President disappointed with “ill-informed and irresponsible allegations” by UN human rights chief

President Dr Mohamed Waheed has expressed disappointment with the “ill-informed and irresponsible allegations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay”.

Pillay last week blamed the Supreme Court’s repeated interventions in the presidential election process for what she described as “the dangerous drift in the democratic process in the Maldives”.

“The government of Maldives rejects the claim that the Supreme Court and the Government are subverting the democratic process,” read a President’s Office statement.

“The United Nations must try to better understand the difficulties facing Maldives in their early phase of democracy, and provide support to find solutions rather than issue damaging statements from a distance,” the statement added.

The High Commissioner’s comment “undermines efforts of Maldives Supreme Court and the government to strengthen the Rule of Law in the country.”

Waheed’s rejection of Pillay’s criticism follows the response of the court’s Chief Justice, Ahmed Faiz, who quickly labelled the High Commissioner’s statements “irresponsible” and “poorly researched”.

“I harshly condemn UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s  false allegations regarding the Maldives Supreme Court’s work to uphold its constitutional duties and responsibilities. I do not believe she has any authority to speak in such terms,” stated Faiz soon after Pillay’s statement on Wednesday (October 30).

Following allegations of voter fraud following an otherwise-applauded September 7 poll, the Supreme Court annulled the vote after ruling that over 5,600 ineligible votes had been cast.

The ruling was based on a confidential police report, kept secret from both the public and the Elections Commission’s defence lawyers. A leaked copy of this report has emerged this week (English).

After a second election date had been scheduled for October 19, polling was again delayed after police argued that the court’s 16 point guideline had not been followed when two of the three candidates refused to assign their names to the new voter lists.

Pillay’s statement last week described the 16 point guidelines as “onerous”. She also pointed to the international community’s longstanding concerns over judicial independence in the Maldives.

In the context of such criticism, the UK Bar Human Rights Committee has described the decision to annul the election as “troubling”.

The latest date set for the first round of the election is November 9, with a potential re-run scheduled for seven days later.

President Waheed – whose constitutionally mandated term expires on November 11 – returned to the country on Thursday night following “a private visit to Singapore and Hong Kong.”

Waheed was reported in local media today as saying that the current constitution is in major need of revision.

“We have found out that the political system we have introduced is in need of changes so that our nation will not continue upon suicidal track,” the President was quoted as saying at an India Maldives Friendship Association function on Friday night.

The People’s Majlis has approved a motion for presidential power to pass to the Speaker of the House Abdulla Shahid during this interim period, although although government-aligned politicians have continued to suggest that the opinion of the Supreme Court should be sought on this matter.

In its initial election annulment verdict, the court the court had ruled that Waheed would be able to remain in power even after the expiry of his presidential term, citing the continuity of government principle.

Waheed has meanwhile claimed that he has no interest in remaining president “even a day beyond November 11”.

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Self-exiled blogger Hilath speaks at UN Human Rights Council

Maldivian journalist and blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed last week spoke at the United Nation’s Palace of Nations during the 21st session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).

In a side event dedicated to the Maldives, Hilath spoke of his fears of rising fundamentalism in his home country and called for the international community to keep a close watch on the Maldives to ensure the protection of human rights and democratic freedoms.

“Maldives may be a small country but it is not insignificant. It lies at a strategic crossroads and the cultural and political invasion of Maldives by Saudi-funded Wahhabi extremism will definitely have regional and global repercussions,” said Hilath.

Hilath was forced to flee the Maldives earlier this year after an assassination attempt left him within millimetres of death when a group of men slashed his throat just yards from his home in Male’.

Hilath later attributed the assassination attempt to Islamic radicals who had threatened his life on numerous previous occasions.

As well as making international headlines, Hilath’s case has been championed by both Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and, more recently, by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Both organisations called for an immediate investigation into the attack, the latter criticising the authorities for failing to adequately investigate the incident.

“Until 2003, for the past 800 years, the Maldives had been a moderate and liberal Islamic country,” said Hilath, whose speech is also available on his blog which has been blocked by the authorities since November.

