UNHRC panel grills Maldives delegation on human rights commitments

A Maldivian government delegation sought to defend the Maldives’ human rights record and commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) before the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) on Thursday and Friday.

The delegation was headed by Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel, former Justice Minister during the 30 year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and co-author of a pamphlet entitled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians’, published in January 2012.  The publication was released at a time when the home minister’s 2300 member Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) was in opposition.

Dr Jameel was accompanied by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dunya Maumoon – Gayoom’s daughter – as well as the Maldives’ Permanent Representative in Geneva, Iruthisham Adam.

Adam and Dr Jameel first read out a prepared statement from the government in response to a list of issues raised by the UNHRC. The delegation then faced questions from the panel, and were given the opportunity to respond.

Dr Jameel began by briefly outlining the current political situation in the Maldives, noting that the country had seen “significant changes” in 2012, which had “clear implications for rights protected under the Covenant.”

He explained to the panel that President Mohamed Waheed had ascended to the presidency according to the constitution following the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7, emphasising that this elevation was “not a change of government, but a continuation of the democratic government.”

He acknowledged “disagreement over the nature and sequence of events that led to Nasheed’s resignation”, noting that this had “led Nasheed and his supporters to question the legitimacy of the new government” and “perpetrate the political tensions in the country.”

The government wished to accommodate peaceful protests, he said, but added that “Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists harass fellow citizens at odd hours of the day, conducting political demonstrations late at night without notifying authorities.”

“The government opposes acts of violence, but these protests are violent in nature,” he claimed. “Despite this police have used minimum force and shown maximum restraint.”

The UNHRC panel began by observing that the government’s list of issues had been generated in 2011, “and as the delegation has conceded, there have been dramatic developments since then.”

The panel noted that the statement given by the government had noted that the provisions of the covenant were not treated as law in the Maldives unless incorporated, noting that this “could give the impression that the covenant did not have the status of law, whereas it has the status of international law.”

While Ambassador Adam had claimed that the Covenant was “adequately domesticated” in the Constitution, “we cannot say it has been adequately domesticated when the grounds for discrimination do not include language and religion,” the panel stated.

The panel also raised the “sweeping provision” in the Constitution that no law could be enacted contrary to a tenant of Islam, and what the ramifications of this were for the government’s commitment to the Covenant.

The panel drew on a report submitted by anti-torture NGO REDRESS, containing testimonies of 28 victims of torture while in state custody.

“Forms of torture and ill-treatment included the use of suspension, lengthy use of stocks, being beaten with fists and bars, kicked, blindfolded, handcuffed, the dislocation of joints and breaking of bones, being forced to roll and squat on sharp coral, being drowned or forced into the sea, being put in a water tank, being burned, having bright lights shone in eyes, being left outside for days while tied or handcuffed to a tree, being covered in sugar water or leaves to attract ants and goats, and in one case being tied to a crocodile’s cage. Sexual assault and humiliation was also routinely used. Many testimonies suggest the only limit to the torture and ill-treatment imposed was the imagination of those whose control they were under,” a UNHRC panel member read.

“Surely this is something that refers to before 2008,” the panel member stated, “but the [present government] has a responsibility to pursue and investigate and bring to justice if these [allegations] are indeed correct. If there is an atmosphere of impunity regarding torture, I would offer that the present situation would not be treated differently by those who would want to violate the office they have, and abuse those under their care, or those going peacefully about their business.”

The panel member also raised the question of judicial flogging, and asked the delegation to identify what crimes were punishable by flogging, and to what extent it was used.

“You say you identify a notion of discrimination because more women are flogged than men, but you don’t say what you intend to do about it,” the panel member stated. “To me the easiest way to do that is to abolish flogging.”

Another panel member questioned the delegation as to whether Dr Waheed had been publicly announced as Vice President before the 2008 Presidential election, whether his name had appeared on the ballot, and asked why the government had retreated from promises of early elections.

“I am aware that at the time of the transfer of government – and I’m not using the word some others would use – there was an undertaking for new elections to be held this year. And that undertaking was withdrawn. I can certainly see why, whatever the constitutional provision, there is a sense that a retesting of the government’s legitimacy might be a good thing,” the panel member stated.

