Well, the short answer to your question would put me in contempt of court. I think the judiciary has a public trust deficit. It needs to really demonstrate that it is competent and able to handle complex cases, especially those trials that have a high political content. If you ask around, it is anybody‘s guess – most people will say a fair trial [on human rights abuses] would be very difficult to hold.
But that does not absolve us of the responsibility of trying to set the record straight on what was done. The aim is not prosecution but reconciliation and moving on. The idea is to understand what happened here so we do not repeat it in the future. But for the people who want direct remedy for what what was done to them – I think we have to look at the possibilities.
With parliament’s election of [Jumoree Party leader and local business and media tycoon] MP Gasim Ibrahim to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), I think we have to fathom the public reaction.
JJ: Was Gasim’s appointment to a commission tasked with overseeing the country’s justice system a step backwards for judicial independence?
AS: My worry is that the judiciary is supposed to be independent. The Maldives already violates the [Commonwealth’s] Latimer House Principles [o separation of powers] because of the way the constitution is set up. There is already too much interference by the parliament in the judiciary, and there is too much concern from the judiciary about parliament’s sanction over them.
So when a powerful member of parliament is elected to the judicial watchdog, you really begin to wonder whether the Latimer House Principles apply in this country at all. From this perspective Gasim’s election is a concern – he is like Lord Chamberlain combined with Donald Trump.
People here are concerned about undue influence of the judiciary, they are concerned about money politics, they are concerned about justice – these concerns are amplified when you have a big industrialist overseeing the judiciary. It doesn’t matter whether it is Gasim or whoever. If you have a country coming out of autocracy and a person [from that system] sitting on the JSC, you have the stuff of nightmares.
JJ: On the subject of reconciliation over reparation, do you think there is room for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) here?
AS: No, I do not think so, because right now, every dream we had 3-4 years ago is in the background to the Z-faction (Gayoom’s faction of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party).
The values of the Z-faction are the same values people have been looking to move away from – nepotism and all these ultra-conservative attitudes. The belief that it is OK to pass the baton to family members, to cling to power for 40 years, to do all you can to cling to power. That attitude is what the Z-Faction is representing.
Look at the way it is organised. It is based on the most ultra right-wing Gayoom [support] you can find in this country. Gayoom still has so much traction in the opposition that they all react to him – either to placate him, or to mitigate his influence. Either way, they are all focused on Gayoom.
An opposition focused on Gayoom is not what we want. And therefore reconciliation – drawing the line and moving on – all that has to wait until we can move beyond Gayoom.
JJ: The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s reaction to the current state of the opposition – and the recent poaching of their MPs – suggests a new pragmatism in their political thinking. However, some of the core membership of idealistic activists have privately expressed concern that the new arrivals are bringing skeletons with them, as in the case of the former Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) MP Hassan Adhil who is currently being tried for child molestation. Is there a risk that this new wave of pragmatism will undermine the party’s idealistic roots?
AS: All politicians have to be practical and pragmatic. Ideals are fine and they should not be abandoned, you should remain focused on them and pursue them, but then you ultimately have to work with the canvas given to you.
The key here is finding the critical mass for reform. To get that critical mass you need to build coalitions. And you can’t build coalitions with castles in the air – it has to happen with people on the ground.
The thing to do is not to overlook or condone, but to put up mechanisms and institutional processes to take care of these cases; so no person is above the law or accountability, and no person has impunity. To think that you have 77 seats in the Majlis is a mistake.
JJ: We’ve talked about human rights and investigating past abuses, and the government is fairly consistent in this both domestically and in its statements denouncing war crimes in countries like Libya. But when the UN publishes a report accusing the Maldives’ neighbour Sri Lanka of war crimes and requests an investigation, the Foreign Minister [Ahmed Naseem]’s comment is that such a report is “singularly un-counterproductive”. Is there a point where a human rights agenda runs up against diplomatic realities?
AS: At a generic level throughout history this is there. But I think Naseem’s comments and the government’s position on Sri Lanka have been misunderstood. The Libyan situation is different from the current situation in Sri Lanka. Libya is ongoing – things are happening today on the ground, and we need to try to prevent further abuses tomorrow.
