Maldives a proud part of ICC: Ghafoor

The Maldivian government has said it supports the mandates and standards of human rights and legal processes held by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in conjunction with the United Nations Charter.

Gender violence and social unrest were among the issues raised during the session.

Permanent Representative Ghafoor Mohamed addressed the Tenth Session of the Assembly of State Parties to the ICC last week. The session began in New York City on December 12 and will conclude on December 21.

Reaffirming the Maldives’ commitment to the Rome Statue, Ghafoor said the country is “proud to be among the group of countries who have committed themselves to combat impunity, in respect of international law and to provide justice to those victims who have often been forgotten in the labyrinths of diplomacy.

“We strongly believe that the rule of law in societies, at all levels is a crucial ingredient to the realization of socio economic objectives, and a reinforcement of core democratic principles. We are a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court and its conformity with the United Nations Charter in strengthening the rule of law and the respect for human rights”, he stated.

Reflecting on the protests and revolutions unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, Ghafoor pushed for governments to carefully consider their peoples’ voices and visions for their states.

The Maldives demonstrated its commitment to democracy during the Arab Spring and recently over the Syrian revolution.

The Maldives was one of the first three countries to recognise Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya’s sole legitimate representative. In a letter sent to chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil, expressed the President’s hope that Libya would “emerge as a free and democratic country, in which fundamental human rights can be enjoyed by all.”

Earlier this month, the Maldives exercised its powers as a member of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to help convene a UN Emergency Session on human rights in Syria. The Maldives supports increased foreign intervention regarding the state crackdown on civilian protestors.

However, Maldivian police have lately extended controversial blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed’s detention over his role in a peaceful silent protest for religious tolerance without charges.

On the other hand, religious Adhaalath party has agreed to meet with ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to discuss issues surrounding the upcoming protest to defend Islam, scheduled for December 23. MDP is meanwhile planning to hold a counter-rally on the same day.

Gender crimes were also raised as an issue of high importance.

“Gender crimes are one of most heinous forms of crimes against humanity and it is imperative that the Court continues its case law and jurisprudential work,” Ghafoor said.

A related topic was recently raised in the Maldives when UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay called for a moratorium on flogging of women as a punishment for extra-marital intercourse. The punishment is primarily administered to females in the Maldives, where paternity tests are unavailable.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem rejected Pillay’s view on the grounds that Islamic law is inarguable.

This is the first time the Maldives has participated in an Assembly of State Parties to the ICC since acceding to the Rome Statue earlier this year. Other new members include the Philippines, Cape Verde and Vanuatu.


Shaheed sidesteps Iran’s visa block with European tour

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, will meet with Iranian activists living in France, Germany and Belgium this week to investigate alleged human rights abuses. Iran’s Majlis blocked Shaheed from entering the country upon his appointment as special rapporteur in June, arguing that the US, Britain and Zionist regimes should be investigated instead.

“A visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran would have allowed me to gain better understanding of the situation,” Shaheed said in a statement.

In July, the secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights dismissed “the western-engineered appointment” of Dr Shaheed as Special Rapporteur as “an illegal measure,” according to the Tehran Times.

“Iran has no problem with the individual who has been appointed as the special rapporteur, but the appointment of a rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran is unacceptable and Iran will not accept the decision,” Mohammad Javad Larijani was quoted as saying.

Undeterred by Iran’s rejection, Shaheed said he will overcome the obstacle by studying “a wide range of human rights issues by meeting activists within the Iranian diaspora, alleged victims of human rights violations, intergovernmental and civil society organisations.”

Speaking to Minivan News in July, Shaheed said it was common practice for country-specific special rapporteurs to have difficulty getting into their target country.

“Often the country itself feels unfairly singled out for scrutiny, or that they don’t have a problem,” he said. “This is always a challenge, but by and large they come around in the end. The last time a Special Rapporteur was in Iran was in 1996. Countries eventually come round, but it takes time.”

The tour will last from November 30 to December 8.

