Maldives defers decision on UPR recommendations for judicial reform

The Maldives has deferred accepting or rejecting recommendations put forth at the UN human rights council on judicial reform and protection of human rights defenders, pending “national level consultation”.

Of the 258 recommendations from UN member states, the government accepted 132 and rejected 49 due to constitutional constraints. The Maldives said it will examine the remaining 77 recommendations and “provide responses in due time” before the 30th session of the Human Rights Council in September or October 2015.

The recommendations under review include calls to ensure the impartiality and independence of the judiciary, reform the Judicial Service Commission, and provide training to judges.

The “politicised” judiciary came under fire from countries across the world during last week’s UPR session, which took place amidst heightened international scrutiny and political turbulence triggered by the imprisonment of former president Mohamed Nasheed.

The UK recommended steps to “ensure the administration of justice is fully consistent with international human rights standards and seek international technical assistance.”

“Strengthen the independence of the judiciary by reforming the Judicial Services Commission’s process for selecting and appointing judges,” recommended the US.

Canada advised the formation of an independent bar association while several countries recommended steps to ensure the separation of powers.

Ireland recommended providing “adequate training for judges, including human rights training, to ensure all judicial proceedings conform to international fair trial standards”.

New Zealand recommended accepting “a follow up visit by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and accept the outstanding request of a visit by the Special Rapporteur on the situations of human rights defenders.”

The Netherlands advised fully implementing the special rapporteurs’ recommendations, including a constitutional review of the composition of the JSC.

Responding to criticism of the judiciary at the working group session, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon said the Maldives is training and building capacity of judges and has formulated a judicial sector strategic action plan to increase effectiveness, efficiency and public confidence.

The 49 recommendations Maldives rejected include allowing freedom of religion, ensuring the rights of homosexuals, banning the death penalty, and decriminalising consensual sexual relations.

The rejected recommendations also included removing a requirement that prevents non-Muslims from being members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM).

The Maldives constitutional assembly had declared Islam to be the state religion and the basis of all laws enacted in the country, and requires judges to refer to Islamic law, legal secretary Aishath Bisham said last week.

Other rejected recommendations included calls from Norway and Canada to release ex-president Nasheed and other “political prisoners.”

The US also called for an end to “politically-motivated prosecutions and court proceedings” against HRCM members and Nasheed, who was “convicted and imprisoned without minimum fair trial guarantees”.

Human rights defenders

Several countries also recommended taking steps to ensure the safety of human rights defenders, civil society actors and journalists against attacks and reprisals, calling for investigation and prosecution of individuals behind threats and intimidation.

The independence of the HRCM should also be assured, its members protected from reprisals, and the HRCM law brought in line with Paris Principles, reads the recommendations under review.

During the review, many countries expressed alarm over the Supreme Court’s suo moto case against the human rights watchdog over its UPR submission.

Denmark meanwhile noted that the Maldives’ initial report to the UN Committee against Torture is overdue since 2005.

“Bring an end to arbitrary detentions, particularly on the grounds of political opinion; investigate allegations of torture and ill treatment in prisons and bring those responsible to justice,” recommended France.

Other recommendations included ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the optional protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Germany and Portugal recommended the Maldives accede to Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Other countries recommended signing the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education and the Protocol to the Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime.


Comment: Iranian people need Maldives’ leadership at the UN

Dr Fatemeh Haghighatjoo is a former member of the Sixth Iranian Parliament. A co-founder and chief executive officer of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy and a leading advocate for a civil, women’s, and democratic rights in Iran.

During its current session, the UN Human Rights Council has heard the latest report from former Maldivian Foreign Minister and current UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Iran Dr Ahmed Shaheed.

The council is set to consider a resolution to extend Dr Shaheed’s current mandate this Thursday (March 27).

Eight months ago, Iranians overwhelmingly supported the moderate Mr Hassan Rouhani electing him president hoping that he could deliver on his promises to make meaningful human rights reforms. These include the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscious, and specifically Iran’s most important political opposition leaders – Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Ms. Zahra Rahnavard – who have been placed under house arrest for three years without charges or even seeing a court.

