Civil society groups slam government for “failure to ensure conducive environment for elections”

Prominent NGOs have released a joint human rights brief accusing the Maldivian government of failing to create conditions conducive to free and fair elections, ahead of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting to be held in London this Friday.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) reported that with less than six months before the presidential elections “there are clear signs indicating that the coalition government in power since February 2012 has so far failed to set the conditions for free and fair elections in which ‘all parties and leaders are able freely to conduct election campaigns’.”

“The most critical matter in this regard is the continued interference of the executive on other branches of power, as manifested by the trial of several opposition members to prevent the opposition from running in the upcoming elections,” the brief reads.

Authorities have both failed to ensure a ‘free and fair’ atmosphere with respect to freedom of information or freedom to assembly, as well as made no efforts to inform and educate voters on electoral rights and responsibilities, the report claims.

FIDH and MDN highlight that promoting and protecting human rights has suffered from a “substantial lack of progress” and that a “culture of impunity for perpetrators of past human rights violations” has been institutionalised.

While “human rights abuses reduced drastically” following former President Mohamed Nasheed’s election in 2008, past and present police brutality, torture and impunity have gone unaddressed, states the brief.

Institutions such as the Police Integrity Commission (PIC), the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), and a Presidential Commission – created in 2009 and disbanded in 2012 – failed to investigate and address human rights abuses, including torture committed by the police services, given their limited mandates.

“The coalition government established in February 2012 has been accused of a wide range of human rights violations, from violent repression of street protests, arbitrary arrests, sexual harassment of female protesters, torture, harassment of pro-opposition media, to legal and physical harassment of members of the opposition,” states the brief.

“Since the HRCM made public its reports on these allegations in August 2012, no action has been taken for investigation or redress,” the brief continues.

Systematic omissions have been identified in the the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) “serious enough to raise fundamental questions about the accuracy of the report’s conclusions.” Furthermore, recommendations made by the CoNI on August 30, 2012 regarding human rights abuses, torture, and impunity “were immediately dismissed by senior government officials; this could only encourage the security forces to disregard the rule of law and commit further human rights abuses in impunity,” the brief reads.

“Uncertainties” have caused a “new phase of slowdown” in the country’s legal reform process as well.

“Women have suffered and still suffer from the absence of a strong legal framework… and women’s rights remain at risk of being curbed by religious parties influencing the governing coalition and pushing for the full implementation of Sharia,” the report states.

Rising tensions regarding interpretations of Islam is “particularly an area of concern” given the “fundamental views being introduced by the Adalath party and some religious groups, mainly those that are being linked with Shari’a and harsh punishments,” claims the brief.

“Bearing in mind that there is absolutely no public trust in the judiciary to have the capacity to deliver justice under these circumstances, those critical of these [religious] interpretations have faced violent consequences,” reads the brief. “To date, there are no reports of an investigation or any on-going effort to find the perpetrators of these crimes [of murder and attempted murder].”

Following Nasheed’s claim he was deposed in a coup d’état, the Commonwealth suspended the Maldives from the CMAG, and said it had decided to place the Maldives on its formal agenda in February 2012 because of “questions that remain about the precise circumstances of the change of government, as well as the fragility of the situation in the Maldives.”

In September 2012, CMAG decided the Maldives would remain on the agenda under the item “Matters of Interest to CMAG”, however its suspension from the international body’s democracy and human rights arm has now been revoked.

CMAG recommendations

FIDH and MDN emphasised that the newly reformed CMAG mandate includes “situations that might be regarded as constituting a serious or persistent violation of Commonwealth values”, and the “systematic denial of political space, such as through detention of political leaders or restriction of freedom of association, assembly or expression.”

“These situations have continuously characterised the political environment of the Maldives especially since the change of power of 7 February 2012.”

FIDH and MDN provided CMAG with five key recommendations in regard to the deteriorating human rights situation in the Maldives.

They compelled CMAG to raise concerns regarding human rights violations in the Maldives, especially allegations of police brutality and torture, and request government authorities take all necessary measures to prevent violence, respect the due process of law and prevent arbitrary arrests.

A review of CMAG’s position on CoNI report should be conducted, especially in reference to “later developments”.

CMAG should also advocate for the preservation and consolidation of democratic achievements and take all necessary steps to guarantee the conditions for free, fair and inclusive elections in September 2013.

