Foreign Minister of the Maldives – Dr. Mohamed Asim. Source: BBC.com
It is a widely accepted notion amongst intellectuals of political science and international relations that foreign policies of countries for the most part remain stable over long periods of time. It is not so without reason. International relations are forged, developed and nurtured over long & hefty periods of time. Countries put great effort into these relations because it somehow or other mutually benefits them to be in a state of cooperation than conflict. Because if otherwise, a misquoted statement from a public official of country A about country B could pave the way for potential disaster, if not for the first line of defense provided by the diplomatic ties established between these countries.
Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), i.e. entities formed by states coming together such as the United Nations (UN), The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to name a few, are established for various reasons. Whether for economic or defense needs or to strengthen bilateral or multilateral relations, these entities form a platform for countries to engage in and benefit from each other, in terms of trade deals and other such mutually beneficial ventures.
Entities like the UN, even though might not hold absolute authority over countries given the state of anarchy that exists when it comes to a universal government of sorts to oversee affairs of all nations, even with the limitations present, it however does provide nations with a sort of check and balance mechanism within the existing framework of the establishment. This helps member countries to work with especially those nations that are considered to be taking a turn for the hostile or are seen shortchanging their citizens on issues of human rights, democracy and freedom etc., so that its citizens in the least have somewhere to turn to when all avenues of justice and hope they seek are not to be found on their home turf.
Similarly for the Maldives, ever since it gained its independence from the British in 1965, it has formed bilateral and multilateral ties with a lot of nations on the diplomatic front. For a country such as ours that is small and seemingly insignificant when considering the larger scale of things, these ties are essential to our very existence. A country, a large part of whose income is derived from high end tourism is in no place to snub the international community over reasons that are as or more abhorrent to say the least.
The news yesterday that the incumbent government of Maldives had finally had it with the Commonwealth and decided to leave the body was one that sent shock waves through citizens of the nation. Considering the fact that Maldives has been a member of the Commonwealth since 1982 and going 34 years – not a small number of years in my opinion, this time, Maldives has with pride, joined the ranks of esteemed countries like that of Zimbabwe which in 2003 announced that it was leaving the Commonwealth after being suspended in March 2002 over serious issues in its elections.
Flag of the Commonwealth. Source: Flags.net
Formerly known as the British Commonwealth, the Commonwealth of today came into formal existence in 1949 and forms a loose association of former British colonies and current dependencies, along with some nations with no significant historical ties to Britain. It was not until 1947 when India and Pakistan achieved their independence from the British that the Commonwealth as we know it today emerged. Even though the word British was dropped from the name then, the British monarch remains the official head of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth charter sets an ambitious agenda for member countries. To bring together values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law – asserting its commitment towards the development of such societies in its member states, all of which spells trouble for countries like the Maldives, that continually seems to be testing the boundaries of what would be acceptable or perhaps of late, not giving a damn about what is the accepted norm for a government that spouts democratic principles to be part of its establishment and setup.
What the Commonwealth Brings to the Table
Unlike the UN, in theory, members of the Commonwealth have equal say, and this does not depend on their size or economic status. One of the benefits to member states being the fact that it gives smaller states just like the Maldives, a platform in the arena of international politics and diplomatic circles – in other words it lends a voice to punitive nations like ours and the room to engage with bigger nations that could prove to be helpful in outlining economic and other such policies that have a broader positive impact on the country and its people.
While most would argue that a Heads of Government Meeting every two years is hardly something to boast about, the Commonwealth does come with benefits for member states in areas such as that of immigration. Especially during a time where Muslims are under constant scrutiny and threat of being denied entrance into certain parts of the world owing to the rise in threat of global terrorism, being a member of Commonwealth does afford citizens of a member country like that of Maldives, a cushion from the blowback if otherwise.
As a Commonwealth citizen, if you are looking to immigrate to Commonwealth nations, you maybe entitled to visa-free entry if the country you are traveling from is deemed to be in “good standing” – a line I believe that the Maldives has already crossed. Bringing to mind the harrowing couple of weeks right after Maldives snubbed its neighbor India on the GMR deal where citizens had to line up near the Indian High Commission from dusk till morning in the hopes of getting their visa approved in order to seek medical treatment in India suffices as an example of how difficult things can get – if countries were inclined to do so.
In terms of immigration, it the Commonwealth also does help member states when trying to gain entrance into non-member countries as well. Maldives is not a country with many embassies established on our shores. This means that, as a Commonwealth member, the British embassy or consulate can step into play the role as required for you to get the proper documents.
Being a Commonwealth member also offers member states with access to participate in the Commonwealth Games, an international sporting event that countries like the Maldives would be hard-pressed to gain entrance to if not. This is tied to the dreams and aspirations of many a young athlete who works with sheer determination and focus towards making a name for themselves in an international setting such as what the Games offer.
The Commonwealth also comes bearing for the studious amongst our young to seek fully funded study opportunities to developed nations which if otherwise, children from even middle class families of a country like ours can only ever dream of. Once again, the aspirations of the young who would lead our country tomorrow are tied to a valuable resource that is hard to come by these days, especially given the lack of scholarships forthcoming from the government itself, not to mention how scarce these chance are, even from other such international organizations and countries that are keen on providing students with such golden opportunities.
