The Maldives

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 5th November 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch 4:30 pm, 5th November 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I welcome the Minister to his place, and thank him very much for the interest that he has shown in this subject ever since he took up his post.

I start by putting on record my interest in the Maldives. Before coming to this place, I was a political consultant with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The Maldives was just one of the places that I visited, but it is very close to my heart. Before 2008, a dictatorship was in place there. It was a country that lived without democracy, and where people were in prison for their political views. There was widespread brutality and many innocent people, including many young men and women, were in prison because they dared to suggest democracy.

I first visited in 2008 to help the Maldivian Democratic party run a campaign akin to those that we run and take for granted here in Britain. I joined my colleague James McGrath, who has recently been elected to the Australian Senate. We went to help, and it was very humbling when we arrived to see the hope and dedication that that party has—and still has, despite everything that has been thrown at its members over many years. They are, without a doubt, some of the most courageous people that I have ever met.

The MDP is led by Mohamed Nasheed, who is known as Anni. He is the same age as me, but it is almost unbelievable how much he has suffered over the years. He is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He is a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who has spent great periods of his life in jail and has been beaten and tortured, but who does not give up on his dream of fair and free elections. He is a man of great principle and he is a great leader.

During those elections in 2008, I travelled with Anni to many islands, taught the MDP about running elections and met so many people who had extraordinary stories to tell. Dreams do come true: Anni and the MDP won that election with 54% of the vote. Democracy had won the day, and Anni, the former prisoner, was the first ever democratically elected leader in the Maldives. I returned to Redditch the day before the elections and could not believe that he won so comprehensively, by such a large margin. I received a text from the editor of the local newspaper, who said:

“So many thoughts about the families that have suffered over the last 30 years. My eyes are swelling with tears every now and then. It is over Karen. It is really over. We can live in a country free from fear. People are crying thank you so much.”

However, it was not over—not by a long way. In fact, it was just starting.

Anni had promised to reform his country, and he spent the next three years doing just that. He provided better health care, reformed transport and looked after the elderly, which was everything that he had promised to do, but it was not enough. When the old President left office, he left Anni with some of his most favoured judges. He left a constitutional time bomb for Anni, and on 7 February 2012, it went off.

I woke to the shocking news that Anni had resigned, that the vice-president had taken over, and that it was all above board. For those of us who knew Anni, that could not be right. To this day, I believe that there was a coup in the Maldives, and that Anni Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint. There were riots all over Male, many of my friends were beaten and tortured, and there were dreadful breaches of human rights.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter to the Chamber for consideration. In terms of human rights, is she aware that every person, no matter what their religious background, has to be a Muslim in the Maldives? They cannot be an evangelical Protestant or a Roman Catholic—that is not allowed. Does she feel that the human rights of Christians are violated there?

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but most people in the Maldives are happy to be Muslims and want to be Muslims. They are quite relaxed about that. Actually, one thing that I was accused of when I was there was trying to convert people to Christianity, which I obviously was not trying to do.

I met Mohamed here in London in 2012 to see what I could do to help. One of the conclusions of that meeting was that there had to be free and fair elections, and that reform was needed. He also met the Minister’s predecessor, who was briefed on events.

In October 2012, I was shocked and saddened to see Anni being arrested again and taken away by many men in riot gear. Those who know Anni know what a gentle, calm and charismatic man he is, and to see him taken by boat to some wretched island prison was disgraceful. To many, this man was their great hope and their democratically elected President. Anni was dragged through the courts, but thankfully was allowed to stand for election this September.

That brings us nearly up to date. Anni did everything that was asked of him, waited patiently until elections arrived, campaigned in a fair manner and secured 45.45% of the vote. That was higher than he achieved in the first round of elections in 2008. Was that enough? No, of course not. The failed politician and wealthy businessman, Qasim Ibrahim, had his colleagues in the Supreme Court annul the elections, which had been called free and fair by the Commonwealth and the EU.

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

I commend my hon. Friend on all the work that she has done to further the cause of democracy in the Maldives. She touched on the Commonwealth, which suspended the Maldives in 2012 for its democracy and human rights violations. Does she hope that this issue will be high on the agenda at the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka?

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch

I hope that the Maldives will be very high on the agenda at the Commonwealth conference, and I look forward to the Prime Minister being able to put his case at that meeting.

However, we are where we are today. Elections were held that were cited as free and fair. Two of my colleagues, one of whom is here today, were there representing the Foreign Office. Strange, isn’t it? What happened smacks to me of a child who cannot win a board game, so they tip over the board. We are here today hoping, I suppose, that elections will take place on the newly scheduled date of 9 November.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she as astonished as I am that members of the Maldivian Supreme Court, who are making legal decisions on the conduct and process of the presidential elections in the Maldives, do not have any legal qualifications or legal training? That, in itself, is not conducive to elections and decisions that are seen as fair, open, transparent, and in the name of the people.

