EU refuses to extend duty-free status of Maldivian fish imports on human rights grounds

The European Union has declined to extend the duty-free status of imported fish from the Maldives, following the country’s failure to comply with international conventions concerning freedom of religion.

The Maldives exports 40 percent of its US$100 million fishing industry to the EU, its single largest export partner by value.

Until January 2014 those exports were duty-free under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program, a non-reciprocal trade agreement extended to developing countries.

Maldives’ Fisheries Minister Ahmed Shafeeu said the government’s application for a year’s extension under the ‘GSP Plus’ program was declined as it had not ratified all 27 required international conventions.

“The Maldives has reservations to the freedom of religion component. Constitutionally we will not be able to remove these reservations,” Shafeeu said.

EU officials confirmed that the transitional period of trade concessions for the Maldives was due to expire as the Maldives from 2011 was not longer considered a developing country.

The Maldives applied for an extension under the ‘GSP+’ program, a unilateral trade concession of the EU given to a limited number of countries on the basis of good implementation of human rights are labor conventions, officials said, however did not qualify due to the country’s reservations to ICCPR on religious freedom and CEDAW concerning women’s rights.

Under the Maldivian constitution all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslim and the practice of other religions is criminalised. Customs authorities forbid the import of religious items and scan the baggage of tourists arriving at the airport, while politicians frequently use allegations of ‘consorting with missionaries’ as as a political attack.

Foreigner workers such as teachers accused of missionary activity have previously been sentenced but are more usually swiftly deported without trial.

The few Maldivians have publicly tested the religious citizenship provision have faced charges of apostasy, calls for the death penalty and religious counselling while incarcerated, while one journalist who publicly called for religious tolerance narrowly survived having his throat slit in July 2012.

Fisheries Minister Shafeeu warned that the sudden imposing of a 14-20 duty on fish imports would lose the Maldives its competitve advantage over the larger fishing fleets of nearby Sri Lanka and Thailand, and reduce profits to “a marginal value”.

Minister of Economic Affairs Ahmed Mohamed said that at average prices per kg Maldivian companies exporting to the EU would face a loss of US$1.66 per kg once duty was imposed.

“Internationally market price for fish fluctuates,” said Shafeeu. “In good times fish can fetch MVR 150 (US$10) a kilo, while sometimes this falls as low as MVR 45 (US$3) a kilo. Fishermen might not notice the impact [of the duty] immediately,” he said.

Most of the fish caught and exported in the Maldives is skipjack or yellowfin tuna, either processed and canned or sold fresh to overseas markets at a premium due to sustainable pole-and-line fishing techniques.

Shafeeu said the new duty was not unexpected as Maldivian fisheries had been given a three year extension of its duty-free status after graduating from the UN’s definition of a ‘least developed’ country to ‘middle income’ in 2011.

The lack of a year’s extension would force the fisheries industry to speed up exploration of other markets, he said.

“We have looked to the US where we also don’t have to pay duty, also the Russian market. With the Chinese market we have been able to get the health certification we require from them. But the US involves higher flight costs, and the highest value so far has been the EU,” he said.

While tourism is the Maldives’ largest economic sector, indirectly responsible for up to 70 percent of GDP and up to 90 percent of foreign exchange, fisheries is the country’s largest employer at over 40 percent.

The total fish catch has been declining each year since 2006 reaching 83.1 thousand metric tonnes in 2011, leading to fears about the impact of climate change and overfishing by better equipped fishing fleets on the borders of the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).