The international community welcomed Mr Rouhani’s election for many of the same reasons. Yet today, Iran has seen little to no human rights changes. Speech remains strictly curtailed. Hundreds political prisoners languish behind bars. Unfortunately, torture is common while fair trials are rare. Indeed, Iran’s leader and the judiciary have block any prospect of progress.

Facing these internal challenges, the Iranian people need the international community to help prioritise human rights reforms in our country.

The Maldives has played this role in recent years. As one of 47 voting members of the United Nations Human Rights Council it voted to establish and renew a special rapporteur dedicated to monitoring the situation in Iran on three occasions. In fact, the Maldives sponsored these resolutions.

In doing so the Maldives demonstrated why it was elected to the council.  It established itself as leading member of the body and one of the few Muslim countries willing to defend human rights.

As a Muslim myself, I know how vital it is that Muslim nations show their commitment to human rights.

This week, I hope Maldives demonstrates its leadership once again when the Iran vote is presented. To do otherwise would be to surrender its responsibilities at the Human Rights Council.

The illegal detention of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Radnvard plays a key role in Iran and demonstrates the need for Maldives and the Council to act.

These three people are no ordinary Iranians. Mousavi is a former Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic and Karroubi, a ranking cleric, is a former speaker of parliament. Both were government-vetted candidates in the disputed 2009 presidential election, and Radnavar – who is Mousavi’s wife – is one of the most respected women’s advocates in Iran and a former chancellor of Alzahra University.

So, if these individuals can be stripped of their rights, held without legal justification, formal charges, or a trial in violation of Iran’s own constitution – anyone can.

After authorities stopped Mousavi, Karroubi, and Radnavar from joining a February 14, 2011 peaceful demonstration in support of the Arab Spring, hardline members of Iran’s parliament called for their deaths on the floor of parliament. For the last three years, the supreme leader has called them traitors and state and pro-government media have repeatedly used distorted religious rhetoric to demonise them.

As a former member of parliament, Mr Karroubi was my boss, a friend and a mentor.

Karroubi is a kind, caring and social person. Human interaction is at the core of his personality. And for three years he has been cut off from the outside world, from visits with others with the rare exception of a few allowed visits from his wife and children. When I was a member of parliament, Karroubi frequently visited with the families of political prisoners and learned of their plight. He advocated on their behalf and in at least two instances, his support for prisoners sentenced to death led to their executions being stayed.

Mousavi and Radnvard were no different – committing themselves in defense of the rights of Iranian people and for this paid the price.

And it isn’t just Mousavi, Karroubi, and Radnvard suffering in Iran. This month, 23 prisoners of conscience wrote an open letter calling for an urgent visit to Iran by international human rights bodies and Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, to investigate the systematic violations taking place inside prisons.

As a former member of parliament, I understand the Islamic Republic. I know the only way we’ll see change in Iran is when the world stands with the people of Iran and loudly raises its concern.

The Maldives cannot ignore what is happening in Iran. This week, it must join the Human Rights Council and adopt a resolution renewing the mandate on human rights in Iran. The Maldives should also call for the release of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rahnavard and other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Iran.

For progress to be made, UN member states must stand together and tell Iran’s supreme leader that Iran must improve its dismal human rights record.


Foreign Minister calls on international community not to undermine Maldives’ judiciary

Minister of Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon has called on the international community to refrain from undermining the Maldives’ judicial system.

“We request our international partners to support us. We request you to contribute constructively in overcoming our challenges. We urge you not to undermine our judicial system,” said Dunya during the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council yesterday.

“We call on all to respect our institutions, young though they may be. And we urge you to base your partnership with us on dialogue and cooperation, not on judgment and retribution,” she added.

She pledged the government’s commitment to “uphold universal human rights norms and values” without compromising the country’s “religious and cultural identity and heritage in the process of change”.

The Maldives Judiciary have been the subject of criticism from a number of UN and other international bodies in recent months.

