Weakening Democracy

Maldives is out of the Commonwealth, but its problems still need the world's attention

Crumbling democracy and human rights in the island nation have worsened rather than improved in recent times, several fact-finding missions have reported.

Last week, Maldives decided to leave the Commonwealth. In the government’s official statement, the move was described as "difficult, but inevitable".

The decision came on the back of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting in September, which placed the Maldives on the group’s formal agenda. The oversight body, tasked with addressing serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth political values, expressed deep disappointment at the country’s lack of respect for the standards of democracy and human rights. In the absence of substantive improvements in the political sphere, the group of ministers agreed to consider suspension of the Maldives from the Councils of the Commonwealth at its next meeting in March 2017.

In February this year, the action group had convened an extraordinary meeting to discuss the findings of its mission to the Maldives. Expressing concern at the continuing erosion of democratic functioning in the country, it identified six priority areas for improvement and decided to review the progress at its next meeting. In April, the action group members noted that no progress had been made in five of the six priority areas. The ministers welcomed discussions between the government of Maldives and the Commonwealth Secretariat on technical assistance as the sixth priority area.

Amidst growing concern over falling standards of democracy and rising human rights violations, the United Nations tasked its senior adviser on political affairs, Tamrat Samuel, with resolving the protracted crisis between the government and the Opposition. After his second visit in July – his earlier visit was in April – the UN envoy left the Maldives with no sign of meaningful progress.

The Commonwealth also sent its special envoy, Dr Willy Mutunga, to the island nation. Mutunga painted an alarming picture of the breakdown of political and constitutional administration in Maldives, and a complete absence of internationally acceptable standards of law and order.

Fact-finding missions by the International Commission of Jurists in August 2015, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in November 2015, too, found no improvements. In fact, according to the latter’s second fact-finding mission in September 2016, the political situation on the ground had worsened over the months with increasing numbers of arbitrary detentions and arrests, disregard for rule of law and the promulgation of laws aimed at curbing fundamental freedoms.

In light of the mounting evidence against the administration of President Abdulla Yameen, the Maldivian government’s statement highlighting legislation that “resulted in strengthening the rule of law and produced tangible outcomes in strengthening democratic institutions in the country” appears to go against the grain of facts. Its accusations against the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and the Commonwealth Secretariat of treating it “unjustly and unfairly” appear baseless. Indeed, and perhaps to the chagrin of some human rights organisations, the Commonwealth has appeared rather lenient on the archipelago nation for course correction.

Yet, evidence shows the government of Maldives made no genuine effort to ameliorate the political crisis and prevent its slide back to the authoritarianism of its past.

The Maldives now joins the unenviable grouping of countries – including Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe and Gambia under an equally dictatorial President Yahya Jammeh – that have left the Commonwealth of Nations. Unilaterally, and without consulting Parliament and the people, snapping its 34-year-long ties with the association further confirms the unwillingness of Maldives to tread a democratic path.

The purpose of democracy and human rights advocacy is rarely to suspend, expel or isolate a country. Rather, it is to compel governments to reform. Although the Commonwealth’s leverage may have ceased for now, UN and multilateral diplomatic pressures should be sustained to realign Maldives on the path of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The Green Climate Fund – the UN initiative to tackle crises arising from global warming and climate change – is spending more than $23 million in Maldives. Likewise, the European Union has allocated upwards of €6 million for Maldives’ Climate Change Trust Fund. Making climate change financing contingent upon democratic reforms in Maldives could impel the country to honour its international human rights commitments. Indeed, to prevent Maldives from becoming a pariah state, the international community has a responsibility to bring back the country from the brink of the political abyss.

The writer is a Programme Officer (International Human Rights Advocacy) at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi. He tweets at @trinanjan_

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