Providing technical assistance to the Maldives’ government is recommended. This is necessary to strengthen the rule of law and support the development of public institutions, in particular the judiciary, as well as independent commissions such as the HRCM, the PIC, and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

Finally, provide support to civil society organizations to raise public awareness about the role of public institutions and the importance of separation of powers, develop human rights education programs, and play a key role monitoring democratic and independent institution building.

Maldivian government recommendations

FIDH and MDN also provided the Maldivian government with a list of 11 recommendations to improve the country’s human rights failures.

This includes strengthening independent commissions, such as the PIC, JSC, and HRCM, in accordance with CoNI report recommendations. Reforming the judiciary should also be prioritized.

The physical and psychological integrity of human rights defenders, journalists and members of the opposition must be also guaranteed in all circumstances.

Initiating a national campaign to address past human rights violations (1978-2008), including “accountability for perpetrators, acknowledgement, truth-telling mechanisms, reparations, and legal and institutional reforms to prevent occurrence of new violations” is recommended.

“Such mechanisms would also act as a deterrent to prevent any future form of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest or ill-treatment by State security personnel,” the brief states.

Additionally, the Majlis (parliament) should “urgently enact” pending legislation, ensure civil society is consulted, and that the bills “fully conform with international human rights commitments and obligations of the Maldives.” Furthermore, the death penalty should not be enshrined in those texts.

FIDH and MDN also recommend the government fulfill its various international commitments. This includes investigating allegations of torture, adopting implementing legislation for the International Criminal Court statute, as well as guaranteeing the human rights and protections enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Additionally, the scope of the Maldives’ reservation to Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – which aims to eliminate discrimination in all matters relating to marriage and family relations, and ensures gender equality – should be significantly reduced.

Adhering to the recommendations of various UN Special Rapporteur’s, which have addressed some of the systemic problems within the judicial system and various human rights issues, is also recommended. As is arranging future Rapporteur’s missions regarding transitional justice and additional human rights challenges.

Government reaction

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dhunya Maumoon told local media yesterday (April 23) that Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Abdul Samad Abdullah had left for London April 22 to participate in the CMAG meeting.

Maumoon highlighted that this marks the first occasion the Maldives has been invited to a CMAG meeting since its removal from the agenda.

“The opportunity for the Maldivian Foreign Minister to participate in a CMAG meeting was a great achievement, and one which resulted from the efforts by President Waheed’s government in cooperation with the Commonwealth,” said Maumoon.

“Now Maldives will have the opportunity to partake in discussions at CMAG. But the Maldives delegation will not be present when the group discusses the Maldives,” she added.

Maumoon also reiterated the government’s position that the Maldives should not have been on CMAG’s agenda and that “the move was prompted by a lack of understanding of the true events that transpired in the Maldives.”

“Some countries” had realized this error and accused Nasheed of influencing CMAG members, Maumoon claimed.

While Maumoon admitted “there was always a fear of instability in Maldives due to the rather infant democracy in the country,” she also highlighted that “international partners have acknowledged the positive strides the country has made brought about in a relatively peaceful manner.”

In April 2012, Maldives’ permanent representative to the EU Ali Hussein Didi criticised the Commonwealth’s involvement in the Maldives, telling the European Parliament that the Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) lacked a clear mandate to place the Maldives on its agenda.

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Flogging for fornication “inhumane and degrading violence against women”: Navi Pillay tells Majlis

The Maldives’ peaceful transition to democracy has “set an important precedent in the Asia-Pacific region and serves as a beacon in the broader Muslim world,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in parliament today.

In a keynote address titled ‘Responding to the Past while Safeguarding the Future: the Challenge of Protecting Human Rights in the context of Democratic Transition,’ Pillay observed that as democratic transitions “are always fragile,” the recent history of the Maldives contained lessons for newly-established democracies.

Pillay praised the reform milestones achieved by the Maldives since 2003, including the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, the introduction of political parties, accession to main international human rights instrument, the drafting of a “new and very progressive constitution” and the first multi-party elections that followed its ratification in August 2008.

“This year, we have witnessed the same strong aspirations for democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa which have brought dramatic and positive changes to the political environment of the region,” she said.

“After decades of oppression and systemic human rights violations, men and women of different ages, political orientations and social origins have come together in an unprecedented movement to bring about political change and to demand social justice.”

Strong and stable institutions

Pillay noted that successful transition to a functioning democracy was “very much contingent on the existence of independent institutions” and separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.