Dr Shaheed formerly served the Maldives as Foreign Minister under both the current and former Presidents. He assumed duties as special rapporteur in August this year.

Though unable to enter Iran, in September of this year he filed an interim report for the UN claiming “systemic violations of fundamental human rights” as understood by first-hand testimonies.

In his report, Shaheed provided evidence that the Iranian government had secretly executed hundreds of prisoners at the notorious Vakilabad prison in Mashhad. These and other executions were allegedly done without the knowledge or presence of family and lawyers.

Shaheed also noted that human rights defenders, civil society organisations and religious actors had been charged with offences including acting against national security, insulting the Supreme Leader and “spreading propaganda against the regime.”

Reports of detained media personnel and human rights violations in prisons have leaked to the press in the past several months. On November 21, the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (GA) adopted a resolution calling for the Iranian government to reconcile listed violations.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, Iran’s highest human rights official, had spent the previous week defending Iran’s record.

Following his tour of inquiry Shaheed will report back to the Human Rights Council in March 2012.


Foreign Ministry opposes UN Human Rights Commissioner’s call for debate on flogging

The Foreign Ministry does not support open debates on issues raised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, namely the provision for flogging as a punishment for extra-marital intercourse and the requirement that all Maldivians be Muslims.

“What’s there to discuss about flogging?” Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem was reported as saying in newspaper Haveeru. “There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God.”

Speaking to Minivan News, Naseem confirmed his statement but did not wish to comment further.

Pillay said flogging was “a form of punishment that is cruel and demeaning to women” and observed that in her travels in Islamic countries “apart from the Maldives and one other country that practices stoning, flogging is not a practice that is condoned.”

She further claimed that the Maldives is signatory to international treaties that are legally-binding obligations, “and such a practice conflicts with these obligations undertaken by the Maldives.” She said human rights conforms with Islam.

Naseem today advised Minivan News that the Maldives had submitted certain reservations to said conventions, including articles on gender equality and freedom of religion, and on these points the country could not be held legally accountable by an international body.

Pillay also called for amendments to the constitutional provision mandating subscription to Islam.

Since her press conference on Thursday, November 24, protestors bearing slogans “Ban UN,” “Flog Pillay” and “Defend Islam” have demanded apologies from Pillay and Parliament, and called for Pillay to be prosecuted in the Maldives for her comments about the national constitution.

Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari opposed Pillay’s critiques. Haveeru reports he also backed political parties including the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and several MPs and religious groups who also  condemned the UN human rights chief’s comments.

In discussions with President Mohamed Nasheed, ministers and the judiciary, Pillay advised “permanent changes in the law [to] engineer a practical moratorium on flogging.”

NGO network Civil Society Coalition later announced a nation-wide mass protest on December 23 against the government’s alleged efforts to securalise the country.

Speaking with Minivan News today, President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said he believed Pillay’s message focused more on the degrading implications of flogging women than on its portrayal of Islam. “Pillay called for a debate on punishment and how it is administered – these are two separate debates,” he said, distinguishing between Islam and the State.

Zuhair also suggested that the court procedure used to sentence individuals accused of extra-marital fornication to flogging was incomplete.

In response to Pillay’s urging for a debate “to open up the benefits of the constitution to all and to remove that discriminatory provision [requiring every citizen be a Muslim],” Zuhair said “The government’s religious policy is based upon the insights of religious scholars. The government has not made available the means for anyone to defy or ridicule our religion, and it will not do so.”

According to Zuhair, the involvement of religious scholars in the nation’s religious policies is a distinguishing feature of ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

“These are the free times for religious scholars to speak their minds and not be subscribed into one state-sponsored brand of Islam,” he said.

When asked to relate his statement to the Islamic Ministry’s recent censorship of Ismail Hilath Rasheed’s blog, Zuhair said the matter belonged to the Majlis.

“The government cannot be held accountable for the contents of a constitution drawn up by the peoples’ Majlis. Any issues with the constitution will be addressed there.”

Zuhair emphasised that the government supports freedom of expression and assembly to the widest extent provided by the constitution, but he reiterated that the government would adhere to policies advocated by religious scholars as necessary.