The UN Human Rights Committee on civil and political rights has said it is “deeply concerned about the state of the judiciary in the Maldives”, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay last year accused the Supreme Court of “subverting the democratic process”.

UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul expressed concern over the judiciary in a 2013 report, with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had in 2011 stated that the Maldivian courts were failing to serve the public impartially.

As recently as last week the US state department described the Maldives’ judiciary as “not independent and impartial” and “subject to influence and corruption”.

The Supreme Court is currently pursuing contempt of court charges against the Elections Commission over comments made  in a privileged parliamentary committee regarding the annulment of last year’s presidential election first round.

European Union and civil society groups have expressed concern over the courts current proceedings.

Democratic transition and human rights

Dunya said the country’s “long walk towards consolidating human rights” began with her father, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s reform agenda in 2004 and it was this agenda that brought a democratic constitution and “full separation of powers” to the Maldives.

Acknowledging that some “setbacks” were faced in the journey, she said that the Maldives has today reached further maturity in its democratic evolution with the “peaceful conclusion” of a “fully transparent” presidential elections.

Stating that president Abdulla Yameen, her uncle, had brought stability to the Maldives, Dunya highlighted the ratification of anti-human trafficking and anti-torture acts.

“The government of president Yameen has proven to be resilient and committed to ensuring a free and fair environment for the people in exceeding their political rights as citizen”. She said.

Referring to the controversial transfer of power in February 2012, Dunya suggested that the people of Maldives had since shown their commitment towards “actualizing democracy through due process” even when faced with international criticism and political upheaval.

HRC membership

Addressing the council for the first time since Maldives’ re-election for a second term as a member of the council, the minister said that being a member had helped Maldives to take ‘some unprecedented and bold measures’ to bring national human rights mechanisms up to international standards.

Dunya said the Maldives had been vocal against terrorism, religious extremism, and Islamophobia throughout its first term, while also speaking for the people of Palestine, Libya , Syria, and all those affected by climate change – with a special focus on the rights of women, children, and persons with disabilities.

She reiterated the Maldives’ call to cease all acts violence against innocent civilians of all communities in the Central African Republic. She said Maldives will continue to stand by “brothers and sisters” in Palestine and called for it to be recognised as an independent and sovereign state with full membership of the United Nations.

The foreign ministry has stated that Dunya will meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Mr Iyad Ameen Madani, and other bilateral and multilateral partners, during her stay in Geneva.

The Maldives council delegation will discuss issues such as human rights and the environment, and freedom of expression and opinion, and will also discuss freedom of religion or belief with the OIC.

The foreign minister’s statement at the council can be viewed here.


Maldives re-elected unopposed to UN Human Rights Council

The Maldives has been elected unopposed to the UN Human Rights Council for a second term, despite controversy over the legitimacy of the government.

“The Maldives believes that increasing the human rights resilience of the new and emerging democracies should be a priority for the Council and the entire UN system. The Maldives, being an emerging democracy itself, is ideally placed to contribute to the Council’s efforts in helping human rights promotion in such countries,” read a statement from the Maldivian Foreign Ministry.

President Mohamed Waheed announced that he was extending his term in office past the November 11, half an hour before it was due to expire. The international community has expressed concern and alarm that this has left the Maldives in a constitutional void, including the US, UK, Canada and the Commonwealth, which today placed the country on the agenda of its human rights and democracy arm.

The Foreign Ministry meanwhile said the Maldives had “stood for the voiceless in the international society; for the issues that affect the very fundamental values of human rights yet, hardly get a mention in global human rights debate; and it stood for helping the vulnerable and emerging democracies to cultivate the values of human rights in their societies.”

The Maldives was elected unopposed with 164 votes, alongsi Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) stated yesterday that the country’s re-election to the council in the absence of having a democratically-elected government “is a mockery and sends an absolutely wrong message about the UN Human Rights Council. The credibility of the United Nations can only be restored through suspension of the membership of Maldives from the UN Human Rights Council like Libya in 2011.”

Former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed, currently UN Special Rapporteur on Iran who was integral to the Maldives’ first election to the council in 2010 with 185 votes – the highest ever – noted the “vastly reduced majority from 2010.”

