The chain of protests that rocked the Arab world this year have shown that governments have forever lost the ability to control information, President Mohamed Nasheed has said in a keynote address to the United Nations, including the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council.
“Those of us who believe in individual liberties should rejoice at this fact because, quite simply, it changes the rules of the game,” he said.
Describing himself as a protester, “as someone who has spent much of his adult life speaking out against leaders who place their own interests over those of their people, leaders who seek power for power’s sake,” Nasheed observed that globalisation and the democratisation of information now meant that “governments simply have no option” but to listen to the demands of pro-democracy protesters.
“In a time of awakening, Muslims across the world are standing up, governments must see peaceful protests not as a threat but as an opportunity,” Nasheed said.
“It is a a moment when Muslims across the world are standing up as one to demand equality, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These developments provide a fitting rebuttal to those, inside and outside of Islam, who claim that our religion is not compatible with democracy.”
Nasheed predicted that 2011 would come to be seen “as a tipping point for peaceful protests, as the moment when the balance of power swung, irreversibly, from the state to the streets.”
“In the past, when news and information were more malleable, governments had the option of suppressing protests in the hope of breaking them before news spread. Swift, decisive and often violent action at the outset could, in this sense, nip the problem in the bud. Life, especially for those in positions of power, could go on as normal,” he observed.
“In the past, facts and truths could be constructed and controlled by a few. Today they can be discovered and learned by everyone. The use of modern communication technology has allowed those with grievances to mobilise and spread their message. And, crucially, modern media also provides a lens through which the outside world can witness events unfold and learn the truth.”
As a result of globalisation and the communication revolution, “the more a government tries to control, the less control it actually has. The more those in power try to tighten their grip, the more power slips through their fingers,” Nasheed said.
“Today, the only way to rule sustainably is to rule with the trust and consent of the governed.”
Protests in the Maldives began eight years ago, changing the course of the country’s history, Nasheed explained.
“At one level we were protesting against something – against an autocratic system of government which had monopolised power for thirty years. But we were also protesting for something – for a better, fairer system of government, for equality and for justice.
“Today, we have succeeded in sweeping away the old. In 2008 the previous government was peacefully removed from power in free and fair elections under a new Constitution.”
Nasheed emphasised that the country’s first democratic multi-party elections were just the beginning of true democratic reform. The present challenges faced by the Maldives – not just the strengthening of independent institutions but also confronting the past – would be mirrored in Tunisia and Egypt, he predicted.
“One challenge is to establish and strengthen independent institutions, to ensure that democracy and human rights are guaranteed regardless of who is in power. A second challenge relates to transitional justice and reconciliation – how to deal with the past without endangering the future,” he explained.
“There can be no doubt that serious human rights violations were committed in the Maldives and that the victims of those violations deserve justice. But we must draw a clear line between reconciliation and revenge. To move forward, the search for truth and justice must be placed within an overall framework of national reconciliation – we must look forward, not back.
“A third challenge is to rebuild the economic fabric of the country. People cannot properly enjoy democratic freedoms if their basic needs are left unfulfilled. Without socio-economic development, political transitions quickly unravel.
“These challenges are relevant not only for the Maldives. They are also relevant for other countries that have dismantled autocratic regimes.”