Democratic Maldives an important global symbol: US State Department

The Maldives is a powerful symbol of a tolerant and democratic Muslim society, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said yesterday during a visit to the country.

Steinberg was responding to a question regarding the extensive US interest in a such a small and isolated island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean – an interest apparently not extended to nearby countries such as the Seychelles.

“We have very practical interests in common, such as dealing with the challenges of climate change and piracy – security in this region is of enormous importance to us,” Steinberg said, in likely reference to US military interests in Diego Garcia, south of the Maldives.

However as importantly, Steinberg said, the Maldives’ embrace of democracy showed that convictions such as democracy and freedom of expression “are universal values that transcend culture, history and religion.”

“The Maldives comes from very different traditions and history, but people here aspire to the same goals that people around the world aspire to. That’s a powerful symbol, and shows that these are not just American ideals or Western ideals, but universal ideals,” he said.

Such a symbol, he explained, was of great value to the State Department.

“As I travel around the world and see the different ways in which different societies and cultures interpret democracy and human expression, I can point to the Maldives as an example – that’s as important as the practical cooperation.”

The Maldives, he explained, represented an emerging model for “a tolerant and democratic Muslim society”, and “could have enormous influence in the thinking of countries around the world, as you try to build this new model.”

Steinberg expressed admiration for the “remarkable efforts” on the international stage “for such a small country at the early stages of economic and political development.”

The upcoming local council elections, he said, we an “important step” in building that democracy, “and we have confidence that they will be calm and respectful.

Speaking to press assembled at the American Centre in the National Library, Steinberg noted that freedom of expression was “the oxygen of democracy.”

Challenged as to whether this moral position contradicted the US government’s pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who published hundreds of thousands of State Department diplomatic exchanges in a call for greater political transparency, Steinberg replied that the State Department “has a legitimate interest in protecting the confidentiality of some of the conversations we have, not the least of which [concern] human rights when we engage with people who are persecuted.”

“We place high emphasis civil society – unlike in the Maldives where I can meet freely with civil society, there are other far more repressive countries where we have to meet in confidence. People take great risk to meet with us and share their ideas. There is a responsibility to protect those confidences – there is an appropriate place for confidentiality in government but we also believe in the maximum openness that can be achieved. We have a strong commitment to freedom of information, and President Obama has worked hard to reduce our reliance on classified information. That’s very important to us.”

Concerning the State Department’s listing of the Maldives on its tier two watch-list for Human Trafficking last year, two weeks after the Maldives was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Steinberg reiterated that “we recognise there are challenges, particularly labour trafficking and making sure people seeking economic opportunity are not exploited.

“This region, quite frankly, has particular challenges in dealing with forced labour and related issues on trafficking. What we are looking for is a road-map and a way forward. The watch-list is not intended to punish, but to motivate efforts to go forward.”

Specific areas raised with the Maldivian government by the senior US diplomat included the challenges of economic development, the need to strengthen education and build educational opportunities, as well as the challenges of confronting growing extremism “and how we can help promote tolerance in the Maldives.”