“There was also competition that year. This year, there was no competition: only four countries stood for the
four vacant seats. So there really was no choice for the General Assembly but to vote for Maldives,” Dr Shaheed told Minivan News.

“Given that fact that an MDP government is likely to be voted in next week, the Council Members will then have in Maldives a very pro-human rights partner, certainly in terms of the debates and votes in the Human Rights Council,” he noted.

“Finally, the Missions in Geneva and New York have been taking reasonably pro-human rights decisions, with the diplomats there using the void in the top in the Foreign Ministry to support pro-human rights decisions,” he said, congratulating the Maldives’ Ambassador to Geneva, Iruthisham Adam “for doing a remarkably good job in representing the flag, notwithstanding difficulties placed in her way by an autocratic

“But having said that, it is ironic that Maldives should now go back on the agenda of CMAG just as it got elected to the HRC,” he observed.


Shaheed more “actor than rapporteur”: Iran’s human rights chief

Iranian officials have accused former Maldivian foreign minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed, subsequently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, of failing to perform his duties adequately.

The Secretary General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights  labelled Dr Shaheed “more of an actor than a rapporteur”, suggesting that he had been acting like an inspector rather than a rapporteur according to the Tehran Times.

Mohammad Javad Larijani at the same time rejected Shaheed’s requests to visit the Islamic republic, stating: “I believe that the request is not serious.”

“I believe that in view of the measures taken by Ahmed Shaheed and the show of interviews launched by him, he is more of an actor than a rapporteur,” he added.

Dr Shaheed was appointed Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran in 2011 – the first time a Maldivian has held such a position.

The decision to establish a Special Rapporteur on Iran was made in 2011 after the deterioration of human rights in the country following the 2009 election.

The mandate for the position includes investigating human rights abuses and undertaking country visits in order to report back to the General Assembly.

The Tehran Times also quoted Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, who also attacked Dr Shaheed.

“He has not acted fairly and has played the role of the opposition, and his measures have been outside the purview of a UN rapporteur,” the paper quoted Abbas Araqchi as saying.

The spokesman is reported to have said that Iran has no intention of allowing Shaheed into the country until his approach is “modified”.

Shaheed is scheduled to report his recent findings to the General Assembly in October.

In his last report in March, he informed the UN Human Rights Council that Iran’s human rights violations had increased in the past two years.

In a list of recommendations, he urged Iran to “extend its full cooperation to the country mandate-holder by engaging in a substantive and constructive dialogue and facilitating a visit the country.”

Iran’s official response to this report described it as “biased” and as disregarding the “realities on the ground” and “principles of transparency, fairness and impartiality”.

Speaking with the Canadian media last month, Dr Shaheed had expressed hope that the new administration of President Hasan Rohani would result in greater opportunities for dialogue.

“Skepticism borne out of previous experience should not make us blind to opportunities,” he told the New Canadian Media website.

Shaheed’s chief critic, Larijani, made headlines last year when he reportedly described homosexuality as a “disease”.


Q&A: UN Ambassador Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed is the Maldives Ambassador to the UN and was defacto non-resident Ambassador to the US, prior to the recent appointment of Ahmed Sareer to the position. He speaks to Minivan News about the Maldives-US relationship, climate politics and the challenges facing the country with the introduction of new interpretations of religion.

JJ Robinson: Why do you think countries such as the US and UK are interested in the Maldives considering it is such a small and remote nation?

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed: Right now small states make up a substantial part of the international community and they have a loud voice. They not willing to sit back and take what comes, they are making their presence known and making waves, trying to assert their rights as they become more confident.

As they become more experienced in international affairs, they are becoming a much bigger presence than before. Sometimes small states are also able to act in ways larger, more powerful states are unable – other countries are much more wary of positions taken by larger states.

Small states have the opportunity to speak more openly and frankly on issues in an objective manner. I think when our views are consistent, eventually the international community does recognise that here is a country that does its homework and tries to be responsible within the resource constraints it has.