In Sri Lanka’s case these are post-conflict issues. What we say is that the most important thing in a post-conflict situation is to find a way forward and not live in the past. This does not mean we are condoning abuses, or saying such things are fine. But Sri Lanka needs to find common ground with the UN Human Rights Council in which both parties can move forward. The government of Sri Lanka needs to be able to enter into dialogue with the international community to achieve speedier reconciliation.
You can’t have reconciliation and long-lasting peace unless you respect human rights and set up mechanisms to do so. But we should steer clear of politicisation, or the divisions that have kept the flame of terrorism alive in Sri Lanka for so long. We are saying let Sri Lanka find a way forward and achieve reconciliation – we are not saying we don’t care about the past.
JJ: It is looking increasingly like the decision of whether to launch an international investigation into alleged war crimes in the closing days of the Sri Lankan civil war will come down to a vote on the UN Human Rights Council, on which the Maldives sits. If it does come to that, is the Maldives likely to vote for such an investigation?
AS: I no longer speak for the Maldives, but in these situations the context does matter. My recommendation for the government would be to not get bogged down in the details, and to look at the broader perspective. The long-term interest for the Maldives is that Sri Lanka improves and Sri Lanka remain within the committee of nations, and has a positive engagement with the UN Human Rights Council.
I think Sri Lanka has many friends in the West and there are many who still want to work with Sri Lanka. My advice would be to remain politically engaged.
JJ: Is there a risk that domestically-unwanted international scrutiny into these war crimes and human rights abuses could alienate Sri Lanka from the international community and risk turning it into a pariah nation? It has already opened a Chinese submarine base.
AS: Talking to the Chinese should not make anyone a pariah state. I don’t think Sri Lanka is in any danger of this – pariah states are countries such as North Korea. Sri Lanka is still democratic and it is still working, it just needs to bring some closure to a 25 year conflict that has created some very nasty wounds. It needs to find a way of healing. The West is also trying to help find a healing process.
The bottom line is that war is hell. People should try to recognise the context of what happened [in Sri Lanka], and find a way of moving forward.
JJ: You have been foreign minister across two successive and very politically-polarised governments, and you have been very active in promoting the Maldives’ human rights agenda. As a minister under the former government, were you not in a position to do something about the human rights abuses to which you now campaign against? What was it about that situation that made you unable to pursue such an agenda at the time?
AS: Without being too modest about it, I was able to make a difference to the Gayoom regime in terms of how it dealt with these issues. When I came into the Gayoom regime (in July 2005) it was very unfriendly to human rights. My terms of engagement with Gayoom was that he would pursue and reform certain policies – which happened, ultimately.
You will notice that it was on my watch as a minister that we signed onto the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the CAT optional protocol (to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment), and any number of things.
We welcomed the first visit of Amnesty International and began working with them, and became much more open and engaged. We opened the doors to all UN Special Rapporteurs.
We became much more engaged with human rights. I and New Maldives (a group within the regime that pushed for liberal democracy) colleagues of mine were able to impart to Gayoom and his older advisers that we should allow pluralism at home – that we should allow political parties, and give space to the opposition.
Many of those who are linked to the President himself, through his friends and family, will know that I was an interlocutor between them and Gayoom. Twice I put my job on the line to get President [Mohamed Nasheed] out of arrest, and said I was going home unless he was released. I also put my job on the line for reporters.
Gayoom needed me to talk to the media and foreign diplomats, and I had certain no-go areas in return for that. I represented him at the Westminster House talks, and I agreed to a package of measures without consulting him, which included releasing Jennifer Latheef and Nasheed from prison, and I made sure Gayoom authorised these releases on time.
Because the things I did for Gayoom gave him international space, he was willing to go along with things I said. I was moving him along to become more open.
The only way you can verify what I’m saying is to ask others. I met [former US Ambassador, now Assistant Secretary of State] Robert Blake as Gayoom’s Foreign Minister, I met him when I was running in opposition to Gayoom in the presidential elections, and I have met him as Nasheed’s minister. So he has seen me wearing three different hats, and I don’t think he has heard me say anything different along the way.