Local media in the Maldives widely took Pillay’s remarks on the constitution out of context by reporting only half her sentence.

Miadhu Editor Gabbe Latheef had asked Pillay during Thursday’s press conference, “If you believe we have a Constitution, why are you speaking against our Constitution?” Her reply, “I don’t believe you have a Constitution, you have a constitution. The constitution conforms in many respects to universally respected human rights. Let me assure you that these human rights conform with Islam,” was partially reported by local media as, “I don’t believe you have a Constitution.”

When asked about the impact of the flawed reports on the protests, Zuhair said it suggested the mistake was intentional and demonstrated “a strong political bias”.

“Most media is tied to the opposition parties which were defeated in first round of the election. They are tied by a common rope in that they all include leaders of the formerly-ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP). MDP doesn’t have a supportive media outlet, even in the state media. Any establishment or institution here with 50 or more staff will have some defeated and bitter people who don’t believe in the government,” he surmised.


Maldives one of seven most important countries on UN Human Rights Council: Human Rights Watch

The Maldives has been identified as one of the seven most important countries on the UN Human Rights Council, in a report by the Human Rights Watch organisation.

The Maldives, together with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, the United States and Zambia were identified has making “a critical difference” during the period of the report, “working both collectively and in parallel to ensure that the Council’s mandate to address and prevent situations of violations was fulfilled more rigorously, recognising the Council’s inaction of the past”.

Negative influences identified on the Council included China, Cuba and Russia, the report noted, which “systematically voted to reject any action of the Council that they deemed too critical of a state, or that was not supported by the state in question. They argued that the Council should be a forum where states meet to discuss human rights issues cooperatively without what they considered to be interfering in the domestic affairs of others.”

In particular, the Maldives was praised for its energetic engagement with the council and its solid voting record.

“Despite having a small delegation, [the Maldives] commitment to human rights and democracy has motivated it to be a part of, or to take leadership on, a significant number of initiatives over the last year. The Maldives was among the first group of signatories calling for the special sessions on Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. The Maldives also cosponsored the resolutions on Iran, Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Kyrgyzstan,” the report said.

However it identified as “regrettable” the Maldives position on whether to launch an international investigation into war crimes in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war, “particularly on the question of accountability.”

“The Maldives has been uncharacteristically reluctant to endorse the calls of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General’s panel for the creation of an independent international mechanism to investigate the final months of the conflict. Its close bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, rather than the credible allegations coming from the ground, has prompted this position,” the report noted.

“The Maldives should revisit its approach on Sri Lanka in order to bring it in line with its otherwise principled approach to human rights at the Council.”

The report also noted that despite its strong record of positive engagement on many issues at the Council, “the Maldives supported the resolution on traditional values and voted with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) against the resolution on human rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”

Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem meanwhile said the Maldives was proud that the country was now “internationally-respected for its commitment to human rights and for its influence on the global stage”

“At the time, many people doubted the Government’s decision to put forward the Maldives’ candidature for the UN Human Rights Council, saying we are too small to make a difference. Human Rights Watch’s new report shows unequivocally that such doubts were misplaced. Not only has the Maldives played a central role at the Council, we have also helped make the Council far more effective as the pre-eminent global body responsible for protecting human rights,” Naseem said.

Read the full report (English)


Q&A: UK Deputy High Commissioner Mark Gooding

Outgoing Deputy UK High Commissioner for the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Mark Gooding, speaks to Minivan News about three years of observing dramatic changes in the country. His successor will be Robbie Bulloch.

JJ Robinson: What are the most dramatic changes you have seen in terms of the country’s transition to democracy, and have old habits died hard?

Mark Gooding: I’ve been covering the Maldives for just over three years. My first visit was in the middle of 2008, and we were discussing with the government the passing of the new constitution and the passage to multi-party elections. There was real uncertainty then.

The Maldives passed the new constitution and held successful elections – which were considered credible, free and fair – and is now in the process of consolidating democracy. That means establishing the institutions of democracy and passing legislation necessary to implement the new constitution. Clearly the process has been smooth at times and not smooth at other times. That’s democracy.