In particular the Maldives has undergone tremendous changes in the last few years; changes that present a symbol of hope for many other countries. The Maldives is a small island Muslim country, with relations with the Commonwealth and a wide range of membership which helps it have access to a large pool of friends, and the views of countries. It is also a founding member of SAARC, and although the Maldives and Bhutan are the smallest SAARC states, both played an important role in shaping its direction, especially this year as we take up the chairmanship.

Here’s a country that has had no political parties in its entire history. It went from an autocratic monarchy to an autocratic presidency. Although we moved from a sultanate, it was in some ways a change in name rather than a change in psyche, for the people and those in government.

Consequently it was a very difficult change to multiparty democracy, with new novel concepts such as independent institutions, and a President more constrained than the heads of governments we are used to having.

Yet despite the turmoil, I think the Maldives has showed that through dialogue and robust engagement, you can change a government through the ballot box. It is a credit to both the former President and the serving President that they were able to manage the transition so smoothly, given the potential for disruption.

JJ: Do you hold to the view that the Maldives is in some ways two years ahead of the current turmoil in the Middle East, and could perhaps set an example for some of these countries?

AGM: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that there are certain similarities: it was the ordinary people, and not just the poor and uncared for. It was the educated middle class and youth who took the lead in bringing the changes to the Maldives. And they demanded their rights on the streets.

But the Middle East is large and the countries complex, and a lot more people have vested interests in what happens there. We should note the success of the Maldives, in part because of the support and encouragement the international community gave to it. I’m not saying they interfered, but they certainly encouraged a democratic transition. They were engaged with both the government and the opposition, and keen to ensure the unrest did not become too costly, as a country that is dependent so much on tourism – peace and stability are important to the Maldives.

There are certainly things that can be learned from the Maldives’ experience. One of the things is the fast pace at which we moved, which made it very difficult to complete the institutions in time. Most people need time to adjust to the new thinking and new concepts.

In the Maldives we are lucky to have a homogenous religion and race, whereas in many Middle Eastern countries you have tribes and different religious and racial backgrounds. For them to come together to make sure a new political framework protects all the interests of this people may by more challenging than in the Maldives.

JJ: Since the Maldives joined the UN Human Rights Council, have you observed a difference in the way in which the Maldives is regarded and its diplomatic position?

AGM: The Maldives has always been fairly well received. We have good standing as a country run quite stably and with good development. Whatever problems we have had we have kept to ourselves.

The fact that we moved in 30-40 years from one of the least developed 16 countries to being a graduated non-LDC (least developed country) by end of first decade of the 21st century, means not only we but the last government achieved some things quite well.

The new government has taken a much more active position and is willing to be engaged with the international community even on issues of controversy, speaking its mind quite frankly.

This is the first time ever the Maldives is holding a position of this nature in the international arena. We have never been a member of a UN institution. We came in with a lot of good will because of our established record of engagement and a record of openness and transparency. We are one of the few countries which has a standing invitation to special rapporteurs.

We are also one of the few small countries – and a Muslim country – with a permanent presence in Geneva. As there are often misunderstandings about human rights instruments and values by the West and Muslim countries, many saw us, and we certainly promote ourselves, as a country that can provide a bridge for these views, as well as provide a voice for smaller states on the Council.

JJ: A US State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks documents your meeting with the State Department in February 2010. During the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake asks if the Maldives required “quiet US assistance” to take up the Human Rights Council position. Was that offer taken up, and what was the extent of US support for the Maldives in entering the Human Rights Council?

AGM: As a small country we didn’t have resources to run an election campaign in the way larger countries can run. Our record is of making ourselves heard and meeting as many ambassadors as possible, letter writing campaigns, and using our embassies in other parts of the world. Ministers also made contact at any international meetings.

Our campaign went on at a persistent and consistent level that didn’t cost us, because we didn’t have any money. We were obviously happy with the support that anyone extended to us, be it the US, UK or Canada. Most Western countries saw us as a moderate country that could play a constructive role.

