The Maldives has become the 118th country to adopt the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, genocide and war crimes.
The Maldives is the third state in South Asia to become an ICC member, following Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is the ninth in the south asian region alongside Cambodia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste; plans to ratify the statute are advancing in Malaysia and Nepal.
Asia has been slower than other regions in adopting the ICC regulations, allegedly because they maintain the death penalty which is prohibited by the ICC. William R. Pace, Convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, said the Maldives’ decision to accede to the Rome Statue was a significant step for the region.
“It is vital that the momentum towards increasing respect for the rule of law and accountability for those responsible for the most serious crimes is seized by other states in the Asia-Pacific region, many of whom are close to joining the ICC,” Pace said in a press release. “Joining the Court represents a strong deterrent effect that will contribute toward the prevention of gross human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region and to the global fight against impunity.”
Acceding to ICC regulations as defined by the Rome Statute has been a long process for the Maldivian government. In 2003, the Maldives took steps to reject its judicial authority.
Wikileaks cables published on 1 September 2011 cite the Maldivian government’s intent to “never turn over a US national to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Maldivian government would not sign the ICC treaty and would not respect its claim to universal jurisdiction.” Other cables indicate that then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was seeking approval for a visit with then US President George W. Bush, allegedly to improve his chances of re-election.
Speaking to Minivan News today, the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said ratification of the ICC statute highlighted the different values of the current administration.
“For us, it’s transparency that is at the top of our priorities. So right now, our highest priority is to improve the judicial system of this country.”
The ICC covers major crimes which are widespread, systemic and of concern to the international community. The ICC does not deal with small cases, even if the victims may be in the hundreds.
Among the criteria for the ICC to take on a case in the Maldives is doubtful willingness and capacity of the country’s own judiciary to handle the case in question.
Zuhair said it was important for Maldivians to have access to an international judicial system. “Individuals who feel they have a complaint, even against a leader, could refer the complaint to the Maldivian judicial system or to the ICC. This is a big step for a country whose previous leaders have been accused of human rights violations. I believe their cases would be fairly addressed in the ICC,” he said.
Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the ICC’s advocacy NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) told Minivan News that ratification would support domestic legal reform, and that heads of state would face new levels of accountability.
“The ICC only deals with the big fish. In the past only the small fish may have been sacrificed to show a semblance of justice – but the ICC targets the highest level of responsibility: the head of state, generals, kings,” she said previously.
In October 2010, the debate to join the ICC created sparks in Parliament.
MDP MPs condemned the “unlawful and authoritarian” practices of the previous government. Group Leader “Reeko” Moosa Manik referred to 2009 legislation protecting former presidents who he considered “the worst torturers in the country’s history,” and said the purpose of the international criminal court was to “arrest torturers like Maumoon [Abdul Gayoom], people like Ilyas Ibrahim [brother-in-law of the former president] who stole state property and funds, and Attorney Generals like Hassan Saeed who tried to hide it.”
MPs from opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party-People’s Alliance (DRP-PA) said MDP MPs were overlooking the fact that Gayoom had never been reprimanded in a court of law, and accused the current administration of disregarding rules of law. MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom accused the MDP government of formulating policies only to “benefit certain people”, which he argued could be “considered a crime in international courts.”
The question of religion was also inflammatory. DRP MP Dr Afrashim Ali said convention should not be signed if it could lead to “the construction of temples here under the name of religious freedom.” Other MPs pointed out that several Muslim countries had not joined the ICC, and the MPs were concerned that ratification would “shatter Islamic principles” and encourage gay rights.
Shari’a experts in ICC signatories and Muslim countries Afghanistan, Jordan and Malaysia have not found conflict between the Rome Statute and Sharia.
On 14 June this year, Parliament voted almost unanimously to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC.
Speaking to Minivan News today, Balais-Serrano pointed out that ratification of the Rome Statute was well-timed.
“As a chair of the SAARC summit, Maldives will have quite an influence on south asian countries attending this year’s event,” she said. “It will certainly be constructive in reviewing human rights, a key point we plan to address at the summit.”
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit is scheduled for Addu City in mid-November this year.
Balais-Serrano also pointed out that by ratifying the Rome Statute, governments are committing to adapt current domestic legislation to meet international standards. She said ICC members could receive “training of local judges and prosecutors and other officials responsible for lawmaking and implementation”, and hoped the Maldives would forward with judicial reform.
“The judicial system in Maldives can benefit from the rules and procedures by which the ICC operates, for example, in the nomination and election of judges, in the protection of witnesses and victims and in ensuring due process,” said Balais-Serrano.
She said that ICC membership would expand Maldivian court procedures. “One of the motivations of joining the ICC is to let go of a commitment to include the domestic judicial system alone. Now, Maldivians can also refer to the ICC provisions and regulations. This is a timely event for the Maldives to review domestic law while making the ICC a reference point.”
As an ICC member, the Maldives will be able to send judges and lawyers abroad for internships and exchange programs in member countries. Balais-Serrano said that all member countries are obliged to send employees to the ICC to learn and assist with proceedings.
ICC membership could affect international relations. The Maldives recently made news headlines by supporting the Sri Lankan government, which is facing war crimes allegations by international human rights groups. A report from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has raised the likelihood of an investigation by the Human Rights Commission.
A Relationship Agreement between the ICC and the United Nations calls the UN “potentially the most important partner of the ICC on various levels,” and suggests that investigations by the UN are based on the same human rights standards put forth by the ICC.
“The Maldives cannot do anything if the ICC decides to investigate and put into trial the perpetrators of crimes in Sri Lanka,” said Balais-Serrano. “If suspected criminals from Sri Lanka seek refuge in the territory of the Maldives, as a state party to the ICC, the government is obliged to cooperate to the Court by arresting the criminals.”