Amid persisting criticism of the current administration’s human rights record, Foreign Minister Dr Mohamed Asim announced Monday that the Maldives will seek a third term as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“Our membership of the council, and our close partnership with the UN human rights mechanism helped to consolidate democracy in the Maldives,” he said at the high-level segment of the council’s 34th session in Geneva.
“Our democratic transition and strengthening of human rights have benefitted from the engagement we have had with the international community, in particular, the United Nations system,” he added, citing the launching of a national human rights action framework in December and plans to formulate a comprehensive action plan with 14 priority outcome areas.
Despite Asim’s suggestion that democracy has been consolidated in the Maldives, the curtailment of fundamental rights and the widely condemned imprisonment of opposition leaders during President Abdulla Yameen’s three-year administration has prompted fears of an “authoritarian reversal.”
Asim said the council is “uniquely placed to work with emerging democracies, such as the Maldives, to create opportunities for sharing of experiences and best practices”.
The Maldives will compete for one of four seats on the council along with Afghanistan, Malaysia, Fiji, Nepal, Pakistan and Qatar.
Jeffrey Salim Waheed, the deputy permanent representative of the Maldives in Geneva, said he believes the country’s record on the council is an advantage over the other contenders.
“Without the resources of larger countries, it will be a hard fought campaign but our record and active engagement on human rights issues gives us an edge over all the other candidates in our regional group,” he told the Maldives Independent.
The election will take place in September during the UN General Assembly in New York.
Asim continued: “The Maldives believes that it can contribute in raising the voice and the profile of the Council and in the process, increase the credibility of the Council and the entire human rights protection mechanism of the UN system.”
The Maldives has put forward its candidacy for the term 2018-2020 because the government believes “that we can contribute to make this council universal in its outreach, to give hope to the vanquished in every corner of the globe; and to give them their rightful chance to shape their future.”
Shahindha Ismail, executive director of Maldivian Democracy Network, told the Maldives Independent that the NGO welcomes the candidacy as a group advocating for human rights.
“[But] HRC members should better understand what we talk about when we talk about maintaining the moratorium on the death penalty,” she said.
“The Maldives remaining in the council gives us new hope that our advocacy to restore freedoms in the country, such as positive amendments to the Defamation Act and restrictions to freedom of assembly.”
The government’s plans to reintroduce the death penalty after a 60-year moratorium, the recriminalisation of defamation, and a ban on street protests in Malé were among issues flagged by Amnesty International in its 2016 annual report.
“The government intensified its crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly. Authorities used new laws and criminal cases to silence political opponents, as well as human rights defenders, journalists and civil society,” the international human rights organisation said.
“Lack of independence of the judiciary remained a concern.”
Other issues of concern included “unfair trials” of high-profile politicians and the “politicisation” of the judiciary.
But Asim went on to say that “being a small state does not prevent the Maldives from promoting the values and principles that underpin the international human rights mechanisms.”
The Yameen administration’s approach for protecting human rights focuses on economic empowerment, he said.
Yameen “places great emphasis on human rights protection and promotion through human development,” he said, listing universal health insurance and government assistance for the elderly, disabled persons, and other vulnerable groups as well as the enforcement of a new gender equality law.
Since its election to the Human Rights Council in 2010, the Maldives has been one of its most active members.
In contrast to events at home, the Maldives has advocated for human rights, sponsoring several resolutions on freedom of expression and assembly, and judicial independence.
In June 2015, the Maldives was one of the main sponsors of a resolution urging states to ensure the independence of judges and lawyers and impartiality of prosecutors.
The move came amid widespread condemnation 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 2015, 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.
Since 2012, the Maldives has 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 to stop the use of excessive force against protesters and the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders.