Government-Commonwealth talks continue over CNI conduct concerns

Talks are continuing between the Government and the Commonwealth over the conduct of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI), just a few days before a deadline to make changes to the body expires.

Speaking to journalists yesterday before departing on a visit to India, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan had said that the international community was mainly concerned about how the CNI was presently being conducted. Dr Waheed said that this issue was now being discussed with Commonwealth representatives presently in the Maldives, according to the Sun Online news service.

The CNI, which was formed by President Waheed to ascertain the events behind February’s controversial transfer of power, has been criticised by the Commonwealth over concerns about its impartiality.

On April 16, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (GMAG) set a deadline of four weeks for the government to revise the CNI’s composition and mandate or face “stronger measures” from the 54 member state intergovernmental organisation.

The president also told local media yesterday that he was not expecting to come under pressure from India to hold early elections in the Maldives this year during his visit.  He claimed that the Indian government was one of the first to “recognise” the current administration.


Comment: Weathering the storm – the Commonwealth and Maldives

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is in the eye of a storm in Maldives. In its last meeting on 16 April it warned that it will consider “stronger measures” if the terms and reference and composition of the Maldivian National Commission of Inquiry is not “amended within four weeks in a manner that is generally acceptable and enhances its credibility”.

“Stronger measures” is probably a hint at suspension from the Commonwealth. Over two weeks have passed since that decision, now in Maldives there is talk about withdrawing the country’s membership from the Commonwealth.

How did all this come about? In the past few months, events in the Maldives have caught headlines and raised eyebrows across the world. These months saw the country’s democratic transition plagued by serious uncertainty. The most sensational part of this turn of events is mystery around the exit of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

The National Commission of Inquiry (NCI) was set up by the government to look into what transpired on the fateful day of 7 February 2012 when Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hussain took over following Mr Nasheed’s resignation – which the latter subsequently claimed was forced at gun point. The immediate backdrop for this is the military’s arrest the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court on 16 January 2012 under Mr Nasheed’s orders – a move that attracted international condemnation and regular protests in Maldives.

Mr Nasheed claimed that the judge who was under investigation by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) represents a judiciary that is dysfunctional – while protests continued to rage and reports of a possible police mutiny began to emerge as 7 February unfolded.

Storm clouds have gathered over Maldives for long and the recent series of events are a culmination of what has been brewing for a while. Following a drawn out pro-democracy struggle in the Maldives led by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the 2008 Presidential elections saw Mr Nasheed contested against the incumbent Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and winning – albeit by a margin of about eight percent.

The end of the 30 year regime of former President Gayoom was widely perceived as the beginning of full-fledged democracy in the Maldives. Since then, what began as a smooth ride eventually began to get bumpy. Rising prices, drug and crime issues, economic disparity, corruption allegations and concerns over the transparency of increasing foreign investments all began to cause unrest. Towards the end there were frequent public demonstrations and political standoffs.

While stalemates between the opposition dominated Parliament and the executive has been an issue, divisions also emerged between the executive and the judiciary – most of the appointments in the latter had been made during Gayoom’s tenure and the executive viewed this wing of state as being unreformed and loyal to the former regime.

The international community including the Commonwealth eased out of their heightened scrutiny of Maldives following the 2008 Presidential elections. In the aftermath the country’s nascent democracy has faced severe tribulations. Maldives is precariously located in the tip of South Asia, in the middle of strategic sea lanes making it important economically and politically both for the West and the two Asian giants – China and India. The crisis in the Maldives is an important bellwether of the edgy geopolitical climate in this region which has already found reflection in other countries of the region such as Sri Lanka.

While a lot of the current focus is mired over opposing political views within Maldives, it is important to remember that the vagaries of politics inside and outside the country should not ultimately lead to the Maldivian people viewing the values of human rights and democracy with blighted hope. It is important that these values are upheld and the protections that they afford are ensured.

An important step in doing this is to make sure that truth is both told and is seen to be told, freely sans politicisation. In this context, it is important that the National Commission of Inquiry is credible and is able to investigate and report freely and publicly. This call for credibility and impartiality has also been aptly echoed and elaborated by several Maldivian NGOs coming together in a new civil society coalition called ‘Thinvana Adu’ or ‘Third Voice’. Independent institutions in the Maldives such as the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) should follow this lead and conduct their own parallel investigations and report publicly at the earliest.

Even though the Commonwealth should have made more early and transparent efforts to scrutinise the progress of democracy in the Maldives, it is a good sign that after years of being dormant CMAG has now taken the directions given to it in the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting seriously. It is also important that CMAG has recognised the need for a credible National Commission of Inquiry. If Maldives decides to leave the Commonwealth it will be the only other country after Zimbabwe to do so – a parallel that may be politically damaging for Maldives to equate itself with at this time of crisis.

R Iniyan Ilango is a Coordinator for the Strategic Initiatives Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

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Gayoom urges “rethink” of Maldives Commonwealth membership

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has this week discussed the Maldives’ membership in the Commonwealth, urging the country to “rethink the whole situation” in regards to its role in the organisation.

Gayoom’s comments were made as the Maldives comes under pressure from the 54 member state intergovernmental organisation to modify the terms of reference and composition of an independent body to ascertain the exact details of February’s controversial transfer of power in the country.  The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (GMAG) has said it would otherwise consider “stronger” measures against the government should it fail to establish a “credible” and “independent” Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).

Covering an address given by Gayoom Thursday evening at a ceremony to honour former Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel, Haveeru reported the former president as saying the Maldives did not really have a basis to be a member of the Commonwealth.

The former president also claimed the Commonwealth’s role has changed since the Maldives joined back in 1982.  Gayoom claimed the body has formerly worked with smaller nations to maintain their independence  – a purpose he now questioned.

“The actions of the Commonwealth have changed since then, to a point where we now have to have a rethink about the whole situation. That’s how much the world has changed now,” he claimed

Gayoom’s said his comments were also based on the fact that the country had never itself been a former colony unlike neighbours such as India and Sri Lanka.

“We were under the protection of the British. That’s a different situation altogether. There wasn’t a British ruler in the form of a Governor General or a Governor in the Maldives. The leader of the nation had been a Maldivian even during that time. Hence Maldives really have no basis to become a member of the Commonwealth as the member States of the Commonwealth include nations that had been subject to British rule,” Gayoom was reported as saying.

The Sun Online news service meanwhile reported that Gayoom also noted concerns that the Commonwealth had changed from when the Maldives first joined as a member back in 1982 to a body  representing larger countries aiming to “impose their influence on smaller ones.”

“Earlier, smaller nations had the opportunity to express their interests to the world through Commonwealth. That’s why we decided that Maldives should join Commonwealth. But now things are very different,” Sun Online quoted the former president as saying.

Some government-aligned MPs and political representatives have in recent weeks called on the state to renounce its membership in the Commonwealth.  Hoever, the government itself has stressed it remains committed to the organisation and the CNI.


Commonwealth reiterates call for 2012 elections; government says July 2013

The Commonwealth has reiterated its call for early presidential elections in the Maldives before 2013, but said it will only consider “stronger measures” against the Maldives government should the administration fail to establish a “credible” independent Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan last week responded that “early” elections would be held in July 2013, the earliest possible date allowed under the constitution, and pledged to continue working with the Commonwealth nonetheless.

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has warned it would take “stronger measures” against the Maldives government – which could potentially include suspension from the body – should the CNI’s composition and mandate not be amended within four weeks. CMAG also stressed that it saw ongoing talks between “senior” political representatives and early elections as the best way forward to maintain the country’s democratic transition.

The CNI was itself formed by Dr Waheed to independently verify the legitimacy of February’s transfer of power and the legality of his tenure as president, both of which are contested by the ousted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The MDP contends that the CNI is stacked with supporters of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country’s autocratic leader of 30 years who was displaced by Nasheed.

In a statement yesterday, the President’s Office claimed that the coalition parties making up Dr Waheed’s “national unity government” were all in support of elections being held in July 2013.

“The CMAG’s primary mandate is to defend the Constitutions of the Commonwealth member states, and the Maldivian Constitution is very clear on when Presidential elections can be held.  The government is confident that once the CMAG is fully aware of this, they will come out in support of July 2013 elections,” the statement read, also criticising the now opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for demanding early polls.

“The MDP’s advocacy for elections earlier than July 2013 merely serves to highlight the persistent constitutional violations of the previous administration.”

The now opposition MDP, which maintains that Waheed was brought to power in a “coup d’etat”, has contended that elections could be held within several months should Waheed resign and hand his powers to Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid.

