by Toby Cadman
The geographical position of the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean placed between the south of India, west of Sri Lanka, and north of the Chagos archipelago, places the country in the middle of traditional commercial routes and has been historically seen as occupying an important strategic position. The country, much like many small island nations without the political might of more powerful states, could not compete in the global market of international trade and diplomatic power, as it did not possess the most important currency: a strong military presence.
Not being able to take a key position in this advantageous market, the Maldives was transformed into a mere object to be exchanged between international colonial powers; Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch ships arrived in Maldivian harbours; but the last to anchor were English vessels that sought to control more than maritime trade routes. Eventually, after centuries of foreign domination, Maldives gained its independence in 1965.
However, global power, actual or perceived, continues to lead and dominate international relations in the Indian Ocean and South China Seas, and further, recent Maldivian diplomatic history raises the suggestion the remnants of colonial relationships are still ever present and continue to impregnate official discourse.
A recent article by John Glen, a Conservative Member of Parliament, entitled “Time to Promote Freedom in the Maldives” clearly demonstrates the direction of British political discourse concerning the Maldives, and further, illustrates the point that it is fundamentally false, inappropriate, and guided by political and national interests rather than the purported concern for the people of the Maldives and principles of democracy.
False Narratives and Untruths
One of the most salient characteristics of the colonialist discourse was the creation of false moralizing narratives. In the 19th Century these narratives were based on the ‘civilizing’ discourse; nowadays, they are based on the defence of principles of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms.
It is not the purpose of this commentary, nor should it be the subject of any debate, to suggest that empowering civil society through the establishment of fundamental freedoms and democratic rights should be deterred. On the contrary, there is a clear obligation to safeguard such rights and it is incumbent upon members of the international community to ensure that such rights, contained in a number of international treaties and customary norms and practice, are protected. However, that said, a significant proportion of the apparent ‘humanitarian’ or ‘human rights based’ intervention is not founded on noble or moral-based principles. It is often an example of the manipulation of the human rights discourse to on the one hand, justify illegitimate actions at the international level, and on the other hand, alter public opinion in order to further political or national interests.
The Maldives is a case in point. The narrative often used to criticize the country’s system of governance is wholly manipulated with false or misleading statements that provide a distorted image of the Maldives, thus portraying the situation as an ‘uncivilized’, ‘undemocratic’ or ‘unstable’ state on the verge of collapse due to persistent human rights violations. A recent call to establish a transitional government in exile demonstrates this to the point of lunacy. The manipulation of facts has become so powerful and all encompassing that it morphs into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be clear, the Maldives is not Syria. It is not Egypt nor is it Bangladesh. There is not rampant extremism creating a system of disorder and instability and the political system is not autocratic. It is a democracy that faces the same challenges as many other states. It has a judicial system that requires reform and a law enforcement that requires strengthening to address the security concerns of the modern age.
Correcting the Fallacy
In his piece, the Conservative MP, advances the position that former President Nasheed was forced from office in an “effective coup”, choosing to ignore the fact that investigations conducted after his resignation – including investigations undertaken by the Commonwealth – concluded that there was no evidence to support that a coup d’état took place and the transfer of power was lawful. The former President has also himself suggested that the gun at his head was a euphemism – there was no gun.
The author further suggests that 1,700 people in the Maldives “face criminal charges for peaceful political protest or speech” without any evidence to lend credibility to this point. The number cited is a baseless statistic used by the Government’s political opponents to further create an impression of chaos and autocracy. It has no factual basis and a recent UK all party parliamentary committee, led by a member of the MP’s own party, dismissed this broad assertion as grossly inaccurate. As a matter of fact, opposition voices used to mention that there were 1,700 “political prisoners” in the Maldives until official statistics demonstrated that this figure actually exceeded the total prison population in the Maldives, thus demonstrating not only the falsehood but also the absurdity of the allegation.
Another common misrepresentation is the broadly stated assertion that media and journalists are under threat in the Maldives. It is of course correct that a journalist went missing in 2014, having been abducted by persons unknown, however, this matter is being investigated by the authorities, and now reviewed by a UN working group, and a single instance cannot possibly constitute a trend, as the author of the piece seems to suggest. The police have devoted significant resources to bringing the perpetrators to justice and there is simply no evidence to suggest that responsibility lies with the State.
Moreover, it is quite appalling that MP Glen cited the decision to stop the edition of the Haveeru newspaper as an example of an attack “on the Maldives’ independent press”. First, the decision was ordered by a Maldivian Court, not by the Government, following the bringing of a civil dispute over the ownership of the newspaper. Second, the order to halt publication only concerned the print edition of the newspaper, rather than the newspaper as a commercial entity. Again an example of manipulation to suit a pre-conceived agenda.