While we appreciated the offer of help we were very keen to ensure than nobody viewed the Maldives as being sponsored. It was a conscious decision by the government because we felt we had a constructive role to play. We got 185 votes – the maximum number we could get.

JJ: The Maldives was running against Iran?

AGM: We were not running against Iran at the later stage, as they graciously withdrew and made way for the Maldives to run the race uncontested. We appreciated that, because while we were trying to win we didn’t want anyone to feel we were running against a particular country. We felt we had a strong case in running for the election in 2010, because this was the first time the Maldives had run for a position on a UN body.

There are very few small nations in Geneva who can be in the council. We had a history of positive engagement, and we wanted to use our membership in the council to improve the human rights situation at home as well.

Locally, not everyone agrees with some of the concepts. Either they are misunderstood, or seen as threatening. Our membership on the Human Rights Council also makes it easier for us to lobby the domestic community.

JJ: Later in the leaked document, Special Envoy to facilitate the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp offered the Maldives US$85,000 for the resettlement of a Guantanamo detainee.

AGM: This was at an informal level to see the possibility. With regard to the money offered to the government of the Maldives, this was to help the person settle in the Maldives, and for his upkeep. This was not prize money. Obviously housing a person in the Maldives, giving him a place to stay, trying to find him an employment opportunity – that is a cost, and obviously one the Maldives should not have to pay as we are doing a favour for the US.

JJ: What ultimately happened? Did the Maldives take the US up on that offer?

AGM: The matter became quite a stir in the country, and it later died down. To my knowledge there was been no transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the Maldives.

JJ: You also discussed the possibility of the US putting down US$50 million in climate change assistance, which the UK’s Guardian newspaper interpreted as in return for taking a particular position at the Copenhagen climate summit.

AGM: The Maldives was one of the few small countries that supported the Copenhagen Accord, because we felt that accepting Copenhagen was more helpful than not accepting it.

We also felt that if more states came on board, the likelihood that the commitments that were given would become reality much quicker. The government did try to encourage other small states to come on board. It was a catch 22 situation – some small countries wanted to wait and see commitments become reality.

The US felt that unless there were enough people committed to the Copenhagen Accord, it would be difficult to make money available. They have to sell the commitments to their people and Congress as well.

I remember the conversation. I said that if the US were to be more forthcoming with their commitments and put the money in, it may actually encourage small states to come on more quickly, because they would see there was value in taking on the Copenhagen Accord. It wasn’t just the Maldives – I was keen to see commitments available for small states, which would mean other small states would also benefit.

Even before my meeting with the State Department the President had written to many heads of state to try and encourage them to come on board. The Maldives sent its letter of acceptance of the accord immediately after the meeting.

Unfortunately there were allegations, but I can certainly say no money was exchanged for votes.

JJ: Did the US$50 million in climate assistance ever materialise?

AGM: I believe are a number of climate-related projects with which the US is now helping.

JJ: Do you think the Maldives’ international human rights agenda at times conflicts not only with the understanding of human rights here, but also the constitution?

AGM: I wouldn’t say conflicts. But I think there are various interpretations between those who are liberal and conservative in their interpretations. But it would be wrong to say a conflict as such. I think through dialogue and discussion we can find a common ground where human rights are universal.

JJ: This topic came up during your discussion with the US State Department – you mentioned the need for greater access in the Maldives to “Western liberal education” to counter some of the extremist views coming back from places such as Pakistan.

AGM: Again, different people interpreted the comment differently. Some people interpret it as though I was trying to stop Maldivian students from traveling to places like Egypt to study. I was not – the point I was making was that many of the educational opportunities we get are in the Middle East, and sometimes for free – especially in Pakistan, where the madrassas offer free education.

Given the limited resources many parents have, it is very appealing to send children, especially sons, to these places that offer free education – in religion. The Maldives has traditionally been a very religious country. There is a love of religion and a very strong identity held about being Muslim.

When they have an opportunity for free education in Islam, many parents send their children. We have also relied on scholarships from other countries to educate children in higher studies. The more we receive these from Western countries, the more children will come back and have an influence on society. Many leading public figures have been educated abroad.