Needless to say, though the benefits afforded might not seem to amount to much in the face of 150 million US$ dollars that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can grant to the Maldives, being a member of the Commonwealth does offer certain privileges to citizens of member states, the loss of which might not be so easy to deal with in the long run.
The Criticism towards Commonwealth
Commonwealth is largely criticized for the passive role it plays when it comes to actively promoting the values embedded in its Charter. It was only in 1995 that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was established with 8 ministers, its sole purpose being to deal with governments that are unyielding in their violation of the principles of the Commonwealth. CMAG also comes equipped with the power to take punitive collective measures such as imposing sanctions or suspending members who are seen to violate its Charter and principles.
Even with the establishment of CMAG, Commonwealth is seen to be an entity that takes the easy way out more often than not. Commonwealth’s lack of actions consistent with its principles in the case of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses under the reign of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is notable. Another example is of how Nigeria was partially suspended in 1995 for hanging a human rights activist Ken Saro-Wira, while the body largely ignored the abuse of the Ogoni people that had been the root of Saro-Wira’s campaign.
The Commonwealth is also damned for its “insidious postcolonial politics” that prevents Britain and other affluent members such as Canada and Australia from providing a better leadership that could perhaps bridge the gap between the Commonwealth and other more focused and efficient entities such as the European Union.
CMAG & Maldives – A Tale with a Bittersweet Ending
A CMAG meeting in action. Source: vnews.mv
It was the CMAG’s involvement in the affairs of the Maldives following the coup which took place on February 7th of 2012, that ousted the first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed that saw emergence of rhetoric from members of the rogue government that Maldives should leave the Commonwealth. Some members of parliament were seen mocking the head of the Commonwealth herself in their attempt to sound important enough so that the powers they worship would be well impressed with how they were earning their entitled position.
CMAG placed Maldives on its agenda following the coup from March 2012 to March 2013, until a Commonwealth backed inquiry into the power transfer found it to be a constitutional one. Going into the nitty-gritties involving how this particular event unfolded is beyond the scope of this article. With the establishment of the “truth”, the rhetoric to leave the Commonwealth also more or less died down along with it, not surprising given that the pressure on the Maldivian government eased off for the time being.
It was in 2015, just last year, during the turbulent political trials that saw the arrest and imprisonment of top opposition political figures in the country and some influential members from the government’s cabinet itself that saw CMAG once again intervene into the affairs of the Maldives.
Ex-Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon then is reported to have said that the Maldives “will seriously consider its membership at the Commonwealth” if it were to be placed on the agenda of CMAG for a second time in 4 years. Furthermore, Dunya criticized CMAG for continually pushing the Maldives for reform when no “serious” violations existed in the country and also lamented the fact that the Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma was too trigger happy to take action without giving Maldives the time to follow due process. Dunya also bemoaned the fact that being placed on CMAG’s agenda posed reputational risks to the country, putting its economy and democratic governance at risk.
So what made the government finally bite the bullet and make a decision that made Maldives appear in headlines of almost all major global newspapers? The reason being that the Maldives once again found its way into the CMAG’s agenda on the meeting that was held on 23rd of September of this year, where CMAG expressed “deep disappointment” in the worsening political situation of the country. This meant that the Maldives had to buckle down and show CMAG that they mean business when it comes to the reforms they have been promising to the group in a bid to buy time to do whatever it is that the government wanted to. This decision by the CMAG of course did not come without reason.
CMAG listed out 5 concrete reasons as to why Maldives might face imminent suspension, some of which includes the flawed and politically motivated trials to imprison those that were deemed to be political rivals of the incumbent President, how the parliament of the country has been hijacked by Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and is used as a tool to oppress the people – the recent ratification of the draconian Defamation Bill suffices as just one example, and furthermore, the government’s seeming reluctance and will to stem the spread of radical ideology which was also raised as a point of grave concern.
Intervention attempts by various teams such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers which in 2013 recommended the Maldives to strengthen its judicial independence, which of course has gone unheeded, and attempts by the CMAG itself to try and work out a way to get all political parties together to discuss a way forward, the latest of which involved requirement for all party talks which was headed for trouble right from the onset.
Thus, a regime that seems to be distancing itself further and further away from nations and entities that actually demands of the government to uphold principles of democracy and good governance upon which the country’s Constitution itself is based on, it should be of no surprise that the ultimate decision made by the executive is to leave the Commonwealth, thus plunging the citizens of the country into times of more uncertainty, questions about most of which could not be answered by representatives of the regime themselves. “The decision to leave the Commonwealth was difficult, but inevitable” does not suffice as an explanation for a judgement reached by the executive, that could plunge the lives of Maldivians into unforeseeable difficulties in the near future.
If one were to ask why the need to isolate ourselves from those nations and entities that would attempt to interfere? They would have to look no further than the damning evidence reported on Stealing Paradise, Al Jazeera’s recent documentary into the massive corruption allegations involving the core political elite of the country, which ultimately points the finger towards the man himself.
I rest my case.