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I totally agree with her. When the elections are finally over, I think that the Commonwealth and the rest of the world need to look at helping the Maldives with its constitutional arrangements to ensure that it can move on in a way that is free and fair.

Let us hope, however, that the elections take place on Saturday, and that we get a clear winner—somebody with 50% or more of the votes—or at least that we manage to get to the second round. A resolution was passed by Parliament stating that if there is no winner on the 9th, the Speaker of the Parliament will head the Government as interim President until a President can be democratically elected. I welcome that measure and hope that we will at last see President Waheed leave his unelected post. I also hope that on 16 November, the second round will provide the Maldives with a democratically elected President who can get on with the job. However, I have just heard, in the past hour, that the Progressive party of Maldives and the Jumhooree party are still refusing to sign the votes of registry, thereby putting this week’s elections once again in jeopardy.

I know that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have taken a great interest in the Maldives, as did the Minister’s predecessor, but time is running out. As Charles Tannock MEP said in the European Parliament recently,

“The people of the Maldives deserve better than this. They must have their voices heard and their decisions respected.”

Time is running out for the Maldives. The international community and the Commonwealth must be ready to step in and stand up for their newest democracy. I urge the Minister to put whatever pressure he can on the Commonwealth and the rest of the world to ensure that the elections go ahead on Saturday and the run-off the week after. I also urge him to look very carefully at the reason why the Supreme Court annulled the elections, claiming that there were dead voters and made-up names on the register. At least one of those so-called dead people has, I understand, written to the Minister. Indeed, of the 13 who were supposed to be dead, seven have now been found living.

We must be ready to stand up and be counted if necessary. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called Anni Nasheed his new best friend. Let us not let our friends down here today. As usual, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 4:40 pm, 5th November 2013

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Karen Lumley for securing the debate. I believe that it is her second debate on the Maldives, her first one being in November 2012. I am particularly grateful to her for her continued interest in the Maldives and her tireless support for democratic reform there.

I want to speak very explicitly and clearly, because I want to leave no one, particularly anyone in the Maldives who is listening to what I am saying or who will receive a report of it later, in doubt. I want it to be crystal clear where the Government stand on the current situation.

On the problems and the need to support democratic reform in the Maldives, that is a desire very much shared by the Government, who consider the Maldives to be a long-standing friend and international ally, but we are, as my hon. Friend is, deeply dismayed by the delays in the democratic process. Democracy in the country has been a recent and welcome development. The first multi-party presidential elections were held—my hon. Friend alluded to them—only in 2008. We must recognise that the people and the electoral process of the Maldives have come a long way in that time.

Jim Shannon raised the issue of religious freedom as part of democracy and human rights in the Maldives, and he is absolutely right that the Maldivian constitution stipulates that a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives. We believe that that provision is a violation of article 48 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which was ratified by the Maldives in September 2006. We have raised our concerns about that with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, have urged them to promote religious tolerance and have supported that through funding projects to promote moderate Islam.

Let me revert to the democratic process and the democratisation of the Maldives. The evidence is that more than 85%—how many of us would like to be able to cite that figure for our own constituencies?—of the electorate voted in the presidential elections on 7 September this year, demonstrating their strong commitment to the democratic process. Polls were judged by international and domestic observers to have been fair, free and credible. As the Maldives Elections Commission stated, the election was described by observers as

“one of the most peaceful and best” that they had seen. That certainly remains our view.

However, it is clear that in recent weeks the commitment demonstrated by the Maldivian people has not been respected by some politicians, whose various manoeuvres, including calls for military intervention, have sought to frustrate and impede the democratic process.

Following what appeared to be a weakly substantiated legal challenge from an unsuccessful presidential candidate, the Maldives Supreme Court voted to annul the election results and ordered a restart of the process. Regrettably, the controversy does not end there. On 19 October, the scheduled re-run was cancelled at the last moment, and the Maldives police service intervened to ensure that the vote could not take place. The cancellation came as a result of the refusal of two candidates to sign the electoral register—one of the 16 onerous conditions imposed by the Supreme Court. That condition in effect allows any one candidate to veto the elections, raising the possibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch says, of further delays.

However, such interference has not gone unnoticed. On 30 October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement:

“I am alarmed that the Supreme Court of the Maldives is interfering excessively in the presidential elections, and in so doing is subverting the democratic process and violating the right of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.”

The statement also rightly noted:

“Judges should act in accordance with the principles of impartiality, propriety, equality and due diligence”.