He asked Dr Jameel to clarify a contradiction in his opening statement, in which he claimed that the government was involved in diagloue to generate consensus and that as a result Maldivians had been able to “enjoy their daily lives as normal”, but then went on to describe violent protests “which are making normal life in the capital impossible.”

The panel member also raised the “troubling role of the judiciary at the centre of many of these [recent] developments.”

“The judiciary – which is admittedly in serious need of training and qualifications – is yet seemingly playing a role leading to the falling of governments,” he observed.

One panel member raised the concern of the current push in the Maldives towards the cessation of the practice of the President commuting the death penalty.

Another, identifying himself as from a Muslim country himself, asked whether the universal recognition of rights guaranteed by the ICCPR “ fully coordinated” with the status of religion accorded by the Constitution in the Maldives, and asked about the ramifications this had towards the Maldives’ treatment of women, criminal sanctions, citizenship and freedom of expression.

“We face two trends: the universalist trend which places emphasis on human rights, and the cultural trend, which places the emphasis on Islam. The problem lies in reconciling the two,” he said, asking whether the Maldives was seeking the “modernist” approach of reconciliation.

In response, Dr Jameel said human rights in the Maldives streamlined with Islam “with very few minor exceptions.”

“The general acceptance of Muslim jurists is that Islamic human rights were there long before we subscribed to universal human rights,” he said.

“We declare that there are no apparent contradictions between human rights and what is there in the Maldives constitution.”

Dr Jameel observed that on the subject of religion and language, “As I highlighted, the Maldives as a Muslim country clearly stipulates that the rights enshrined in the constitution should be interpreted in a way that do not contradict Islamic Sharia.”

The Maldives was, he said, a homogenous society that spoke one language, was of one race and one religion, and therefore there was “no debate in society calling for the removal of the provisions [relating to] language or religion, because of the characteristics of the Maldives as a society.”

Dunya noted that “being a Maldivian and being a Muslim have become interlinked and inseparable. There is strong public support for the Maldives being and remaining a 100 percent Muslim country. Indeed if anything, the introduction of democracy have intensified [this perception].”

There were no plans to withdraw the reservation, Dunya said: “This is not dogmatic government policy or preference, but rather a reflection of the deep societal belief that the Maldives always has been and always should be a 100 percent Muslim nation. Laws, like government, should be based on the will of the people.”

On the subject of justice, Dr Jameel emphasised that any citizen could bring their grievances before the judiciary, over which the executive had “little or no influence.”

Regarding the “very useful” REDRESS report containing torture victims testimonies, “I admit we have a history that we need to go back and study to avoid what we have witnessed in the past. That was the reason why the Maldives has always been a very progressive society,” Dr Jameel said, noting the improvement in consecutive constitutions.

In the light “of many unfortunate incidents in the Maldives”, Dr Jameel noted, the Maldives had no period of limitation – and that therefore incidents such as the Addu and Huvadhoo uprising and the 1988 coup would also be open for victims to seek compensation.

“As a government we believe we have an independent judiciary. We leave it to the victims to invoke these instances before a court of law,” Dr Jameel said.

“We are a very poor country. Our budget for this year is in deficit, therefore any question of compensation will put the rights of many others in jeopardy.”

On the subject of the death penalty – which Dr Jameel himself has previously stated the government was prepared to implement – he noted that the Maldives was in the grip of a crime surge “which worries many”.

“For example, this year alone we have had seven murders in a country of 350,000. The country is really struggling to address this surge of crime. It is in the light of these occurrences that this debate has occurred. There is no official government discussion, but there are scattered debates across every section of society,” Dr Jameel said.

On the subject of the transfer of power in February, “if the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) find any criminal offences that occurred during that period they may draw these to the attention of the relevant institutions, such as the Maldives police services,” Dr Jameel told the panel.

“There are various elements, this includes the judiciary and the Prosecutor General, who can order a probe if it warrants a criminal investigation, and compel police to investigate. HRCM is also mandated to investigate and appear in trials,” he said.

HRCM had already produced a report on the former President Nasheed’s “abduction of the Criminal Court judge”, Dr Jameel noted.

UNHRC Maldives webcast 1. Panel begins at ~42 min

UNHRC Maldives webcast 2

Maldives’ response to panel questions:

Maldives response and panel: