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“Responding to the Past while Safeguarding the Future: The Challenge of Protecting Human Rights in the context of Democratic Transition”: Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

24 November 2011

Mr. Speaker and Distinguished members of the People’s Majlis,

I am deeply honoured to address this assembly today as the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the Maldives. I would like to thank HE the President and the Government for its invitation and the warm welcome that I have received.

Throughout history, and in every society, Parliaments have played a crucial role in entrenching a culture of human rights in their respective societies. As law makers, Parliamentarians help to embed international human rights standards in national legislation. As watchdogs, they debate issues of concern and keep a check on the way governments comply with these obligations. And as community leaders, they serve as advocates for greater public support to the human rights agenda.

For this reason, my presence here today is symbolic in light of the recent history of the Maldives and the unfolding events in the Arab world. The peaceful, democratic transition in Maldives has set an important precedent in the Asia-Pacific region and serves as a beacon in the broader Muslim world. In response to the strong democratic aspirations of the people of Maldives, the country has launched a comprehensive and ambitious agenda of reform since 2003, including the establishment of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, the introduction of political parties, the accession to the main international human rights instruments, the registration of independent human rights non-governmental organizations, the drafting of new and very progressive Constitution and legislation, and the organization of the first multi-party national and local elections.

At the international level, the Maldives has been at the forefront of highlighting the human rights impact of climate change and the establishment of new human rights mechanisms. As a new and dynamic member of the UN Human Rights Council, it is bringing fresh energy and perspectives and helping to bridge regional divides. Distinguished Maldivians have been elected to serve as Special Rapporteurs and members of United Nations treaty bodies. I am confident the Maldives, as the current chair of SAARC, will also work to advance the human rights agenda here in the South Asia region.

These are important achievements the people of Maldives and their representatives can be proud of. But more needs to be done to secure what has been achieved so far.

Mr. Speaker and distinguished members of the People’s Majlis,

This year, we have witnessed the same strong aspirations for democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa which have brought dramatic and positive changes to the political environment of the region. After decades of oppression and systemic human rights violations, men and women of different ages, political orientations and social origins have come together in an unprecedented movement to bring about political change and to demand social justice.
Because democratic transitions are always fragile, it is essential that these newly established democracies learn from the experience of others in laying strong foundations. In this regard, I believe that there are many lessons from the recent experience of the Maldives.

One important lesson is that the sustainability of a democratisation process is very much contingent on the existence of independent institutions which should safeguard the separation of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. The 2008 Constitution of the Maldives provided for a separation of power, and established this new Parliament (People’s Majlis) as well as an independent judiciary for the first time in the country’s history.

I am conscious that these new institutions started working in difficult conditions, with limited resources and within a volatile and politicized environment. But important steps have been taken, such as the establishment of the permanent Supreme Court last year. It is imperative for these newly established national institutions to join hands to embrace the path of reform and develop a culture of dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect. This will require the Parliament to enact quickly the many important outstanding bills which have been formulated in accordance with the Constitution and international human rights standards. It will require the judiciary to be independent and forward-looking in applying the law in accordance with the Constitution and international human rights obligations of the Maldives. And it will require the executive to respect the roles and independence of the other arms of the state, and ensure effective implementation of the rule of law.

A second lesson for transitions elsewhere is the congruence between rights guaranteed by Islam and universally recognized human rights. The democratic transitions in countries of the Middle East and North Africa, led by the citizens of those countries, are further proof that Islam is not incompatible with human rights and democracy. Again, the Maldives pioneered this school of thought, calling for more understanding and tolerance to address the misleading perception of a divide between Islam and human rights. In this regard, I welcome the “House of Wisdom” initiative, led by the Maldives, which will help to promote an open and constructive debate, both inside and outside the Maldives, on how to reconcile international human rights standards and Islamic law.
A third lesson is the powerful role that the internet and new social media can play in mobilising forces for change. Maldives too was at the front of this trend as civil society activists, journalists and bloggers opened new spaces for debate. But this requires a change from the repressive habits of the past. Maldives was quick to reform its media laws, abolish criminal defamation and remove limits to peaceful assembly to maximise freedom of expression and accelerate the process of reform, but this requires continued vigilance and commitment to ensure there is no stepping back.