People from Reporters Without Borders (RWB) – such as [former Asia Pacific Director] Vincent Brossel – also saw me wearing those three hats. I had a consistent message which was that we needed these reforms.
I had differences with [current Science and Technology Envoy, and publisher of the Dhivehi Observer] Ahmed ‘Sappe’ Moosa, but we both recognised the need for change. My position was this – if the government had changed in 2005, the new government would not felt the pressure to bring in reforms. After 25 years people would have toppled a dictator, felt the euphoria, and that a change of heads would work. But you don’t bring in reforms that way – that was my fear.
I knew that Gayoom’s term was limited in any case under the Constitution, and if we could use that space to introduce reforms we could build a foundation for democracy.
A week after I resigned as a minister (in 2007) I chaired a meeting of the opposition groups here on democratisation and I spoke about Huntington’s four models of democracy. And I said the most stable democracy had come when the government and opposition worked together to phase out the old system. My belief was in a gradual, reconciliatory change.
I was speaking to [then opposition leader] Mohamed Nasheed, Ali Hashim, Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, Hassan Afeef, and they found me a like-minded person. The controversies around me arose because in Gayoom’s time whenever there was a public crisis, all his ministers would turn off their telephones except me. Only mine would ring.
So the only voice that was heard was mine, and people associated it with the actual action. For example when people were bashed on Fares-Mathoda in January 2006, only my phone rang. I tried to answer people’s concerns and I was the only person quoted, so if you search for the incident all the comments are mine.
When Hussein Solah was killed, was found dead in the lagoon in Male’ [in April 2007], all the Ministers turned off their phones. It was clearly the Home Minister’s charge, but he would not speak to the press. Families were looking for information and I gave all the information I had on the case. Whenever Nasheed was arrested, I was the only person who would speak to anybody, so my name gets thrown on everything.
JJ: The current government has dug up a number of receipts for the services of international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, hired by the former government to assist with refreshing their image – a total of US$1.7 million. What was the true extent of H&K’s involvement in the Maldives and the reform movement?
AS: I do not know the motives of Gayoom in hiring Hill & Knowlton. But my links with them were on the basis that they would contribute to reform in the Maldives. So I agreed to be a liaison person with them, but only if they would work on a governance reform project.
Their first task was an audit of governance in the country: meeting various stake-holders, gauging public perception and making recommendations on what ought to be done. Their recommendation was that we needed to implement rapid political reforms, including political pluralism.
That was their report, and based on that Gayoom engaged them on a longer-term basis. this entailed assisting him with reforms internally, and projecting those reforms externally. It was not purely a PR function and it did entail real policy prescriptions for Gayoom.
JJ: So H&K was essentially writing policies for the previous government of the Maldives?
AS: Exactly. When you are in office for 30 years and your ministers and associates make recommendations to you, you don’t believe them. But if you have a posh firm from London making recommendations, you tend to believe them. And Gayoom did.
Things that Gayoom did on their recommendation included separating the army from the police, a whole raft of reforms on judicial function, prison reform, constitutional reform – all these things were done at their request.
The only H&K recommendations he left out – Hill & Knowlton wanted Yameen and the then Police Chief (Adam Zahir) sacked, and they also suggested that freedom of religion was something that was internationally demanded.
Of course, there’s no way any government here can introduce freedom of religion, and H&K’s usefulness ended when they recommended Yameen be removed – at that point Gayoom stopped listening to them.
H&K had a contract signed in April 2005, and their proposals were presented as a package. Their engagement was always positive and there was nothing covered up, and they came here only after speaking to the UK Foreign Office and US State Department. Of course, they are a commercial company and had their fees.
JJ: So you would say their role was positive in that they provided a voice of reform that Gayoom listened to?
JJ: What was behind Gayoom’s subsequent engagement of UK public relations firm the Campaign Company?
AS: The engagement of the Campaign Company was more for building his party and advice on how to manage and develop the DRP.
