The Maldives is a tropical human-rights hell

Unrest gripped the Maldivian capital in the wake of president Nasheed’s 2011 ouster.
Unrest gripped the Maldivian capital in the wake of president Nasheed’s 2011 ouster.
Image: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena
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The Maldives, a low-lying archipelagic republic in the Indian Ocean, is often described as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. “We dare you to come here and count exactly how many islands there are in the country,” the ministry of tourism’s website teases:

“They say that counting the islands including the sand spits is like trying to count how many stars there are in the sky! So, the commonly agreed upon figure of 1190 is but an approximation. These islands are grouped into natural atolls that are protected by surrounding reefs. The islands are of pure white coral sand are low lying, the highest point on any give island being no more than a meter and a half above sea level. Coconut palms and an abundance of tropical plants make these islands an idyllic place for your holiday if you want to see nature at its best.”

“Seeing nature at its best” appears to be the island nation’s chief selling point—appropriate, considering that tourism accounts for nearly 30% of the GDP, with green tourism being the front-and-center moneymaker. The islands are dotted with eco-friendly resorts, all of which fall in line with government plans to go completely carbon-neutral within the next decade.

Tourism aside, the islands are perhaps best known, somewhat morbidly, for their watery future. If sea levels continue to rise at the current rate, the Maldives is likely to be the first country rendered wholly uninhabitable by the effects of climate change. The government has famously floated plans for evacuating the entire population to Pakistan or Australia, in the event such destruction ever occurs.

For the time being, however, the Maldives is place for moneyed, environmentally conscious Westerners to holiday—Europe being the tourism ministry’s largest market for 2014.

Though keen on environmentalism, the Maldives is not a haven for progressive politics. Rather, the country is a tropical human-rights hell, a fact most recently highlighted by the sentencing of former president Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, to 13 years in prison on what many in the international community believe to be politically motivated charges.

The offense in question—the disputed detention of a high-ranking member of the Maldivian judiciary, absurdly classified as “terrorism”—dates back to before Nasheed’s ousting in a reported coup d’état in early 2012. The coup was generally believed to be orchestrated by his political opposition working together with the country’s security forces.

Sitting president Abdulla Yameen, whose office has publicly endorsed the sentencing, is also the half-brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year rule was interrupted by the 2008 election of Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MPD). According to The Guardian:

“The political struggle in the island nation sets Nasheed, who has favored a pro-western foreign policy and launched efforts to counter growing local Islamic conservatism, against more rightwing elements, many close to the former regime.

These have frequently sought to portray Nasheed as a threat to ‘traditional Islamic values’ in the Maldives while favoring China in their foreign policy and the business community economically.”

This is an apt estimation of Nasheed’s popularity in the West (and India, which is largely seen as a pro-Western entity among the Pakistan-friendly Maldivian establishment). The subject of well-received 2011 documentary The Island President, Nasheed’s global notoriety, in some ways, eclipses that of the tiny country—the smallest in Asia, both in terms of area and population—he once presided over.

The reported coup took place only a short time after the documentary’s release, after which Nasheed went on an international publicity blitz—including an interview on The Daily Show—which no doubt ruffled feathers back home in Malé. But while global outcry in the wake of his most recent arrest has been loud (he was detained more than 20 times as a human-rights advocate during the Gayoom years), efforts to secure his freedom have yet to materialize.

Gabriela Knaul, a UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, called Nasheed’s trial a “mockery” of the Maldivian constitution. “I am extremely concerned about the lack of respect for the most basic principles of fair trial and due process during Mr. Nasheed’s criminal hearings,” she said in a press release issued Mar. 19. “The series of due process violations that were reported to me since Mr. Nasheed’s arrest on 22 February is simply unacceptable in any democratic society.”

“No democracy is possible without fair and independent justice,” she stressed.

The problem of human-rights violation in the Maldives is bigger than the case of Mr. Nasheed, however. Political detainees are regularly tortured by police, according to Amnesty International’s 2013 edition of annual reports on the country. “Beatings, pepper-spraying the eyes and mouth, denial of drinking water and, in [certain detention centers], incarceration in dog cages, were all common methods used.”

Civilians, too, are frequently victim to police brutality:

“Throughout the year, security forces frequently attacked peaceful demonstrators, including MPs, journalists and bystanders, in the capital Malé or in Addu, both MDP strongholds. Officers clubbed them, kicked them and pepper-sprayed them directly in the eyes. Around the time of Mohamed Nasheed’s resignation, from 7 to 9 February, police targeted senior MDP members for attack and tracked down and assaulted injured protesters in hospitals.”

And woe betide any Maldivian with the audacity to speak out. In a statement released in Oct. 2014, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the arrest of five members of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives. The activists are now facing “serious criminal charges” following a presumably unfavorable review they submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in preparation for the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR)—scheduled to be held between April and May of 2015.

Perhaps this review process will force the international community to decide what, if any, practical actions to take on behalf of the Maldivian people. It was, after all, the threat of sanctions by the European Union and Commonwealth of Nations that ensured the country’s first free elections, and the subsequent ascendance of Mohamed Nasheed.

Boycotting tourism isn’t likely to work. Europeans make up the lion’s share of visitors, and while tourism was down last year, any gaps were filled by Chinese and Middle Eastern vacationers potentially less concerned with issues of human rights than their Western counterparts. (It’s worth noting that Western concern for human rights, particularly in favored tourist destinations, is still often superficial at best.)

As the 2008 elections demonstrated, the powers that be in Malé only respond to real, international pressure. Talk is cheap, and sanctions may or may not actually work, but the threat, at least in this tiniest of authoritarian states, seems effective.