Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 14, 2016
Maldives in a none-too-unanticipated move has announced its decision to quit the Commonwealth. India as Maldives’ closest neighbour and regional power needs to look at the evolving situation
Maldives quits C’wealth, Nasheed too going to UNHRC

In a none-too-unanticipated move, the Maldivian Government of President Abdulla Yameen has announced its decision to quit the Commonwealth. In doing so, the Government has accused the UK-centric inter-governmental body of “undermining sovereignty and independence, interfering in domestic affairs, and treating the country “unfairly and unjustly”.

In a double-whammy of sorts earlier for the British-centric, post-colonial global organisation next only to UN and its affiliates in numbers, former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, leader of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), too has decided to move the UNHRC, instead, for an ‘inclusive’ election in his country, due in 2018. That Nasheed is now staying on in the UK, that too with ‘political asylum’ granted by the host-government, does not seem to have discouraged his camp from considering alternative global mechanisms for ‘redress’, as if the Commonwealth could not serve their purposes, or sub-serve their interests.

“The Commonwealth has sought to take punitive actions against Maldives since 2012 after the then President of Maldives resigned, and transfer of power took place as per the procedures set out in the Constitution,” a Foreign Ministry statement said after a Cabinet meeting that decided on the matter, and dating it all back to Nasheed’s controversial exit from the high office, when his Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, took over. Also, “since 2012, the Government of Maldives has been giving maximum cooperation to the Commonwealth, shown maximum transparency, and engaged with the Commonwealth at the highest levels”, the statement added.

However, the “Government had high hopes that such level of engagement will produce fruitful results” and they have “regrettably” failed. What more, the “Commonwealth has not recognised that progress and achievements that the Maldives accomplished in cultivating a culture of democracy in the country and in building and strengthening democratic institutions”, the Foreign Ministry said.

In particular, the statement referred to what it considered as the good work done by the Yameen leadership.  “The Government of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has enacted a total of 110 pieces of legislations. Out of which, 94 legislations were directly related to the core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. An overwhelming majority of these legislations (69 out of 94) were specifically designed to promote human rights, to strengthen democratic governance, and to reinforce the separation of powers.” These “achievements have resulted in strengthening the rule of law and produced tangible outcomes in strengthening democratic institutions in the country,” it claimed further.

In the overall context, the Foreign Ministry continued harping on the past, and referred to 2012 again and again. “The Commonwealth’s decision to penalise the Maldives was unjustified especially given that the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), established with the help of the Commonwealth, found that the transfer of power in the Maldives was consistent with the constitutional provisions,” it said on the legality attaching on Nasheed’s exit in 2012.

< style="color: #163449;">Yameen’s message

By implication, the Yameen leadership seemed to be telling the Commonwealth and the rest of the world that the organisation was backing the wrong horse all over again, even after having found once earlier that it was a wrong horse, and that they had backed it for wrong reasons. By extension, it was an indirect accusation that the Commonwealth continued to back Nasheed for wrong reasons and without justification, all over again.

On the present, the Foreign Ministry said that the “Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and the Commonwealth Secretariat have treated the Maldives unjustly and unfairly. The Commonwealth has sought to become an active participant in the domestic political discourse in the Maldives, which is contrary to the principles of the Charters of the UN and the Commonwealth.”

Continuing in the same vein, the statement said, “The CMAG and the Commonwealth Secretariat seem to be convinced that the Maldives, because of the high and favourable reputation that the country enjoys internationally, and also perhaps because it is a small State that lacks material power, would be an easy object that can be used, especially in the name of democracy promotion, to increase the organisation’s own relevance and leverage in international politics.”

< style="color: #163449;">‘International engagement’

Though the Foreign Ministry statement ended with a terse observation that “Maldives reassures that its international engagement will continue both bilaterally and multilaterally”, there is increasing doubt as to what the nation in general and the incumbent Yameen leadership in particular have in mind. At the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA), Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim, openly declared Maldives’ interest in and intention to contest for a seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC), if only to present the uncared-for interests and concerns of smaller and island-nations in particular.

This is not the first time a member-nation has quit the Commonwealth. Conversely, it’s not unlikely that the CMAG might have taken up Maldives on its ‘Agenda’ in its March session next year for non-compliance on democracy issues, reiterated over three sessions in the current year. It meant denial of permission for participation in Commonwealth council meetings and the like, and possibly to ‘sanctions’ within the limited sense of the organisation and member-nations.

