Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference during her mission to the Maldives

Malé, 24 November 2011

Good afternoon and thank you very much for coming.

This is the first-ever visit to the Maldives by a High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has been a great pleasure to come here, meet with a wide range of people and savour the country’s legendary hospitality, as well as the significant advances it has made during the first few years of its transition into a democracy.

No two transitions are the same, but they are invariably difficult and fragile – and often protracted – processes. The Maldives is notable for having achieved a great deal in a relatively short space of time, since a comprehensive and ambitious agenda of reform began in around 2003. Since then, the country has set some important precedents in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

The Maldives has ratified six of the seven core international human rights treaties, which means it now has an extremely strong framework to guide its development and amendment of national laws and policies relating to human rights. In 2010 the Maldives was elected to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where it very quickly established itself as an active and constructive Member State. A year ago it also successfully completed the first review of its human rights record by other states under the Human Rights Council’s new Universal Periodic Review process, during which many recommendations were made.

At the regional level, the Maldives can take credit for placing on the agenda of the SAARC the possible establishment of a regional human rights body, similar to the one established two years ago by the ASEAN states, and other regional human rights bodies in Africa, Europe and the Americas. It is also reaching out in the Islamic world to promote dialogue on the compatibility of Islam and human rights.

Taken alongside the Maldives’ very prominent and active engagement in the global effort to cope with climate change, this is an impressive range of foreign policy activities and achievements for a country with only around 300,000 inhabitants.

On the home front, there have also been many advances, most notably a dramatic reduction in the incidence of torture, partly as a result of the setting-up of the National Prevention Mechanism within the Human Rights Commission of Maldives. Yet, as virtually all my interlocutors have noted, the process of transition is far from over, and some of the achievements still have shallow roots. Some of those with whom I have spoken pointed to a large gap between the political rhetoric and actual implementation of reforms on the ground.

Over the past two days, I have met with President Mohamed Nasheed and with a number of key members of his government. Yesterday I also heard the points of view of opposition leaders. I met with the Chief Justice separately, and later with judges from the various branches of the judiciary. Finally, earlier today, I had the privilege of addressing the Members of the People’s Majlis, or parliament.

As well as these three branches of government, I have had illuminating talks with members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, with civil society organizations and with a number of women holding important public offices. Finally, just before this press conference, I visited a drug rehabilitation centre where I learned more about the country’s difficulties with drug abuse and the efforts being made to tackle it.

Through all these talks, a number of issues of common concern crystallized.

To some extent, the three branches of government are still working on consolidating the country’s transformation. The Majlis, for example, is currently not officially in session, because of the latest in a string of disruptive disputes. As a result of this and other reasons, it has only passed five bills and three amendments so far in 2011.

Among many others, the enactment of some vital human rights related pieces of legislation envisaged in the Constitution have been held up. These include most notably the Penal Code, the Criminal and Civil Procedures, the law on Domestic Violence and the Right to Information bill. During my talks with the Government and opposition leaders, I found that there appears to be widespread agreement on the need for these new laws. Yet their progress has been paralysed by the political impasse. I urge politicians of all stripes to set their disputes to one side, because these laws are both necessary and overdue.

I also encountered considerable concern that – also partly because of political manoeuvring – the judiciary has not yet fully adapted to the country’s evolution, and to its legal obligations as defined under the international treaties the Maldives has ratified. Issues relating to consistency, lack of training and under-resourcing of this and other key services in the outer islands were also raised. I discussed with the President the importance of accountability for past abuses, and urged him to begin national consultations on this important issue.

The impact of some of these systemic deficiencies are perhaps most evident in the case of women, who cannot be said to be benefiting as much from the transition to democracy as men. Only five of the country’s almost 200 judges and magistrates are women. There are also only a handful of women parliamentarians, three female government ministers and very few women in the media and other influential professions.

Women make up half the population, but they are very seriously under-represented in the way their country is run – despite the fact that it had a tradition of female rulers dating as far back as 1400. There is now an impressive body of evidence from a wide range of countries across the world proving beyond reasonable doubt that development takes a quantum leap when women and girls finally take a full and productive part in all walks of life. To hold women back is to hold the entire country back.

For women to fulfil their potential, they need respect, education, and equal rights and opportunities. This is clearly recognized in the Maldives’ Constitution. Yet the widespread domestic violence against women in the Maldives indicates a lack of respect – as does the failure to enact the draft law designed to deal with this issue. And the shortage of women in high-powered jobs indicates both a lack of opportunities, and a lack of ambition solidified by deficiencies in the education of girls.

One promising way to stimulate women’s participation in public affairs that was suggested to me was the idea of expanding women’s political role through local council representation on the islands, where their practical experience and know-how could bring quick benefits and recognition, as well as a significant boost to their self-confidence.

Empowerment of women should also be a key element in the forthcoming overhaul of the country’s deteriorating health system – reforms that will need to be closely scrutinized to ensure they bring the intended benefits to all Maldivians, including those on the poorest and most remote islands.

The fact that people, especially women, are still flogged in the Maldives is a serious blot on the country’s otherwise increasingly positive and progressive image overseas. There should be no place for flogging anywhere in the 21st century, and by continuing to carry out floggings – albeit only occasionally – the Maldives is in breach of its obligations under several international treaties.

I discussed with the President and his ministers, as well as with the members of the judiciary I met during this visit, how to bring a halt to a practice that has long been recognized in international law as cruel and degrading treatment that often amounts to torture. At the very least, pending more permanent changes in the law, it should be possible for the government and the judiciary to engineer a practical moratorium on flogging.

Migrant workers, especially those from Bangladesh, are another group for whom the necessary protections are not in place. Migrant workers are often abused, exploited and cheated of their hard-earned income by traffickers and unscrupulous employers in the Maldives, as well as to a greater or lesser degree in many other countries.

Protecting them – people who reportedly constitute up to 25 percent of the population and without whom the Maldives tourist industry would collapse – is the responsibility of all branches of the State. Their rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, but the system to ensure that commitment is honoured is not working. A good place to start would be to ratify that one outstanding core international treaty that the Maldives has not yet ratified – the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers.

Another issue of concern raised by most of those with whom I have met is a rise in religious intolerance among a small but intimidating minority in the Maldives, and the impact this is having on women, and on the Maldives’ efforts to develop into a fully functioning outward-looking democracy based on fundamental human rights values and the rule of law. Religious intolerance has also manifested itself in disturbing acts such as the destruction and defacement by extremists of symbols and monuments at the recent SAARC Summit, and the closing down of a blog by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs because of the religious views of its creator, Ismail Khilath Rasheed.

Intolerance, whether religious or racial or in any other of its many manifestations, is the enemy of democracy. It promotes fear and inequality, and stifles initiative. I urge all Maldivians to resist any efforts to stoke this type of hostility which can only mar this lovely country, with its unique culture and environment.

Thank you.

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