While acknowledging that the new institutions started working “with limited resources and within a volatile and politicised environment,” Pillay said it was imperative for all parties to “embrace the path of reform and develop a culture of dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect.”

She urged parliament to enact long-delayed legislation and the judiciary to be “independent and forward-looking in applying the law in accordance with the constitution and international human rights obligations of the Maldives.”

The executive should meanwhile “respect the roles and independence of the other arms of the state and ensure effective implementation of the rule of law.”

Islam and democracy

The reform movement of the Maldives and public uprisings of the Arab Spring has established “the congruence between rights guaranteed by Islam and universally recognised human rights,” Pillay stated, which is “proof that Islam is not incompatible with human rights and democracy.”

She welcomed the ‘House of Wisdom’ initiative led by the Maldives, “which will help to promote an open and constructive debate, both inside and outside the Maldives, on how to reconcile international human rights standards and Islamic law.”

Social media

A third lesson for democratic transitions, said Pillay, was use of the internet and new social media to mobilise the public.

Activists, journalists and bloggers in the Maldives “opened new spaces for debate,” she observed, noting the changes to “repressive habits of the past” through decriminalising defamation and removing restriction to freedom of assembly.

The Associated Press (AP) however reported yesterday that Pillay expressed concern with reports of rising religious intolerance in the Maldives during a meeting with President Mohamed Nasheed.

The AP referred to the vandalism of monuments donated by Pakistan and Sri Lanka for the recently-concluded SAARC summit over allegedly “idolatrous” and un-Islamic imagery.

Women’s rights

While women were involved in the political mobilisation of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Pillay stressed that “rights and opportunities for women in these societies still face many challenges.”

“I strongly believe that democracy for the half the people is no democracy at all,” she asserted.

Acknowledging efforts by both previous and current administrations to promote gender equality and the removal of the gender bar for public office in the 2008 constitution, Pillay however noted that discrimination against women and girls continued in the country.

“A powerful illustration of this trend is the flogging of women found guilty of extra-marital sex,” she explained. “This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country.”

Pillay urged the authorities to foster national dialogue and debate “on this issue of major concern,” and called on parliament to pass legislation on domestic violence as well as other laws to ensure women’s rights.

In response to a Minivan News report in 2009 of an 18 year-old woman fainting after a 100 lashes, Amnesty International called for a moratorium on the “inhumane and degrading punishment.”

Of the 184 people sentenced to public flogging in 2006, 146 were female, making it nine times more likely for women to be punished.

“I also urge you to discuss the withdrawal of the remaining reservation to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women concerning equality in marriage,” Pillay said. “These are necessary steps, not only for protecting the human rights of women and girls in Maldives, but securing Maldives’ transition.”

On the problem of migrant workers in the country, Pillay urged the government to enforce the non-discrimination clause in the constitution by adopting a comprehensive law and ratifying the ‘Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.’

Transitional justice

Lastly, the UN High Commissioner observed that new democracies faced a common problem of transitional justice or “establishing accountability for past human rights violations.”

“Addressing the past is often a complicated political dilemma, but we should never lose sight of the right victims have to truth, justice and redress,” she said.

Without coming to terms with human rights abuses and injustices committed by ousted regimes, said Pillay, “transitional democracies will face continued challenges in the path towards democracy, respect for human rights and ending impunity.”

Referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Pillay revealed that she urged President Mohamed Nasheed to “lead a national consultation on this important subject.”

Pillay concluded her address by predicting that the Maldives “will increasingly have a special role to play in the region and the Muslim world as it has pioneered a democratisation process that is both modern and Islamic.”

“I firmly believe that the Maldives can make history as a moderate Islamic democracy. This opportunity cannot be missed, for the benefit of Maldives and of the wider region,” she said.

“Difficult road ahead”

Pillay, a South African national of Tamil descent who served as President of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda for eight years, today concluded her three-day stay in the first-ever visit to the Maldives by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, in his remarks after the speech, Speaker Abdulla Shahid said the parliament was “honoured to have you here, a person who has fought tremendously for human rights in your country and is committed to the promotion of human rights all over the world.”

“As you have rightly said, Maldives has pioneered many of the experiences that the Arab Spring is spreading through the Arabian peninsula and the North African region,” he said.

“I can assure you, Madam High Commissioner, that we will not let our guard down. We know how difficult the job has been. We know how difficult the road ahead of us is. And we will continue to work in the national interest of this nation and we will succeed in this endeavor.”

