Maldives failing to uphold international human rights obligations: Forum Asia

The Maldives has failed to uphold its obligations to core international human rights treaties related to freedom of expression, assembly and association, the regional NGO Forum Asia has concluded.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia) – a regional human rights NGO with 47 member organisations from 16 Asian countries – evaluated the promotion and protection of these core human rights in the Maldives in regard to September’s presidential elections during their recent mission to the Maldives.

Forum Asia noted the “shortcomings in the laws relating to freedom of assembly”, particularly relating to the “shrinking space” for the exercise of the right to assemble as well as the right of all workers to associate and assemble, during their press conference held Saturday (June 22).

Reports of security forces engaging in excessive use of force to prevent and disburse assemblies, also “concerned” the Forum Asia mission.

Security personnel were urged to exercise restraint and refrain from using excessive force, irritants, or dyes on assemblies, while the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) has been asked to closely monitor and prevent such situations, said Forum Asia.

“We hope that the PIC and the security forces will work together to ensure they are able to resort to reasonable and internationally accepted means while engaging with assemblies,” said Forum Asia’s South Asian Programme Officer Gayatri Khandhadai. “Similarly we hope that all protesters also resort to peaceful and democratic means while exercising their right to assembly.”

“We are particularly also worried about the restrictions placed on journalists covering these protests,” she added.

Khandhadai highlighted that it is unrealistic for journalists to seek accreditation for different types of events – protests, cultural events, etc – given the time and energy involved in the registration process.

“Media is the platform that brings information to the people, so media must have free access. we have requested to amend the laws on the basis of practicality because Maldives also belongs to the civilized world of the 21st century,” said Forum Asia Chairperson Subodh Raj Pyakurel.

“It may be legal to put some kind of regulation and restriction process etc, but this is not legitimate, because one journalist can go anywhere, anywhere, informally,” he noted.

Forum Asia also identified “difficulties faced by the various associations”, including NGOs, professional associations, trade unions, community based organisations, and political parties, in the Maldives attributed to “unclear regulations, especially relating to registration.”

Human rights perspective needed

The limitations codified in the ‘Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act’ “must be amended to meet constitutional guarantees and international norms”, the organisation stated.

“There has to be a method – on paper and in practice – for what are the different peaceful engagements you have to have with the crowds,” said Khandhadai.

“These rights are particularly important to ensure ahead of elections” and to guarantee peaceful and inclusive elections occur, she added.

The Government of Maldives was also compelled to implement recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) and PIC.

Additionally, political parties were requested to “adopt a human rights perspective and formally include the promotion of human rights in their official agendas and manifestos prior to elections”.

The Forum Asia mission also “implored the Maldives’ government, judiciary, legislature, independent commissions and media to develop and strengthen their engagement with civil society organisations, which are essential for a healthy democracy”.

Meanwhile, civil society and human rights defenders within the Maldives were encouraged to unite in solidarity and engage with the state to promote a culture of human rights in the country, said Forum Asia.

Use of force disastrous

Having less than 10 percent of Male’ available for protests is “quite a worrisome issue”, said Khandhadai.

Unprovoked actions against demonstrators have been seen in the Maldives and it is necessary to identify whether that use of force could have been avoided or not, as well as whether the crowd was posing a threat, noted Khandhadai.

“The points to be taken into consideration are what would have happened if that force was not used,” she explained. “If any other means could have been put in place to disperse that crowd, or even if that crowd needed to be disbursed to start with.”

“I’m particularly worried about the sanction of the use of irritants in a space like Male, which is particularly small… and shrinks the already small area where people can protest,” she continued.

Sanctioned or encouraged use of force within that small space “will become very, very difficult and disastrous even,” Khandhadai added. “The only solution is to promote a culture of peaceful engagement.”

Pyakurel echoed these sentiments and emphasised that holding democratic elections means maximising public mobilization.

“During the elections we always expect that each and every citizen has the opp to interact and understand,” he noted.

“People [protesting] become destructive only when they are restricted, if you don’t restrict them they don’t become destructive,” he continued.

“Discipline is a must but it should be regulated through a very concrete and specific law, not the will of the [police] officer – that creates a problem,” he added.