The US was one of the prime sponsors of Maldivians some time back in the 80s – we had 50 plus students in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Some of the best and brightest of that generation were educated in Beirut.

So we are trying to encourage especially the US to grant more scholarships for Maldivian students. It is an expensive place to study, especially for undergraduates. We felt quite keenly the loss of opportunities in Beirut. We looked to revive such opportunities.

JJ: People talk here about views from overseas being brought back to the Maldives. To what extent do you think that the Arab or Saudi interpretations of religion have been brought to the Maldives in this way, and to what extent have they supplanted traditional Maldivian interpretations of Islam?

AGM: This is my own very personal opinion: our earliest scholars studied at Azhar University in Egypt, and they were highly regarded [back in the Maldives]. There is a strong connection between religion taught in Azhar university, and religion practiced in the Maldives.

The one book that taught religion to a generation of Maldivians was a religious book by Mohamed Jameel, the father of the former Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel. He was known as the teacher of a generation in terms of educating the public in religion.

That was the basis. These days, with the advent of modern communications and transport, we have many people coming from many schools. Even in the Middle East you have many ways of teaching and practicing religion, from the Gulf states to the more conservative Saudi Arabia. When they come back, they bring their own views of Islam, and how they have been taught.

In some ways this is unfortunate in a society that has had a very strong accord with religion. People are coming back with different religious experiences, and when they try to practice it here it sows discord. We have always seen religion as a force that bound the people of Maldives together as one, we are now seeing it as a source of discord. And that is a pity.

We hope that rather than stick to dogmatic views, we will be able to stick to a point of view that brings us together as one. The more you study the more you become aware of the complexities – whereas when you have only the basics, you can accept unquestioningly. Now there are questions being asked – people are more willing to question religious and political leaders.

There is also the internet. But it takes a strong intellect and a very good sense of right and wrong to determine sense from nonsense on the internet.

JJ: With more people talking about this, questions being asked and different interpretations coming forward, does this not conflict with what you said earlier about the Maldives being a homogenous society with one interpretation of religion binding it together?

AGM: I think this is part of progress and development. People are becoming more open to new ways of thinking and alternative view points. I think it is becoming more mature. Even if we were to hold different views on religion, we are learning to disagree without being disagreeable.

JJ: What has been the impact of the Maldives’ graduation from the UN’s definition of a least developed country to a middle income country? Has this affected countries’ willingness to engage with the Maldives as a development partner? Does this risk the Maldives being cut off from support?

AGM: I don’t think we will be cut off. This a point we have with the international community. Although we graduated in 2011, this was not a cause for celebration because it meant we had more challenges. Many of the challenges we faced before we will continue to face as a developing island nation: our small resource base, our transport costs, our dependence on one or two resources, and vulnerability to what happens outside in tourism and fishing – we have little control over the world market.

We have a fairly small economy and we do not have the economies of scale. One of the things the donor countries promised was a smooth transition. The Maldives’ efforts during the LDC conference meant we were able to adopt a resolution on transition, which would continue to provide certain benefits to a country for three years, as well as call on donor countries to continue assisting with the transition.

The worst message the international community could give to other potential countries graduating would be to see us revert to an LDC. There should not be a fear of slipping back. There is a very ambitious document that came out in the LDC conference in Turkey, which pledged to graduate 10-12 countries in the next 10 year period. It is important that these countries welcome rather than fear graduation.

There should be certain benefits we receive after graduating and showing that we are on the right path, and a country worth investing in. Certainly we have challenges, but we also have opportunities, and become exploit to our benefit, and show we are successful, be our partner in development.


“Make use of historic moment”, Adhaalath Party urges President Nasheed

Adhaalalth Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla has joined opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali in sending a letter to President Mohamed Nasheed asking him to push for an independent Palestinian state at the UN Human Rights Council.

In the letter Sheikh Imran tells the President to assist the Muslim community in their efforts to make Palestine an independent state and a full member of the UN, and to make good use of the historic moment that came in the time of President Nasheed and vote in favor of Palestine.