A fourth lesson is the crucial role played by women in democratic transitions. Women have been involved at every stage of the political mobilisation in countries of the Middle East and North Africa during the uprising. At the same time, rights and opportunities for women in these societies still face many challenges. I strongly believe that democracy for half the people is no democracy at all.

The historical experience of Maldives is worth recalling in this regard. One of the most enlightening facts illustrated by the Arabian and Persian sources is that women often served as rulers of the Maldives back to the 14th century. More recently, significant efforts have been made by the last two Presidents and Governments to promote greater gender equality and prevent various forms of discrimination. The most symbolic development was the removal in the 2008 Constitution of the gender bar that previously prevented women from contesting for the highest political office.

However, patterns of discrimination against women and girls continue to arise, impacting on women’s health and education and including various forms of violence. A powerful illustration of this trend is the flogging of women found guilty of extra-marital sex. This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country. I strongly believe that a public debate is needed in Maldives on this issue of major concern. I, therefore, urge the People’s Majlis to enact the domestic violence bill without delay and other laws that will ensure that women will enjoy their rights as equal partners in society. I also urge you to discuss the withdrawal of the remaining reservation to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women concerning equality in marriage. These are necessary steps, not only for protecting the human rights of women and girls in Maldives, but securing Maldives’ transition.

A fifth lesson highlighted during the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is the vulnerability of migrant workers. Despite their major contribution to the economies of countries like the Maldives, they are too often subject to poor and exploitative conditions. The Maldives has set a very progressive model in this regard by guaranteeing the rights and freedoms contained in the 2008 Constitution to all persons, including non-citizens. But this non-discrimination clause should not remain words on paper, and must be given practical effect. I therefore further encourage the Maldives to adopt a comprehensive law on non-discrimination, ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and bring its regulatory framework in line with this standard.

Finally, the democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa have raised questions of how to meaningfully address and establish accountability for past human rights violations, as well as restructure the rule of law to prevent the recurrence of violations. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya today, new leaders must grapple with questions around justice, accountability and reparations of past abuses. Addressing the past is often a complicated political dilemma, but we should never lose sight of the right victims have to truth, justice and redress.

The truth is that without a transparent political transition, including a comprehensive approach to address the violations committed by previous regimes, transitional democracies will face continued challenges in the path towards democracy, respect for human rights and ending impunity.

A wide range of processes and mechanisms exist in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation. These include judicial and non-judicial mechanisms with differing levels of international involvement. One of the most commonly-cited examples includes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up in my own country South Africa. This commission has been an important part of the healing process after decades of apartheid. While this type of mechanism is not a substitute for trials, it has helped former opponents to envisage a peaceful shared future. In my meeting with the President this week, I have urged him to lead a national consultation on this important subject.

Mr. Speaker and distinguished members of the People’s Majlis,

Many of the issues I addressed today are challenging, but expectations for the Maldives are high, not only from the international community but from Maldivian people themselves. These are also concerns shared by many of you coming from different political affiliations. As representatives of the men and women of Maldives, you have the challenging duty to ensure that their voice is heard and to articulate and defend their interests. While I know that striking the right balance between being responsive to citizens’ needs, advancing party interests and acting in the national interest is a challenging task for elected representatives, your efforts to further develop a truly inclusive approach to democracy and human rights are essential. You have shown you can do this, for instance resolving the issues surrounding the establishment of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Speaker and distinguished members of the People’s Majlis,

Maldives will increasingly have a special role to play in the region and the Muslim world as it has pioneered a democratisation process that is both modern and Islamic. I firmly believe that the Maldives can make history as a moderate Islamic democracy. This opportunity cannot be missed, for the benefit of Maldives and of the wider region. But it will require the effective implementation of reforms by the executive, the adoption of the many important pieces of legislation pending before this parliament, and the progressive interpretation of the law by the judiciary. It will also demand a relentless vigilance to ensure that human rights violations never again have a place in the Maldives and are effectively addressed whenever they occur. Thank you again for your attention, and let me assure you of the United Nations’ fullest support in your important task.

Thank you