Q&A: UK Deputy High Commissioner Mark Gooding

Outgoing Deputy UK High Commissioner for the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Mark Gooding, speaks to Minivan News about three years of observing dramatic changes in the country. His successor will be Robbie Bulloch.

JJ Robinson: What are the most dramatic changes you have seen in terms of the country’s transition to democracy, and have old habits died hard?

Mark Gooding: I’ve been covering the Maldives for just over three years. My first visit was in the middle of 2008, and we were discussing with the government the passing of the new constitution and the passage to multi-party elections. There was real uncertainty then.

The Maldives passed the new constitution and held successful elections – which were considered credible, free and fair – and is now in the process of consolidating democracy. That means establishing the institutions of democracy and passing legislation necessary to implement the new constitution. Clearly the process has been smooth at times and not smooth at other times. That’s democracy.

There is important legislation that needs to be passed by the Majlis – such as the penal code, the tax reform bill, and these are issues of significant national interest. These need to be addressed by both parties.

JJ: As somebody who has observed the corridors of power in the Maldives for three years, how much political will have you seen towards consolidating democracy, and do you think that this political will is necessarily unanimous across the country’s senior leadership?

MG: Honestly I think there is a large degree of political will. All of the parties participate actively in the democratic processes that exist, and I think that is very important. All parties recognise the need for legalisation to be passed to implement the constitution and broaden existing legislation to make it reflect the challenges of the day.

I think there is cross-party support for this – for the need to enact the legislation and broad support for functioning democratic institutions – be it parliament or police. People understand these are big challenges and that it is in the national interest for them to function effectively.

There are obviously questions that arise in parliament while the details get sorted out. But by and large people agree on the overall objective which is a functioning democracy.

JJ: As an outsider with a perspective on the Maldives both now and how it was three years ago, to what extent do you think that new democratic freedoms – such as those pertaining to human rights, and freedom of expression – to what extent have these freedoms ‘trickled down’ to the average citizen, as opposed to remaining buzzwords paraded at a diplomatic level?

MG: I think to a large extent. One very obvious change is that people can go out and vote now, and there are election campaigns. There was a huge amount of voter awareness work done in 2008. People are increasingly aware of the freedoms they now have – from voting to access to different kinds of media, and an increasingly active civil society.

People’s awareness of their democratic space has increased, and it certainly has in the time I’ve been working with the Maldives.

JJ: What is the extent of the engagement the UK High Commission has had with the government here?

MG: We have very close cooperation with the Maldives government on a range of issues. Obviously the history of the Maldives’ and the UK means we have enjoyed a close relationship this government and the last government. We have a lot of cooperation on global issues such as climate, trade and combating terrorism. There a lot of political dialogue there, also on domestic development in Maldives. The UK was a strong supporter of democratisation in the Maldives.

Practical assistance over the last few years has included the funding of economic specialists to advise the government on dealing with the financial and economic challenges faced, funding of police officers and specialists to develop the police, and we have funded capacity-building of the judiciary and the UN project in that respect.

We would like to build more contact between the Majlis and our own parliament.

JJ: In terms of future involvement with the Maldives, the country has graduated from a least developed country to a middle income country, and other countries reviewing their engagement with the Maldives perhaps now regard it as better able to fend for itself as a result. Does the graduation affect the UK’s engagement with the Maldives?

MG: We don’t have a bilateral development program in Maldives, and in that respect the project work hasn’t changed. In fact we increased project funding in the Maldives, although that had nothing to do with LDC status. There is no short answer. Clearly part of our dialogue with the government is that we strongly supported and the EU co-sponsored a UN resolution on the transition for LDC countries. This was a priority for [the Maldives] government and we were very happy to support it in an international forum.

JJ: Regular comments on Minivan News suggest a great deal of interest in why countries not just in the region, such as India, but those on the other side of the world such as the UK and US, have such an interest in a small island nation of 350,000 in the Indian Ocean that has existed in relative isolation for hundreds of years. Why do you think there is such strong international interest in the Maldives?

MG: There are a number of clear answers from the UK perspective. The UK has a close historical relationship with the Maldives and we regard the Maldives as our friends, and we want to support democratisation here. It is important that succeeds.

There are also 120,000 British tourists visit each year. We look after British nationals who are in the Maldives and we want them to have a positive experience. We also have very close cooperation with the government on climate policy – a serious issue for the Maldives, as climate change clearly could have a devastating impact on the country.