There is important legislation that needs to be passed by the Majlis – such as the penal code, the tax reform bill, and these are issues of significant national interest. These need to be addressed by both parties.

JJ: As somebody who has observed the corridors of power in the Maldives for three years, how much political will have you seen towards consolidating democracy, and do you think that this political will is necessarily unanimous across the country’s senior leadership?

MG: Honestly I think there is a large degree of political will. All of the parties participate actively in the democratic processes that exist, and I think that is very important. All parties recognise the need for legalisation to be passed to implement the constitution and broaden existing legislation to make it reflect the challenges of the day.

I think there is cross-party support for this – for the need to enact the legislation and broad support for functioning democratic institutions – be it parliament or police. People understand these are big challenges and that it is in the national interest for them to function effectively.

There are obviously questions that arise in parliament while the details get sorted out. But by and large people agree on the overall objective which is a functioning democracy.

JJ: As an outsider with a perspective on the Maldives both now and how it was three years ago, to what extent do you think that new democratic freedoms – such as those pertaining to human rights, and freedom of expression – to what extent have these freedoms ‘trickled down’ to the average citizen, as opposed to remaining buzzwords paraded at a diplomatic level?

MG: I think to a large extent. One very obvious change is that people can go out and vote now, and there are election campaigns. There was a huge amount of voter awareness work done in 2008. People are increasingly aware of the freedoms they now have – from voting to access to different kinds of media, and an increasingly active civil society.

People’s awareness of their democratic space has increased, and it certainly has in the time I’ve been working with the Maldives.

JJ: What is the extent of the engagement the UK High Commission has had with the government here?

MG: We have very close cooperation with the Maldives government on a range of issues. Obviously the history of the Maldives’ and the UK means we have enjoyed a close relationship this government and the last government. We have a lot of cooperation on global issues such as climate, trade and combating terrorism. There a lot of political dialogue there, also on domestic development in Maldives. The UK was a strong supporter of democratisation in the Maldives.

Practical assistance over the last few years has included the funding of economic specialists to advise the government on dealing with the financial and economic challenges faced, funding of police officers and specialists to develop the police, and we have funded capacity-building of the judiciary and the UN project in that respect.

We would like to build more contact between the Majlis and our own parliament.

JJ: In terms of future involvement with the Maldives, the country has graduated from a least developed country to a middle income country, and other countries reviewing their engagement with the Maldives perhaps now regard it as better able to fend for itself as a result. Does the graduation affect the UK’s engagement with the Maldives?

MG: We don’t have a bilateral development program in Maldives, and in that respect the project work hasn’t changed. In fact we increased project funding in the Maldives, although that had nothing to do with LDC status. There is no short answer. Clearly part of our dialogue with the government is that we strongly supported and the EU co-sponsored a UN resolution on the transition for LDC countries. This was a priority for [the Maldives] government and we were very happy to support it in an international forum.

JJ: Regular comments on Minivan News suggest a great deal of interest in why countries not just in the region, such as India, but those on the other side of the world such as the UK and US, have such an interest in a small island nation of 350,000 in the Indian Ocean that has existed in relative isolation for hundreds of years. Why do you think there is such strong international interest in the Maldives?

MG: There are a number of clear answers from the UK perspective. The UK has a close historical relationship with the Maldives and we regard the Maldives as our friends, and we want to support democratisation here. It is important that succeeds.

There are also 120,000 British tourists visit each year. We look after British nationals who are in the Maldives and we want them to have a positive experience. We also have very close cooperation with the government on climate policy – a serious issue for the Maldives, as climate change clearly could have a devastating impact on the country.

JJ: Concerns are sometimes aired locally that the government’s climate leadership in the international community has not resulted in much impact or change in local communities – many beaches are still routinely used as waste disposal sites, for example. Do you think climate leadership is being passed on locally?

MG: You have to realise that international climate negotiations are incredibly complex and that every country has its own unique situation, and opportunities to introduce low carbon technology. It is not a straight-forward negotiation.