To use the discourse of the defence of democracy and human rights to threaten the sovereignty of a third country, based on false statements, is both grave and concerning, and yet it would appear to be an increasingly used tactic. Furthermore, considering that it has now become the primary objective of the newly established ‘Maldives United Opposition’ to overthrow the Government, following on from an earlier attempt to seek to have the President unlawfully arrested, the allegation is all the more serious and demonstrates a trend.
John Glen criticized the trial against former President Nasheed but avoided all mention of the reason for which he was judged and convicted; the unlawful abduction and arbitrary detention of a judge that provoked national and international outrage and prompted his resignation. Nasheed publicly admitted to having ordered the abduction and even, rather extraordinarily, declared that he would do it again, despite the fact that this act constituted a direct threat to the independence of the judiciary. Since making an unequivocal admission of guilt in a BBC Hard Talk interview, a NY Times opinion piece and a Guardian story immediately following his resignation, Nasheed has since sought to blame, on different occasions, his Defence Minister, Chief of Police and the Army. In the Guardian he was quoted as stating “I didn’t like arresting the judge…But I couldn’t let him sit on the bench…And it’s not a thing that I would want to do. And it’s not a thing that I liked doing. But it had to be done.” The result is that Nasheed appears ready to cast blame against anyone other than taking responsible for his own actions.
The former President has consistently criticised his political opponents of failing to respect the rule of law, breaching the Constitution and governing through autocracy. However, Nasheed became the first political leader in the Maldives to circumvent the rule of law, violate the presumption of innocence, break the separation of powers and stamp all over the independence of the judiciary in one fell swoop – and in his own words – he would do it again.
What is truly astonishing is that a Conservative MP criticised the Government of the Maldives for not having immediately released Nasheed following the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Glen demands that the Government comply immediately with the UNWGAD opinion, despite his own Government’s position regarding the case of Assange and the vitriolic attack on the UNWGAD members and its mandate referring to the decision as “frankly ridiculous” and criticises the members of the group as lacking legitimacy. There is something fundamentally wrong in international politics when a member of the political party in Government in the United Kingdom threatens the imposition of sanctions on the democratically elected Government of a former colony for not complying with a ruling which his own Government refuses to comply with in very similar circumstances.
It would appear that there are rules for one that simply do not apply to another.
However, double standards do not solely depend on the geographical situation of the Government, but on economic interests. This may explain why the author defined the Maldives as “a centre of political repression and extremism”, while ignoring the fact that 4,500 miles from Malé, in Dhaka, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings are reported almost on a weekly basis. There have been over a dozen secular journalists and members of civil society hacked to death in broad daylight by religious extremists. It is an outrage to see how pure national or economic interests permit drawing a political agenda against a country such as the Maldives, while treating with forbearance countries such as Bangladesh that the UK continues to support financially through development programmes in the judiciary, law enforcement and armed forces, the organs of state that have been found to have engaged in gross human rights violations.
Autocratic governments around the globe remain free from threats of sanctions. Bangladesh, a country where the human rights crisis is extreme, is a member of the Commonwealth, but it is also a country with strong economic links with the United Kingdom and whose economy is in expansion. This double standard, ultimately, gives a perverse message: ‘sovereignty depends on economic power’.
The Law is used and manipulated by strong members of the international market of power to give a veil of legitimacy—of ‘legality’—to unjust narratives. In this vein, as the author of the article highlighted, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has called upon the Maldives to work on six priority areas, including the detention of political leaders, the independence of the judiciary and the proper functioning of democratic institutions.
However, neither the CMAG nor Glen seem to have taken into account that a presidential pardon given to an individual—even a former politician—without allowing the judicial process to conclude, would constitute an illegitimate interference of the Executive in the work of the Judiciary.
Although the British discourse on Maldives is characterized by manipulated narratives, the repetition of untruths and the use of double standards, it may, if the British Government has its way, lead to greater discord between the two nations. Whilst the imposition of targeted sanctions, sanctions that would have severe economic consequences for the whole population of the Maldives and would interfere in the country’s political autonomy, are highly unlikely, the continued threat will continue to add to an destabilised political environment.
It is time to revise what we truly know about the Maldives, to identify the rhetoric of those with a partisan agenda, and to avoid falling into the politics of arbitrary domination and foreign interference. Colonialism was rejected some years ago, and ought to have been consigned to history.
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in The Island on July 2, 2016. Toby Cadman is an international law specialist with extensive experience in the fields of public international law, war crimes, human rights, terrorism and extradition law. His particular area of expertise is international legal obligations and the UN system of protection.