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Does the Maldives practice what it preaches globally on human rights?

Jeffrey Salim Waheed takes questions on why the Maldives has sponsored several UN resolutions on freedom of expression and assembly, and judicial independence, despite practising the opposite at home



Since its election to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010, the Maldives has been one of its most active members. Despite authoritarian reversals at home, the Maldives has advocated for human rights, sponsoring several resolutions on freedom of expression and assembly, and judicial independence.

In June, the Maldives was one of the main sponsors of a resolution urging states to ensure independence of judges and lawyers and impartiality of prosecutors.

The move came amid widespread condemnation of politicisation of the judiciary, following the jailing of key political figures, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.

The Maldives also sponsored a resolution on freedom of assembly and association in June, calling on states to assist special rapporteur Maina Kiai in expanding such freedoms globally, notwithstanding the fact that the Maldives itself had failed to respond to communications from Kiai.

Meanwhile, the Maldives, since 2012, had failed to respond to appeals by UN experts on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and on the situation of human rights defenders asking the country to stop the use of excessive force against protesters and the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders.

Last week, in Geneva, I sat down with Jeffrey Salim Waheed, the deputy permanent representative at the Maldives’ Mission for the UN to find out more about Maldives role at the HRC.

The following is an abridged version of an hour-long interview.

Mohamed Junayd: What is the Maldives’ role and contribution at the UN?

Jeffry Salim Waheed: The Maldives is such a small country and we have been able to have such a large voice. The Maldives has been able to take the key issues that are really important to us and ensure that we had a voice in an environment that is not naturally conducive to small states. Climate change is the biggest one. Back in the day when President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom gave the speech at 1987 at the 42nd Session of the UN General Assembly, people were snickering in the room. You talk to people who were in the room and they will tell you that other diplomats in the room were actually snickering, they were sort of laughing at us. It must have been very uncomfortable. But that is the first time any country has talked about climate change in a multilateral platform. What the UN does, one thing that they are good at is changing global norms. If you ask what UN has been successful at, how small countries have contributed, Maldives is the perfect example because we took an issue that no one cared about and, over twenty years, changed the global discourse.

MJ: When the Human Rights Council was set up, there were calls that membership must be held by countries that have clean human rights records with clear progressive values. With the regression of rights that have been pointed out by international human rights NGOs, do you think Maldives has a right to sit at the council?

JSW: So the idea of the council is to create global norms. Ensuring that our human rights values are represented at the council. The Maldives has always had very progressive values. We have always pushed for greater democratic norms, greater transparency, greater protections for human rights defenders, for journalists, ensuring there is the right to political participation, free speech, the ability to have opinions – and we have always advocated for these within our national Islamic context. As a Muslim country, we reflect that in our policy while being very progressive. I think at the Human Rights Council our policies continue to be very progressive and they reflect our policies are at home.

I will tell you why. We came through the democratic transition in 2008. We created these new institutions, there is separation of powers – legislature, judiciary, and executive is separate. We have institutions of horizontal accountability and that is all in line with the principles that we advocate for. The question as to whether the Maldives has a right to be at the HRC, I would say we absolutely do have a right. Because we are a global thought leader when it comes to rights, when it comes to development.

MJ: There are quite a lot of countries, including the Maldives, with records of human rights abuse at the council who promote, sponsor and even vote for progressive issues. Is Maldives using its activities as a front to hide human rights abuses at home?

JSW: I don’t think it applies for any country, because if you’re saying you believe in human rights, if you’re saying you want to protect and promote human rights at home, if you’re a coherent government and you’re sending requests for positions home to other ministries and these positions are being decided and are getting approved, the bureaucratic way in things work – it is slow – but it ensures that you’re all on the same page.

So when we promote the right to freedom of assembly and association, when we talk about the independence of the judiciary, when we talk about transitional justice or any other issue, it is government policy and it is great that we make every effort to implement it at home. It is a shame that in the Maldives we still have a society that is going through the democratic transition. In time we will get there. Hopefully every progressive government – not just this one – will continue to put forward legislation and democratic reform to make the Maldives a more open, peaceful and progressive society.

MJ: So you are saying that what Maldives advocates for at the HRC is consistent with its actions at home?

JSW: I would say that they are – for the simple reason that what we advocate and what we are trying to achieve is what we are trying to achieve at home as well. The difference is that we are still going through that process where we are trying to figure out where each democratic institution fits in, how we protect our rights.