Of course, all these foreign advisors ended when they suggested to him that he or Yameen should go – the tracks end there.
JJ: A former H&K employee called Mark Limon continues to work for the government from the Geneva Mission. What does his work entail and is the expenditure justified?
AS: I think it is, because across three foreign ministers he has been retained. I hired him as a government agent in Geneva, and then after I left Abdulla Shahid retained him as a government agent, I retained him when I returned under Nasheed and now Naseem is retaining him.
I think his role has been very useful in projecting the Maldives as an active participant of the UN Human Rights Council, and linking up with other opportunities, such as the World Trade Organisation, the Climate Program, and a whole raft of others. The Geneva Mission is one of the best, if not the best mission that we have.
When this government came in there were calls to have the Geneva Mission closed down because not many were aware of what was going on. But I resisted, and many in the government are now convinced that Geneva is a very useful post.
JJ: What about some of these other receipts from UK security and private investigation firm Sion Resources in 2007, for a surveillance operation dubbed ‘Operation Druid’? The fact this took place in Salisbury suggests the former government had some concerns about the origins of the MDP. Were those justified?
AS: The government’s intelligence people got all sorts of reports from all sorts of sources, which any government is obligated to investigate. The range of reports included attempts to assassinate Gayoom, and they came from sometimes official and sometimes unofficial sources. The lesson after the November 3 incident [coup attempt in 1988] was that it was better to check on these to see whether they were reliable.
I’m not suggesting this applied to Salisbury, but in the summer of 2004, when there was emergency rule here, there were a number of concerns as to who was funding the MDP. The government wanted to know who was behind it, and whether it was a foreign government.
The government may have wanted to see what was going on. What these operations did was try to see who was who. And a lot of the operations the government felt were against it came from Salisbury, and I think the government of the day felt justified in engaging a firm to look into what was going on.
We’re talking about people who they had deported from the Maldives for proselytisation, people involved in all sort of activities. They felt they needed to check on that, and what came out was a clean bill of health. Nothing untoward was happening, and these people were by and large bone-fide.
There had also been an attempt to arrest Gayoom inside the UN building in Geneva. This happened in May 2005. If a head of state is stopped inside a UN building that is a breach of UN security. I was part of the delegation.
JJ: Was this an arrest by police or a group of activists?
AS: It was [Salisbury-based Friends of Maldives NGO founder] David Hardingham and Sarah Mahir.
They managed to walk inside the UN building and follow Gayoom. No head of state is going to accept that treatment by the UN – they are not supposed to be exposed to this type of harassment in the UN. There are areas for this kind of protest. I think Gayoom was quite shaken by that, and afterwards he was not as complacent over the security given to him by his hosts, be that by the UK or UN.
JJ: Salisbury came up again regarding accusations from the former government that Hardingham and Salisbury Cathedral were conspiring to blow up the Islamic Centre and build a church. The allegation still pops up occasionally. What was that about?
AS: It was just a mischievous suggestion, a very mischievous suggestion. [Former Attorney General] Hassan Saeed and I – the last election rally we had, October 7 2008 or thereabouts, the last rally in our campaign against Gayoom, at the time everyone was accusing each other of being non-Muslim, and this accusation that the MDP was non-Muslim was getting very loud.
So we came on stage and said we were former government ministers and that we were aware about this allegation against MDP and that Gayoom had hired a firm to look into this allegation, and that their report had confirmed there was no such connection to MDP. Both of us said this on record.
JJ: Gayoom hired a firm to look into those allegations concerning Salisbury Cathedral’s interest in transnational terrorism?
AS: No – all sorts of allegations about who was behind MDP. Was this a home-grown opposition, was a foreign government behind it? Who was the MDP?
Part of the concern at the time was that this might have been a religion-based opposition to Gayoom. There was paranoia about [protecting] Islam.
What we said was that various allegations about MDP were investigated, and it came out clean. It was a bone-fide political party. What I’m saying is: we said that, Gayoom knew that, and any suggestion that the MDP had links to a cathedral was just utter mischief.