If people are feeling the effects of climate change, extreme weather and beach erosion – rather than just rubbish on the beach – I would say that is a reason to keep arguing for an ambitious global deal on climate change. It would be counter-intuitive to suggest the government should be doing less to secure a climate deal.

The Maldives is an important player both because of its political position on climate change, but also because of its vulnerability. It does have a unique geography, and the potential impact js quite extreme. The Maldives is a significant player in international climate debate.

JJ: While there is a feeling pride in the Maldives’ new democracy, people associated things like rising crime and economic instability with new the democracy and that seems to risk affecting support for democracy as a concept. What do you see as the key challenges for the country, going ahead?

MG: Of course people are absolutely aware of the challenges that exist. They include criminality, drugs and gang violence. There are issues with radicalisation, and economic challenges that the Maldives has faced, like many other countries. Those are challenges that exist already, before implementing the legislation required by the new constitution. So of course there are big challenges and there is a need for national debate.

The interest here is making institutions function effectively as per any democracy. If a country has an effective police service, then action against gang violence is possible. If institutions fail, clearly the situation becomes worse.

JJ: The executive, judiciary and parliament have been busily testing the boundaries of the new constitution. Based on three years of watching this happen, do you think they are showing signs of settling into their functions and working together?

MG: It certainly remains a challenge, and it has not always been smooth. The institutions identify how much power they have and how it is exercised. We had problems last year between the Majlis and executive, but those were overcome. The parties have shown that at times they can work together and make institutions function.

JJ: The Maldives has a traditional and persistent culture of patronage, a society structured around senior figures who provide things such as medical treatment, scholarships, education and so on, be it a katheeb or an MP. In fact MPs quite openly admit to spending their salaries on funding financial demands from their constituents. Given that the culture is so deeply rooted in patronage, do you think there is hope that principles such as equality necessary for democracy can be applied in the Maldives?

MG: In a democracy it’s up to the people how they are governed. What you’re asking really is what level of power should be appropriate at island, regional and national level. Absolutely that is a debate that happens, and that is a debate people need to have. What is true in democracy is that power structures need to be held to account in both their decision making and their expenditure. Those are important principles to emphasize.

JJ: The recently changing of party affiliations parties among MPs has seen parliament be unfavourably compared to a “football transfer market”, and the MDP in particular seems to have embraced a new pragmatism in search of a parliamentary majority. Do you think there is a risk that by importing the odd skeleton in the cupboard that the party risks disengaging from the idealistic roots that made it into a political force capable of changing an entrenched government?

MG: I think there is a reality that when you are in government you need to focus on the ability to make decisions and exercise authority in an accountable way. I think it is possible to do that in a way that upholds principles. Certainly in our meeting with the President this morning he was very clear about this. There was no doubt about those principles. Clearly people in positions of power should be subject to public scrutiny.

JJ: The Maldives has been quick to use its platform in the UN Human Rights Council to denounce war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Middle East committed by countries such as Libya, but has taken a much gentler stance with Sri Lanka despite UN allegations about such crimes committed in the closing days of the civil war. What is the UK’s view on Sri Lanka, and how can the Maldives contribute to secure and progressive Sri Lanka in the future?

MG: The UK’s position on Sri Lanka is very clear: the need of the hour is reconciliation. In Sri Lanka reconciliation requires a number of things – humanitarian relief is one, but also progress on a political settlement. We believe there are serious allegations which are contained in the UN Panel report that need to be looked into – for us this is a very common sense position.

The Sri Lankan government has set up a reconciliation commission which is looking into a variety of issues in the later years of the war. We think it is important that do that and we encourage the government to do that.

JJ: There is the possibility that an internationally-sponsored investigation would require backing from the Human Rights Council. Does this place Maldives in a difficult position if it comes to a vote?

MG: There are a number processes in train in Sri Lanka, such as the lessons learned reconciliation report due in November. I think the world is watching in terms of what these processes will produce. At that point, we able to see whether other options are necessary. We encourage the government to look at these issues.