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SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF ENDS VISIT TO THE MALDIVES

9 August 2006

The following is the statement delivered today by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, at a press conference following her visit to the Maldives from 6 to 9 August.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the press,

I have carried out this visit to the Maldives in my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. I was appointed to this post as an independent expert to monitor freedom of religion or belief throughout the world. My methods of work include receiving individual complaints, and also undertaking country visits, to study specific situations and to provide analysis and recommendations. Such visits also enable the international community to learn from the practices of each county, and gain a better understanding of how each country promotes human rights in the face of challenges.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Government of the Maldives for inviting me to carry out this mission and extending to me its full co-operation. I would also like to thank the UN country team for the logistical support they have provided to me and emphasize that the report that I submit to the UN Human Rights Council will be absolutely independent of the work of the UN country team. I recognize that all organs and mechanisms of the United Nations must work in full co-operation with the governments and the people of each country, and it is in the spirit of partnership that my mission has been undertaken.

The mandate that I hold is a complex one, which often arouses emotional responses. Freedom of religion or belief is at the very heart of human rights, and is an essential element of tolerant societies, where all individuals can live side by side in harmony, whilst also fully respecting the diversity that exists in this world, and indeed in this region.

I have been greatly impressed by the desire of the people in this country to maintain peace and harmony within their society. I also welcome the adoption yesterday of the law on the Human Rights Commission. However, I note that it does not completely satisfy the requirements of the Paris Principles, which is part of the dichotomy of the Maldives. I am fully aware that all Maldivians are Muslim, yet to unduly stress this as a qualification of the members of the Human Rights Commission defeats the very spirit of seeking to uphold human rights.

Maldivians are eagerly looking forward to, and preparing to embrace, the political changes in the country, yet open and honest discourse on the question of freedom of religion or belief is vigorously denied and the few that dare to raise their voices are denounced and threatened. In this regard, I wish to emphasize that any reform in the field of human rights has to go hand in hand with freedom of expression and association, independence of the judiciary, and the mainstreaming of freedom of religion and belief.

During my mission, I have met with government officials, members of civil society, including the law society and members of the press, political parties, religious scholars and ordinary citizens. I have also had the opportunity to visit a number of islands and Maafushi Prison. In my report to the Human Rights Council, I will be recommending the introduction of religiously sensitive rules in places of detention, concerning, for example, respect for the spiritual and dietary needs of foreign prisoners. Indeed, the situation in places of detention tends to reflect the situation in the society as a whole, and in this regard, the Maldives is no exception.

On another level, the spirit of peaceful co-existence and maintaining harmony is an encouraging trait in the country. It will enable the process of reform and can open up new areas of discussion, which so far remain untouched.

Finally, I would like to most respectfully express my deep gratitude to His Excellency President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and to the people of the Maldives, for receiving me in your beautiful country. With the benefit of the President’s experience and wisdom, new ground can be broken in the dialogue between civilizations, which is an important United Nations initiative.

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