JJ: Concerns are sometimes aired locally that the government’s climate leadership in the international community has not resulted in much impact or change in local communities – many beaches are still routinely used as waste disposal sites, for example. Do you think climate leadership is being passed on locally?

MG: You have to realise that international climate negotiations are incredibly complex and that every country has its own unique situation, and opportunities to introduce low carbon technology. It is not a straight-forward negotiation.

If people are feeling the effects of climate change, extreme weather and beach erosion – rather than just rubbish on the beach – I would say that is a reason to keep arguing for an ambitious global deal on climate change. It would be counter-intuitive to suggest the government should be doing less to secure a climate deal.

The Maldives is an important player both because of its political position on climate change, but also because of its vulnerability. It does have a unique geography, and the potential impact js quite extreme. The Maldives is a significant player in international climate debate.

JJ: While there is a feeling pride in the Maldives’ new democracy, people associated things like rising crime and economic instability with new the democracy and that seems to risk affecting support for democracy as a concept. What do you see as the key challenges for the country, going ahead?

MG: Of course people are absolutely aware of the challenges that exist. They include criminality, drugs and gang violence. There are issues with radicalisation, and economic challenges that the Maldives has faced, like many other countries. Those are challenges that exist already, before implementing the legislation required by the new constitution. So of course there are big challenges and there is a need for national debate.

The interest here is making institutions function effectively as per any democracy. If a country has an effective police service, then action against gang violence is possible. If institutions fail, clearly the situation becomes worse.

JJ: The executive, judiciary and parliament have been busily testing the boundaries of the new constitution. Based on three years of watching this happen, do you think they are showing signs of settling into their functions and working together?

MG: It certainly remains a challenge, and it has not always been smooth. The institutions identify how much power they have and how it is exercised. We had problems last year between the Majlis and executive, but those were overcome. The parties have shown that at times they can work together and make institutions function.

JJ: The Maldives has a traditional and persistent culture of patronage, a society structured around senior figures who provide things such as medical treatment, scholarships, education and so on, be it a katheeb or an MP. In fact MPs quite openly admit to spending their salaries on funding financial demands from their constituents. Given that the culture is so deeply rooted in patronage, do you think there is hope that principles such as equality necessary for democracy can be applied in the Maldives?

MG: In a democracy it’s up to the people how they are governed. What you’re asking really is what level of power should be appropriate at island, regional and national level. Absolutely that is a debate that happens, and that is a debate people need to have. What is true in democracy is that power structures need to be held to account in both their decision making and their expenditure. Those are important principles to emphasize.

JJ: The recently changing of party affiliations parties among MPs has seen parliament be unfavourably compared to a “football transfer market”, and the MDP in particular seems to have embraced a new pragmatism in search of a parliamentary majority. Do you think there is a risk that by importing the odd skeleton in the cupboard that the party risks disengaging from the idealistic roots that made it into a political force capable of changing an entrenched government?

MG: I think there is a reality that when you are in government you need to focus on the ability to make decisions and exercise authority in an accountable way. I think it is possible to do that in a way that upholds principles. Certainly in our meeting with the President this morning he was very clear about this. There was no doubt about those principles. Clearly people in positions of power should be subject to public scrutiny.

JJ: The Maldives has been quick to use its platform in the UN Human Rights Council to denounce war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Middle East committed by countries such as Libya, but has taken a much gentler stance with Sri Lanka despite UN allegations about such crimes committed in the closing days of the civil war. What is the UK’s view on Sri Lanka, and how can the Maldives contribute to secure and progressive Sri Lanka in the future?

MG: The UK’s position on Sri Lanka is very clear: the need of the hour is reconciliation. In Sri Lanka reconciliation requires a number of things – humanitarian relief is one, but also progress on a political settlement. We believe there are serious allegations which are contained in the UN Panel report that need to be looked into – for us this is a very common sense position.

The Sri Lankan government has set up a reconciliation commission which is looking into a variety of issues in the later years of the war. We think it is important that do that and we encourage the government to do that.

JJ: There is the possibility that an internationally-sponsored investigation would require backing from the Human Rights Council. Does this place Maldives in a difficult position if it comes to a vote?

MG: There are a number processes in train in Sri Lanka, such as the lessons learned reconciliation report due in November. I think the world is watching in terms of what these processes will produce. At that point, we able to see whether other options are necessary. We encourage the government to look at these issues.