If you take for an example the recent defamation law is a clear departure from where you can say anything. Because it [defamation] was completely decriminalised in 2008 and I remember campaigning for it as well because I have had a number of my family members arrested for defamation. But what happened when we had no restrictions? I realized this even when I was working for DhiTV [a private TV station] – that we as journalists in Maldives don’t necessarily look for the truth, we don’t try to corroborate it. If we try to call someone and they don’t pick up once, that is fine. We will run the story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is true or what impact it may have on society or on the people the story is about. The standards to which journalists were held to were lowered so much that there was a clear gap in where we needed to be as a democratic society and where we were going. I should clarify that these are purely my personal views rather than the reflection of the government or its policy.

MJ: Do you believe that the defamation law goes beyond what is reasonable in creating an atmosphere where journalists are held accountable, when there already are oversight bodies that are mandated to do this without such laws that limit press freedom?

JSW: Are these oversight bodies effective? Were they able to protect people when they were being abused in the media? I have been abused by the media. It got to a point where it stirred up people to such an extent that we have to deal with constant harassment. My loved ones used to get monthly death threats, almost weekly rape threats and that is the condition we created in Maldivian society, so that public figures – and I am not a public figure, but I get constantly harassed by the media.

MJ: So you’re saying that the defamation law creates a check and balance mechanism? But at the same time we have seen that the government has stacked the Maldives Broadcasting Commission [broadcast regulator] with people who have worked for the president’s upcoming presidential campaign. Do you think independent commissions could function fairly with loyalists?

JSW: The defamation law creates a necessary check and balance. For every independent commission the membership is decided by the parliament. So that natural check and balance exists. It is very rare that a country has both the presidency and the parliament under the control of one party. It is arguable that this is the case in the Maldives now too.

The way for all of this to function is to ensure that the way the people are appointed to these are fair and happen according to democratic and electoral processes. If anyone in these commissions act in a way, that is not fitting with their mandate or that is extremely biased there is every obligation for the parliament to remove them. That is the check and balance that exists. Because the opposition feels that the people in the commissions are not favourable to them, is not an excuse to say that the defamation law is predatory towards journalists.

MJ: Maldives has sponsored resolutions on the independence and impartiality of judges and lawyers, and the right to peaceful assembly, at a time when the independence of the judiciary is being questioned and the right to peaceful assembly has been drastically narrowed. Do you think this creates a wrongful progressive image for Maldives when it is cutting back on rights?

JSW: Peaceful assembly has not been banned in the Maldives; with permission anyone can still hold gatherings, which is the same for any major metropolitan area in the world. In terms of whether we are committed to these principles, we remain absolutely committed to the idea that there should be freedom of assembly and association, that there should be rights for journalists, protections for journalists, that there should be independence of the judiciary.

The reason why MDP [Maldivian Democratic Party] and even PPM [Progressive Party of the Maldives], when they were in the opposition – so let’s just say an opposition – likes to hold gatherings in metropolitan and busy areas is because they attract support that may not be inherent to their cause. These people might not support their cause, but just by walking through the main streets and yet political parties can find support. You’re literally creating congestion, you’re making sure people come. Malé can sometimes be a boring place and you will find people wanting to do something that is entertaining. So you will always have people who go to check out these things.

MJ: When the Maldives second term at the HRC runs out next year, is there plans to run again?

JSW: Yes. It will be a rushed campaign. Minister Dunya Maumoon [former foreign minister] announced it in June. It will be tough and a rushed campaign but our strong record is behind us, and our foreign service men and women are brilliant people who’ll work towards that end.

MJ: Which countries will the Maldives be running against?

JSW: Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Fiji. Altogether six countries so far will be running for membership.

MJ: The foreign minister has recently announced Maldives intention to run for a seat at the Security Council. Do you think Maldives has a chance?

JSW: It is about time the Maldives had a seat at the Security Council. We have been a global thought leader for so many years and even the reality of security is no longer the traditional notion that one country is going to go to war with another. The issues around international peace and security is incredibly diverse. We are dealing with issues of terrorism, there are more non-state actors and Maldives is being very proactive about these kinds of issues. Even the issue of environment, it is clearly an existential issue for us. It is an issue of international peace and security for Maldives and 44 other small island states and territories. So it makes absolute sense that we should run.

However we don’t have the money needed to run a campaign. Literally the only way we can win a campaign for the Security Council election is through manpower, by running from delegation to delegation, by showing our record.