He added that the leadership of the legislature, judiciary and executive is “fully committed” to upholding the liberal constitution of 2008, which is “a living document which we are going through everyday.”

“The experiences that we have had are strengthening the democratic structure of this country,” he said.

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“You cannot eat democracy – but taxes can buy food”: President Nasheed

Extracts from President Mohamed Nasheed’s speech at the book launching ceremony of “The Maldives’ Journey to Democracy” by Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeq.

“I would say the Maldives changed to democracy with high hopes of citizens. And we began down that path with high hopes of the people. The question we ask today is whether those hopes have become a reality. Are we satisfied that we’ve got what we wanted?

I definitely was very much certain that the government will change. I became certain of this in 1990. I remember I wrote in a letter to someone at the time that this is something that I will do; that we can do this. We can change the government of the Maldives through peaceful political activity. There would be no need of a revolution or a coup. [We believed that] we could take courage and strength from each other, overcome our fears, and change the country through peaceful political activity.

Even back then, we thought and worried about how that change could be consolidated. The country has changed many times before. [Going] from one ruler to another is a change. However I cannot find a single ruler who was left alone after the change and not banished, his wealth and property confiscated, his wife and children, his whole family, hounded to the point where they were erased from the country. Not a single ruler.

All the rulers of Maldives were quite good. They did many services to the people. They facilitated a number of things to the people. However, it is very difficult to find a former ruler who was treated with proper kindness, with generosity and compassion, and in fairness.

Escaping that stamp became our main goal and purpose. [We wanted to see] how we could govern without torturing the former ruler, punishing him, confiscating his property, without arresting his wife and children, without destroying the lives of his in-laws and other relatives and family members.

Now, a lot of people tell me, ‘your mind is too young.’ That is something I’ve always heard. About how young my mind is; how I do not understand and how I want to do things too quickly. […] A lot of people were saying when we approached the parliamentary elections that if we did not round up and arrest everyone in the former regime, MDP would not get a single vote.

That is true. If we arrested half of the people contesting for parliament, they would not have won their seats. [They say that] we generously forfeited the parliament majority. That is an accusation levelled against me quite a lot these days. [That is] because we did not fight for justice and quickly conducted trials, many people walked free. A lot of people who committed injustices and violated the rights of the public were able to go free.

And not only did they go free. They came back again into the legislature. They won the Majlis majority. At the time, there were just 25 members of parliament to support our infant democracy, the Maldivian Democracy Party (MDP) or the newly-formed government. Opposition parties needed just one additional vote to overthrow the government.

Our government came into being within this halted state, facing these obstacles. Nevertheless, we were always striving towards our goal, with our purpose; to stay as we had resolved. That is to not violate rights; and not arrest and harm people.

Even as I say this, there passes many, many times, many moments, when there is pressure to arrest or [circumstances] that forces arrests [to be made]. There were other times when certain people were arrested for short periods. That is regrettable. I believe that we are able to bring the changes we want, the changes that we are seeing now, because we strive with tactfulness and patience.

If we had tried be the most superior, the most powerful, on the first day, if we still try to be, I would say Mohamed [Shafeeq] would not have been able to write this book even today. He would have to write flowery and golden praises of the newly-formed government. A government does not become dictatorial because of a person; but because of many, many things that develop around it, when it becomes entwined in it.

We wanted the democratic principles or democratic system we have attained for a very important purpose: that is for freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression is not something you can eat. Human nature might not suggest that a lot of people would come out and fight very hard for freedom of expression. In sum human beings strive for food, shelter, clothing. And to produce another human being.

We did not try to act, in any case, thinking in this narrow sense. Our purpose was always for democracy, to use democracy as a means. In itself, nothing happens when you only attain ‘democracy.’ We can only do something when we use democracy as the means.

This country’s government has always been protected by a small number of people. At times it might be two or three families, six tycoons and three or four prominent people in the island – such architects. Such groups have been able to keep hold of the country’s rule for thirty, forty, fifty years.

And so no matter how sincerely a ruler wants to push reforms, it becomes very easier to show the ruler that the reform is unacceptable, it would not be accepted by the people, it is the wrong thing to do, and it should not be done under any circumstances. I will give an example: tax. […] We know today that [the public is not opposed to taxation] using democracy, because democracy is the means through which we are able to have discussions; because freedom of expression allows us to have debates.

We are able to talk about increasing revenue, about taxation and all such matters only because we have democracy. Even if democracy is not something you can eat, the proceeds of taxation can be used for food.”

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