Sheikh Imran urged the President to do this for the rights of the citizens of Palestine who have “lived in grief for 63 years, who have been pushed away from their own land and have suffered so muchh catastrophe.’’

Meanwhile, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has also issued a statement saying that the party supports Palestine becoming an independent state, and thanked the government and foreign ministry for the work they are contributing to resolve the issue.

“The MDP would like to note, with gratitude, that one of the key objective of the Maldives foreign policy was to assist Palestinian citizens and to further the recognition of Palestine as an independent state,’’ the statement issued by the MDP Secretariat said.

The party said that the government had spoken in favor of Palestine at the UN Human Rights Council and that the party was proud of it.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry has stated that the Maldives strongly supports UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, with Naseem advocating the position before the UN Human Rights Council following the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he will apply to the UN Security Council for full UN membership.

“Let us be clear, the Palestinian people have, like everyone else, the right to self-determination – the right to a state of their own. They have waited long enough for that most basic of rights. When the Palestinians present their case to the UN, the Maldives will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and we call on all others to do likewise,’’ Naseem told the UN Human Rights Council.

Naseem has said the Maldives does not believe that UN recognition of Palestinian statehood will narrow the chances of a negotiated peace.


Maldives gets highest number of votes for Human Rights Council

The Maldives has been officially awarded a seat in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, receiving historic support from the UN General Assembly members.

The votes, which were cast on 13 May at the UN Headquarters in New York, revealed the Maldives came in at the top of the Asian group running for the Council.

The seat was also highly endorsed by a group of international NGOs, with UN Watch and Freedom House reporting that out of fourteen candidate countries from all regions, only five, including the Maldives, have human rights records that merit a seat in the Council.

The report said only the Maldives, Guatemala, Spain, Switzerland and Poland have a worthy human rights record, while the remaining nine countries have either “questionable” or “unqualified” records.

The seat had already been secured after Iran withdrew its candidature last month, leaving four countries–Malaysia, Thailand, Qatar and the Maldives–running for four seats.

But the unprecedented support from Member States show the “enormous respect for the Maldives, its government, its people, its national human rights institution, and the work that we have all been doing to strengthen the respect for human rights,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Ahmed Shaheed.

He said “we topped the whole list. It was the highest number of votes ever on the Council.”

Dr Shaheed told Minivan News last month he believed the Maldives would be number one in the rankings.

Speaking in New York, Dr Shaheed said “this is a proud day for the Maldives,” adding that “five years ago we were a human rights pariah, today our bid to secure a Council seat has won almost universal support from UN Member States.”

Dr Shaheed added he was “delighted” the seat was won on merit; “today the world’s governments and human rights NGOs have joined together to recognise and endorse the enormous strides that the Maldives has taken in the realm of human rights.”

Press Secretary for the President’s Office, Mohamed Zuhair, said President Mohamed Nasheed was “very happy” about the seat in the Council, “especially because Maldives was elected with a very high award.”

He said he believes the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) “should become strengthened on this kind of endorsement.”

Zuhair added “human rights issues in the Maldives will be more highlighted” and said the votes show “international recognition of the Maldivian government in human rights issues.”

Speaking to Minivan News last month, President of the HRCM, Ahmed Saleem, said winning the seat was “a very good opportunity for the government to realise [they have] to make necessary changes.”

He added membership in the Council should 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 noted he was “very delighted” the Maldives won a seat in the Council, as it “reflects well on us, as well.”

Human Rights Council

Seats for the Human Rights Council are voted upon by all forty-seven Member States of the Council, and seats are awarded with over 51% of votes, cast on secret ballots, by the General Assembly.

The Maldives secured 185 votes out of 192 Member States, making it the highest number of votes for a state in any region. Coming in second was Thailand, with 182 votes.

The Council, working out of the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva, is responsible for promoting human rights, addressing violations of human rights and promoting the effective coordination within the UN system.

This is the first time the Maldives has won a seat in a major UN body. The country will serve a three-year term. Countries are not eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms.


How the seat was won: Maldives on the Human Rights Council

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.”