“However, in the last years of [Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom, due to poverty and oppression, and also as a result of the forced imposition on the Maldivian people of Gayoom’s own version of Islam, extremism took a hold, and though it is still a minority, it is a very vocal and formidable one that both [Mohamed] Nasheed’s and [Mohamed] Waheed’s governments have been unable to tackle,” he continued.

“But a stark difference has been that while Nasheed’s government officially acknowledged there was an extremist problem in Maldives, Waheed is refusing to acknowledge the problem. While Nasheed sought to keep extremism in check by bringing them into his government, in the form of the Adhaalath Party, Waheed came into power on the back of extremism, and therefore is giving free reign to extremists,” said Hilath.

Prior to this year’s transfer of presidential power, Hilath suffered a fractured skull after an attack during a silent protest in support of religious tolerance last December.

He was later arrested in relation to the protest after the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) wrote a letter to the police.

This prompted Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience and to demand his immediate release.

The 2008 constitution defines the Maldives as a one hundred percent Sunni Islamic nation and makes observance of the faith a prerequisite of citizenship.

“What is worrying is that while Nasheed allowed extremists to spread their propaganda through private channels, Waheed’s government is directly sanctioning the promotion of the extremist agenda through official religious channels,” said Hilath.

“The Adhaalath Party, under whom extremists operate, and under whose umbrella the Islamic Affairs Ministry has been under both Nasheed and Waheed, is now using Friday prayer sermons, also known as khuthubas, to spew bigotry, mysogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism and other sorts of discrimination, and to issue fatwas or religious rulings proclaiming the arts and humanities, such as photography, art, music, singing, dancing and acting as haram or sinful,” he added.

Two days after Hilath’s speech in Geneva, the Islamic Ministry distributed a circular calling for the banning of mixed gender dancing.

This news put the Maldives in the global media spotlight for the second time this month after the sentencing of a 16 year old girl to 100 lashes for fornication – in accordance with Islamic Sharia – had already made international headlines.

Last Friday also saw a gathering of religious protesters outside of the United Nations (UN) building to register their anger at the anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims”.

Protesters burned the American flag and waved banners, one of which read “Maldives: Future graveyard of Americans and Jews”.

Repeated chants were heard urging President Waheed to return America’s US$20,000 contribution to restore the historical Buddhist artifacts in the museum, which were destroyed by a mob of vandals during February’s political turmoil.

Some protesters stated that if the idols were restored, they would promptly destroy them again.

In response to the issue of dancing, President’s spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza told the Associated Free Press (AFP) this week that the circular was not legally enforceable and that the Maldives would always be “a very tolerant society”.

“It is deeply regrettable that both Nasheed and Waheed have done little or nothing to curb extremism as every political party in Maldives seems afraid of extremists,” said Hilath.

“What is really depressing now is that since Waheed’s government is backed by Islamic extremists, who in turn have been backed by rogue police and military officers, extremists are now acting with impunity,” he added.

“The only hope we have in saving the Maldives is by the international community keeping a close watch. I, therefore, welcome UN Human Rights Commissioner Ms. Navi Pillay’s decision to assign a Human Rights Advisor to the Maldives as rising Islamic extremism is causing serious setbacks to human rights, freedom of expression and democracy in the Maldives,” he said.

After visiting the Maldives last November, Pillay called for a moratorium on corporal punishment and criticised the Muslim-only clause in the constitution.

Protesters subsequently gathered outside the UN building, calling for Pillay’s own arrest and flogging.

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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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UN Human Rights High Commissioner to address parliament

United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Navenethem Pillay will deliver an address at parliament tomorrow, Speaker Abdulla Shahid announced today.

As there is no scheduled sitting of parliament tomorrow, the High Commissioner will give the speech at committee room number one.

Navenethem Pillay is a South African of Tamil descent and was appointed to the post on September 1, 2008.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner, “Ms. Pillay has served as a judge on two of the most important international criminal courts in the modern era, spending eight years with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including four years as its President, and then the past five years on the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Both of these courts deal with the extreme end of the human rights spectrum — war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and are at the cutting edge of the development of international law in these areas.”

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