South Asia

Commonwealth Chief Accused of Bias After Maldives’ Re-Entry Still Not Cleared

Speaking to The Wire, the country's parliament speaker Mohammed Nasheed specifically raised Commonwealth chief Patricia Scotland’s work as a consultant for previous president Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

New Delhi: A perceived delay in the Commonwealth giving the green signal allowing the Maldives to re-join the club has led the country’s parliament speaker and former president Mohammed Nasheed to accuse the secretary-general Baroness Patricia Scotland of bias and deliberately slowing the process.

In an exclusive statement to The Wire, Nasheed said that it was “very unfortunate” that the Commonwealth chief “must keep on doing this”.

The former president specifically raised Scotland’s history before her election as the secretary-general, when she had been a consultant for the previous Mohamed Waheed Hassan government.

In October 2016, the Maldivian government, led by President Abdulla Yameen, announced that the Indian ocean state was leaving the Commonwealth. The decision was taken just three weeks after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) lamented the Yameen government’s lack of progress in political dialogue and warned that it could be expelled within six months.

Two years later, the political climate in the Maldives changed dramatically. The joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih obtained a surprise win in the presidential elections over incumbent Yameen in September 2018.

The victory led to the return of several self-exiled opposition leaders, including former president Mohamed Nasheed. On returning home, Nasheed spearheaded a campaign which saw the Maldivian Democratic Party win 65 of the 87 seats in parliament and his eventual election to the constitutionally powerful post of speaker.

Also Read: Maldives Ex-President Sentenced to Five Years for Money Laundering

In December last year, President Solih sent a letter addressed to Scotland that the Maldives wants to re-join the 53-member multilateral body. A year later, with no visible headway, patience in Malé is wearing thin.

Maldivian president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih arrives at an event with supporters in Male, Maldives September 24, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Ashwa Faheem/File Photo

Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Photo: Reuters/Ashwa Faheem/File Photo

‘We want to be back in the family’

“Everyone knew the circumstance in which we left the Commonwealth… and we want to be back in the family again. But unfortunately, the commonwealth seems to be doing one assessment after another,” Nasheed told The Wire over the phone from the Maldivian capital.

The path to re-joining the Commonwealth is via a four-step process. Firstly, the country has to make an expression of interest, which is followed by an assessment undertaken by the secretary-general. The second stage is for the secretary-general to initiate consultations with member states. This will be followed by an invitation to the aspirant to make a formal application. In the final leg, the applicant formally presents evidence of the “functioning of democratic processes and popular support in that country for joining the Commonwealth”.

Also Read: Maldives Govt Tells NGO to Stop Work Over ‘Anti-Islamic’ 2015 Report

“They (Commonwealth secretariat) have already done three assessments. And I am completely sure that on any of the indexes – human rights, governance, rule of law, the Maldives would be far better than many others in the Commonwealth,” asserted Nasheed.

He expressed frustration that the Maldives was still only in the midst of “anticipating” that it will be invited for the next Commonwealth summit in Rwanda in mid-2020. “It is very unfortunate that the secretary-general must keep on doing this. I don’t think that this is the view of member countries.”

India, the Maldives’ largest neighbour – and also the most populous country in the Commonwealth – has been backing its re-entry bid. When Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar attended the Commonwealth foreign ministers’ meeting in London in July, an important element of his message had been to fast-track the process of re-admitting Maldives.

Maldivian official sources have pointed out that their application process seems to have gone through a longer route compared to the efficiency shown in getting the West African nation of Gambia back into the Commonwealth fold.

Scotland, Cherie Blair and Yameen

Nasheed believes that the blame lays squarely at secretary-general Scotland’s door. “You know, the secretary-general must not carry the baggage of her past association with Cherie Blair and Cherie Blair’s representation for President Yameen against me,” he said.

The law firm of Cherie Blair, Omnia Strategy, was contracted by the Maldives government in 2015 to advise on “democracy consolidation”. This was in the backdrop of President Yameen attracting criticism from human rights organisations for curbing freedoms and throwing opponents behind bars. The Maldivian opposition had criticised Blair of helping “to wash the blood of Yameen’s reputation”.

Also Read: Former Maldives VP Detained While Attempting to Enter India, Asks for Political Asylum

Patricia Scotland, a former UK attorney general with dual British and Dominican citizenship, had sat on Omnia Strategy’s Advisory Council.

But Scotland has had more direct involvement with the Indian Ocean nation.

After Mohamed Nasheed had claimed that his resignation as president in February 2012 had been under duress, CMAG had put the Maldives on its formal agenda.

The Maldivian government under President Waheed signed a contract with Scotland in May 2012 to obtain advice on challenging the legality of the CMAG’s decision and ways to keep the Maldives off its agenda. She was allegedly paid 75,000 pounds for a two-week-long consultancy.

A local newspaper, Minivan News (now known as the Maldives Independent), had reported in 2013 that Scotland had been paid an additional sum of 50,000 pounds, besides the agreed fee.

Scotland has always stridently denied charges of any wrongdoings.

When asked why other members states haven’t intervened if there was a delay in the process, Nasheed stated, “The other countries are pushing but everyone wants to go through procedures. If you have a secretary-general who runs the club, then you have to rely on him or her. Ultimately, we expect the member countries to put their foot down.”

Commonwealth secretary-general Baroness Patricia Scotland. Photo: Reuters

Commonwealth secretariat’s response

The Wire contacted the Commonwealth Secretariat about the current status of the Maldives’ application and for a reaction to former Maldivian president Nasheed blaming SG Scotland for the delay.

“The membership process is underway and it is now at the stage where the secretary-general is consulting with member countries. As per our normal practice, the secretary-general will liaise directly with the Government of Maldives and will provide all necessary updates,” said the Commonwealth spokesperson. However, there was no response to the query about personal accusations made against the Commonwealth chief.

A highly placed source in the Maldivian government said they had been informed that the secretary-general has circulated her report to the member states.

Admitting that there had been “undue delay”, he added, “we are hopeful that the process will be completed by early 2020”.