Navi Pillay also expressed concerns about the reports of intimidation, noting that the Supreme Court had threatened to charge both lawyers and media with contempt of court for challenging the Court’s decisions. Local non-governmental organisations, including Transparency Maldives, have been subject to inappropriate and unwarranted threats of investigation and dissolution. Such attempts to silence dissent must be condemned. Threats against staff at the Elections Commission and Human Rights Commission must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. The current Government and those responsible for the impasse should understand that their domestic actions are not isolated from the scrutiny of the international community.

I raised the troubling situation in the Maldives with my counterparts at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in New York in September. After all, building, supporting and strengthening democratic rights, freedoms and institutions are values fundamental to the Commonwealth. In fact, such is our concern at the Maldives’ disregard for those values that it prompts the question—if the elections do not proceed as scheduled—of whether it is appropriate for the Maldives to be represented at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo.

In addition to what has been done by the UK and the Commonwealth, statements of concern have been issued by, among others, India, the US, the EU, the UN and those with business interests vital to the Maldivian economy, such as Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group. It is clear that further delays to the elections, and related instability and human rights concerns, will further damage both the Maldives’ international reputation and their economy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch noted, the Maldives’ constitution makes it clear that a new President should be elected by 11 November. With less than a week to go, there are justifiable worries that that deadline will not be met and the Maldives will be plunged into uncharted constitutional waters. The Maldives Parliament—the Majlis—has passed a resolution for the Speaker to act as an interim President if required. We hope that that workable solution can be agreed between the parties.

I stress again that the British Government have taken a robust stance on this issue and continue to contribute to international efforts to ensure that the vote takes place. That is no less than the Maldivian people deserve. The United Kingdom has provided capacity-building support for the Maldives Elections Commission; funded observer education through the United Nations Development Programme; and provided election observers, including Members of this House and the other place.

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch

If the elections do go ahead on Saturday and then there is the run-off the week after, will any observers be there from our Parliament to observe the elections?

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

So many of our colleagues have gone backwards and forwards like yo-yos to the Maldives in the past few weeks that I am not sure that anyone has the appetite to go again. I have been discussing observers with the secretary-general of the Commonwealth—I shall say something about that in a minute—but I see from the reaction of certain hon. Friends that they are dying to go back to the Maldives, hopefully for the final time for this election.

As I was saying, we have funded observer education through the UN Development Programme; provided election observers, including Members of this House—some of whom wish to go again—and the other place; and encouraged the EU to provide election experts to keep a close eye on proceedings. We also strongly support the Commonwealth’s continued commitment to observing elections and the engagement of the Commonwealth’s special envoy to the Maldives, Sir Don McKinnon.

Our high commissioner to Colombo, who is also accredited to the Maldives, has been in close contact with key figures. He and his staff have visited the Maldives several times in the past two months. He will be there again this week with the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, the Commonwealth special envoy to the Maldives, and his American and Indian counterparts. I have spoken to the Commonwealth secretary-general a number of times, and I shall visit the Maldives on 17 November, when I fully expect to be able to pay my respects to the new, democratically elected president.

We are frustrated and concerned, but not without hope. There are practical actions that can be taken without delay. The voter registers are due to be signed by candidates today. I am alarmed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch has just told me, but a commitment to do that will help to ensure that the elections can take place.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

What can be done to help the process? We will have what is substantially a veto if the election lists are not agreed. If, as is thought, the candidates do not agree to those lists, what does the Minister think will happen this weekend?

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We will be somewhere near the impasse that I was so concerned about. We will continue to apply whatever pressure we can, and all the different agencies and countries involved, which I have just mentioned, will continue to do that.

I was about to answer the questions raised earlier by the hon. Member for West Lancashire. I know that she is a vice-chair of the all-party group and has visited the islands. Regarding the capacity of the judiciary, we welcome the visit of the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. Her statement urged the Maldivian Government to address a number of challenges hampering the functioning of the judicial system in the Maldives, such as training, education and transparency. Progress in that area is vital, as the special rapporteur suggested, to strengthen the independence of the judiciary in the Maldives.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch that, in the coming days—despite the news we have just heard, which I think is unconfirmed at the moment—the Government will, together with the Commonwealth, the UN, the EU and international partners, continue to follow developments in the Maldives closely and to make our views known.

As the Foreign Secretary said last month, further challenges to prevent elections from taking place would undermine democracy in the Maldives. The Maldivian people deserve the opportunity to choose their president in accordance with their constitutional rights.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for their continued interest in the subject. I urge them to continue to support the people of the Maldives and the democratic process there in whatever way they can. It is imperative that the rescheduled elections go ahead as planned. Anything short of that will be unacceptable. I say again to those people listening in the Maldives: the world is watching closely and it wants democratic elections, a democratically elected president and no further impediment to that to be created artificially by anyone in that country, which deserves so much better.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.