Under the constitution should Waheed resign, the Speaker would run an interim government for  maximum of 60 days followed by a presidential polls. Earlier, Waheed’s government disputed the “conditions” for an early election, on the basis of high political tensions, economic viability, capacity of the elections commission, and weak state of the judiciary.

The United States has since pledged US$500,000 in technical assistance for elections, to be made available from July 2012.

Several parliamentary by-elections were also held last weekend, in which candidates from pro-government parties came to power in the Thimarafushi and Kaashidhoo constituencies.

“Stronger measures”

The exact nature of the “stronger measures” that could be taken against the Maldives remains vague, but could include suspension from the group. Fiji – another island nation – was expelled by the Commonwealth in 2006 following a military coup. The Maldives has meanwhile been suspended from participation on CMAG.

“Each country situation that CMAG has considered in the past has had its own particular characteristics. It would not be fair to compare one situation against the other,” said Commonwealth Secretariat Spokesperson Richard Uku.

“CMAG has always sought to engage constructively with member states, and the Maldives is no exception. We would not like to speculate about what ‘stronger measures’ might be considered by CMAG if warranted, but a range of options is available to CMAG, including suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth.”

Former High Commissioner Dr Farahanaz Faizal, who attended the CMAG meeting, has previously said that the nature of the “stronger measures” proposed against the government could potentially have serious ramifications for the Maldives ongoing membership in the Commonwealth.

Though she was not present herself at the time, Dr Faizal was led to understand that, when questioned about the possible nature of further action against the government, the meeting’s chair suggested that suspension of the Maldives from the Commonwealth would be pursued if concerns over the CNI were not met.

Despite having previously accused the Commonwealth of showing “bias” towards the MDP in calling for early elections, the government has said it remains committed to being a member of the Commonwealth.

“We wish to continue to be members in the organisation, but we only would do so under the regulations of our constitution,” President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said earlier this week.

Asked at the time if he was confident the government could satisfy the calls from CMAG relating to the impartiality of the CNI, Abbas again said that it would first be important to clarify what exactly was expected of President Waheed’s administration.

Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, leader of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), reportedly criticised CMAG’s investigation this week as being “incomplete” and “failing to address the views of the Maldivian people”.

Commonwealth obligations

Secretariat Spokesperson Uku claimed that the organisation’s “experience” had shown no member state wished to be placed in such a situation as to be suspended from the group.

“Commonwealth membership carries political, economic and social benefits for member states and is valued by our member states. It also carries obligations about adhering to certain fundamental political values,” he said.

“Suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth has practical ramifications in terms of a member state being excluded from official Commonwealth meetings at various levels and being barred from receiving new technical assistance in many areas.”

EU backing

Representing 54 nations, the Commonwealth’s stance on the Maldives is a bellweather for the rest of the international community. The European Union told Minivan News this week that it continued to back CMAG and its Special Envoy Sir Donald Mckinnon in pursuing early elections and an independent inquiry.

An EU spokesperson said that considering the Maldives’ recent political upheaval, it was working with the Commonwealth and UN over issues such as judicial reform. The issue of judicial reform was initially raised by former President Mohamed Nasheed, and ultimately led to his detention of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, who Nasheed’s government alleged “held the entire criminal justice system in his fist”.

The EU spokesperson claimed that discussions on judicial matters had already been held with the Maldives minister of State for Foreign Affairs, adding that the country had also reportedly asked for Commonwealth assistance.

Former President Nasheed came under international scrutiny for detaining Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed in the run up to his controversial resignation on Febraury 7 – a resignation he subsequently said was made under “duress”.

The former government detained the judge, who stands accused of several charges of misconduct, on suspicion that he was abusing his position and acting as a threat to national security. Nasheed’s government sought to resolve the impasse by appealing for help from the international community.

In a recent interview Nasheed told Time magazine that he believed the international community had been “very late” in providing meaningful assistance in assisting with the crisis.

Responding to the claims, the EU spokesperson said that the organisation had been approached “only a few days” before Feb 7 to provide assistance.

“Events then overtook Nasheed’s request,” the spokesperson said.

Government supporters are now pushing for Nasheed to face criminal charges for the arrest of the judge, which would potentially scuttle his election campaign.