Yet, the timing of the formal Maldivian decision, after threats to the effect, once in 2013 by the Waheed administration and again in 2015 by the Yameen leadership, should come as a surprise. Expectations were that any such precipitating decision would have been made either before or after the March session. Yet, by doing so weeks and months ahead of the CMAG-deadline, the Yameen leadership has taken the battle to the Commonwealth’s ground, and also has freed itself to pursue other/alternate courses and goals in international diplomacy and political participation.

For starters, it could mean that Maldives could seek to mobilise/consolidate smaller nations’ opinion against the post-Cold War status quo in the global arena, as a spokesperson for the self and the ‘other’. The ‘other’ or ‘others’ here could include Saudi Arabia, for instance, as the global high priest on Islamic affairs, and China as the emerging/existing focal-point against post-Cold War status quo in geo-political and geo-strategic affairs.

In a way, the other two, without having to join hands in anyway whatsoever may end up having to test their ‘collective strength’ in global diplomatic affairs, against the status quoist West, headed by the ubiquitous US. Whether and how far would Russia as the re-emerging (third) angle in the post-Cold War global affairs also remains to be seen. In plain words, the question is if, how and how far could any or all such non-regional players canvas support for Maldives’ case under Yameen in global forum, be it the UN or the UNHRC.

Ahead of the UNHRC-2012 discourse on war-time ‘accountability probe’ pertaining to Maldives’ Sri Lanka neighbour, for instance, China was believed to have entered the vote-chasing race too late in the day to be of practical help, yet seemed to have done its bit – and made the other to feel so, as well. It’s another matter that the US-led West that had toyed with the idea of taking Sri Lanka to the UNSC initially gave up the idea, possibly anticipating and feeling the combined heat from China and Russia, which refused to hear even anything preliminary.

A UNSC seat for Maldives could still be a distant dream, if not a far cry. Yet, generating some momentum for such initiatives could still help whip up highly volatile and even more predictable ‘nationalist sentiments’ within the country and in favour of the incumbent leadership. How far can it go in global diplomacy, and how far could it take the Yameen leadership against the greater support-base of Nasheed personally, if not the MDP, as a political organisation, could also come under pressure and test at the same time.

< style="color: #163449;">India & ‘right to contest’

It’s in this context, India as Maldives’ closest neighbour and regional power needs to look at the evolving situation in the Indian Ocean archipelago. In the past when the Waheed leadership moved the local trial court against Nasheed in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ from the latter’s presidency, Indian diplomacy engaged in quiet but effective diplomacy with the Maldivian stake-holders and ensured an ‘inclusive election’ in 2013. This meant that the trial itself got indefinitely put off, and Nasheed could contest the presidential polls – and lost it, and conceded it, too.

In between, Nasheed had personally embarrassed India no end by unilaterally taking refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male on a day and time when he was supposed to be appearing in the court for standing trial in the Abdulla case. On earlier occasions, too, he had used ingenious methods to avoid the court by travelling long distances out of Male but within the country. When the Yameen Government thus revived the Abdulla trial, especially after the Nasheed-led MDP had sought the incumbent’s exit from the presidency without assigning any justifiable reason – even as remotely as they could do now – the Indian hands might have been tied.

By going to the UK, citing ‘medical reasons’ for ‘prison leave’, and later obtaining ‘political asylum’ in the country – both of which the Maldives Government has contested, at least in public fora, though not officially as yet – both sides may have overlooked the useful role only an influential neighbour knowledgeable in Maldivian affairs might have been of help, if at all. Instead, after finding that the Commonwealth has its own limitations – and also calling for ‘reforming’ the forum not very long ago, without being a State player himself – Nasheed has now decided to go to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Geneva, specifically for ‘restoring’ his  ‘right to contest’ the presidential polls, due in 2018.

It’s anybody’s guess if the UNHRC can direct Maldives to do so even if the majority political opinion on the high table were to compel the Yameen leadership to act accordingly. It’s another matter for Nasheed’s friends, if any, in the UNHRC to prove by numbers what they could not have anyway done in the UNSC, where China and Russia have veto-power and are ever ready to use the same, in support of ‘friends’ and without asking any question(s) of them, democracy or human rights.

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