Maldives Leaves Commonwealth After Warnings Over Democracy

The archipelago had been warned of suspension if it failed to encourage political dialogue, release opposition leaders and improve democratic institutions.

New Delhi: On Thursday, the Maldives announced its decision to leave the 53-member Commonwealth of Nations, less than a month after it was warned of suspension by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) if it failed to take further steps to encourage political dialogue, release its opposition leaders and improve democratic institutions.

On September 23, the Maldives was put on the CMAG’s formal agenda and was cautioned that if no “substantive” progress was made in the six identified priority areas, the archipelago could be suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth at the next meeting in March 2017.

The Maldives has been under international scrutiny over its crackdown on opposition leaders, especially over the jailing of the most senior members of the main parties, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.

After being released on medical leave, Nasheed went to London where he was eventually granted asylum. He will not be allowed to participate in the 2018 presidential elections.

Following the CMAG’s decision, the Maldivian government had renewed invitations for opposition parties to join an all-party dialogue. But earlier this week, the opposition claimed that the government was creating roadblocks in the dialogue process by ruling out talks with jailed leaders and asking only for representatives endorsed by party governing councils.

President Abdulla Yameen is not besieged by the opposition, but is facing growing demands to combat extremism and drug smuggling, coupled with regular news reports of Maldivians travelling to Syria.

Earlier this week, he travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he secured a $150 million loan to pay back other loans incurred on infrastructure projects.

The Maldives’ decision to leave the Commonwealth came after a cabinet meeting and was announced by foreign minister Mohamed Asim at a press conference in the capital Male.

In the statement, Asim said that the Maldives joined the Commonwealth in 1982, “with high hopes and expectations, convinced that the organisation will be an arena for coordinating critical issues that the member states, in particular, the smallest members of the organisation face.”

“The government of Maldives has decided today to leave the Commonwealth. The decision to leave the Commonwealth was difficult, but inevitable,” he said in the statement.

Asim said that ever since Nasheed “resigned, and transfer of power took place as per the procedures set out in the constitution” in February 2012, the Commonwealth had been hounding the government.

The Maldivian Democratic Party, however, said that Nasheed had been forced to resign due to a ‘coup’ by the military and police.

“The Commonwealth has sought to become an active participant in the domestic political discourse in the Maldives, which is contrary to the principles of the charters of the UN and the Commonwealth,” he said.

Incidentally, the Maldives has taken part in all proceedings of the CMAG where it was discussed, with representation at the level of foreign minister. At the meeting in September, Asim and Attorney General Mohamed Anil addressed the group. Indian external affairs ministry secretary Sujata Mehta had represented India at that CMAG meeting.

The Maldives had also welcomed the appointment of a special envoy by the Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland. Former Kenyan Chief Justice Willy Mutunga had visited the country twice and submitted a critical report to the CMAG.

“The CMAG and the Commonwealth Secretariat seem to be convinced that the Maldives, because of the high and favourable reputation that the country enjoys internationally, and also perhaps because it is a small state that lacks material power, would be an easy object that can be used, especially in the name of democracy promotion, to increase the organisation’s own relevance and leverage in international politics,” Asim said in his statement.

Maldives had threatened to leave the Commonwealth on several occasions in the past, but had not proposed any such move in the last year.

The Commonwealth’s top executive expressed “sadness and disappointment” at the Maldives’ decision to leave the federation.

“The Commonwealth charter reflects the commitment of our member states to democracy and human rights, development and growth and diversity. We will continue to champion these values and to support all member states, especially small and developing states, in upholding and advancing these practically for the enduring benefit of their citizens. Therefore, we hope that this will be a temporary separation and that Maldives will feel able to return to the Commonwealth family and all that it represents in due course,” Scotland said.

Yameen’s estranged half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom criticised the decision to leave the multilateral body, stating that “isolation will not solve our problems”.

Gayoom, who had ruled Maldives for 30 years, has been at loggerheads with Yameen over several government initiatives and is fighting to take control of the ruling party.

The decision to leave the Commonwealth was received with scathing criticism from some opposition members.