Perpetuating a regional cooperative relationship devoid of discussion around human rights issues is irresponsible
Last week, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen visited New Delhi and reportedly concluded several bilateral agreements on issues ranging from taxation and tourism to defence and space research. The visit appeared to signal a changing, more welcoming policy by India towards the Maldives, apparently in response to China’s increasing influence in the region.
Unfortunately, this apparent shift seems to involve an increased reluctance on the part of Indian authorities to publicly engage with the ongoing human rights and rule of law crisis in the Maldives.
Only a week prior to the visit, Maldivian authorities had arrested 16 journalists who were peacefully protesting a number of recent measures undermining media freedom in the country. These included a draft criminal defamation bill that could be used to arbitrarily stifle free expression, including by the media. Disappointingly, even as Yameen arrived soon after these arrests, India remained conspicuously silent over this recent attack on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives.
The journalist arrests are only the latest in a series of increasingly troubling events over the past two years that has seriously eroded human rights protections, judicial independence and the rule of law in the Maldives—the arbitrary removal of two Supreme Court judges in 2014; the politicized and unfair trials and imprisonment of former president Mohamed Nasheed and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim in 2015; the arbitrary and unfair trials of political rivals under the anti-terrorism law, including then vice-president Ahmed Adeeb, leader of the opposition Adhaalath party, Sheikh Imran Abdullah, magistrate judge Ahmed Nihan and former prosecutor general Muhthaz Muhsin; as well as the general erosion of the freedoms of expression and media, of association and of peaceful assembly.
These developments have drawn international scrutiny from other states, international organizations and civil society. While India was vocal about the fair trial concerns with Nasheed’s trial and imprisonment in early 2015, it has grown gradually silent.
The discussions on the Maldives in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) earlier this year provide another example of India’s tolerance for human rights abuses in the Maldives. The CMAG is an intergovernmental body responsible for monitoring Member States’ compliance with the rule of law, judicial independence and human rights, as contained in the Harare Declaration.
A CMAG delegation visiting the Maldives in February 2016 was concerned about the “lack of political space and detention of political leaders, the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary, and the independence and lawful functioning of democratic institutions" in the country. It made several recommendations, and promised to reassess the situation later this month.
India’s role in these discussions, and whether it really supported this effort, is questionable. In February, Yameen publicly thanked India for its support in avoiding action against the Maldives at the CMAG. Similarly, on his recent visit to Delhi, Yameen expressed his appreciation for everything the Indian government had done to protect the Maldives during the CMAG deliberations, saying he would look for India’s support against any future “punitive action".
All signs indicate that last week’s visit may be the first of many such Indo-Maldivian dialogues. As a major regional power with a historically strong relationship with the Maldives, India is in an undeniably influential position. It is important for India’s credibility as a principled player in the global arena that it sharpens its focus on human rights and the rule of law, and highlights these issues rather than obscures them.
Both India and the Maldives are bound by international human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which oblige them to respect human rights and the rule of law. India is facing serious human rights concerns of its own within its boundaries, which must be addressed. At the same time, perpetuating a regional cooperative relationship devoid of discussion around these issues—especially when these principles and values are increasingly under attack—is irresponsible.
Sanhita Ambast and Nikhil Narayan are South Asia legal advisors at the International Commission of Jurists.