That particular claim you refer to was on a flyer dumped on the street, claiming that David Hardingham wanted to blow up the Islamic Centre and build a cathedral. It was all rubbish – there was also a picture going around of Gayoom wearing a cross.
Those allegations were flying left and right, and then somebody got off at a station near Hardingham’s residence and saw a cathedral nearby.
JJ: Is there a sense that this religious paranoia – and the use of religion as a political weapon – has died down since then?
AS: I think we’ve been saturated by allegations. There is this very, very deep reaction to anything un-Islamic in this country, and you can use Islam as a political tool quite easily. Therefore these allegations become political charges.
But I think people are getting fed up with it – you can see the reactions in the press to my appointment as special rapporteur. DRP MP Mahlouf said it was a Zionist conspiracy and a trade-off for favours done to Israel on my part. These things ring hollow the more you say them. They become cliche.
JJ: Your comment last July about parliament engaging in “scorched earth” politics became the defining description for the cabinet resignation in July 2010. The government seems to have since toned down the rhetoric and deals with parliament much more diplomatically – but has anything changed significantly? Has parliament changed?
AS: I think parliament had a moment of hubris last year when the ministers resigned. I think they thought they had won the battle with the government, and therefore they went on and rejected the reappointment of seven ministers [including Shaheed]. But I think they learned that in politics you can use up your capital. Once you’ve used it, it’s finished. I think they are unlikely to act in such as arrogant manner subsequent to that.
They have come down a peg. But they still haven’t moved on. The single greatest factor restraining the parliament from moving forward is [DRP Leader] Ahmed Thasmeen Ali’s weakness as a leader.
Thasmeen isn’t Gayoom, he doesn’t carry Gayoom’s baggage, he is relatively young, and he needed to speak up against Gayoom – but he never did. And therefore he has failed to be the voice of the new generation, the voice of the future and the new age. Instead, he has been drowned out by the old guard, who are becoming louder and louder. Consequently, parliament has not really moved on from where it was a year back.
Your point about pragmatism – the MDP has become more pragmatic, and more willing to engage with parliament. I think the change of leadership in the Parliamentary Group will continue that trend. You will see a reinvigorated effort from MDP to engage the opposition and move ahead. But its success will be limited by what the opposition can match.
I don’t see Gasim or Yameen playing ball. I think Thasmeen is done for, but if anyone in the DRP can see beyond Gayoom I think you will see a better parliament.
JJ: You survived two governments and narrowly avoid a no-confidence motion regarding the government’s engagement with Israel (by one vote, after former DRP MP Alhan Fahmy voted against his own party).
AS: My feeling was that if [the Israel] accusation had been against me in person, I didn’t have the need to defend myself. If they had accused me of personal impropriety, I would not have gone to defend myself. The only reason I appeared in parliament was because the government’s policy was at stake.
I was defending the government and it was my duty to be there. I spoke to a number of MPs in the run up to it, and none of them knew the circumstances in which they could use that power to dismiss me. It’s a presidential system, so it’s an impeachment – it’s not a vote of no-confidence.
For impeachment you have to prove misconduct. But they weren’t – they were simply expressing anger over policy towards Israel. They did not charge me with misconduct, impropriety, or breach of trust. My feeling was: what a bunch of idiots.
JJ: You survived that – and later resigned after parliament refused to approve your reappointment following the cabinet resignation. Was it upsetting to ultimately lose the foreign minister’s position?
AS: No, it didn’t upset me. My view is that in a new government, a new order, you require a quick turnover of ministers. If a new democratic regime retains a minister for five years, then they are missing a beat. A rapid turnover of ministers will help the president move forward – although I’m not saying he should sacrifice experience.
Many politicians believed that if you laid low you’d survive the distance. But I wasn’t in a marathon – this was a sprint.
Two years in this government and I think I have done enough as required of me as a minister. I was not surprised by parliament’s decision, and I would have been happy to have lost that vote on Israel policy as well.
My conduct as minister has always been to be active. “It’s better to burn out than to rust” – who said that? I think it was the guy from the Sex Pistols.