By Raymond Whittaker
Mohamed Nasheed, the ousted president of the Maldives, who was released from jail to have medical treatment in London, recently called on the Commonwealth to appoint an independent human rights advocate. If it failed to do so, he warned, it risked becoming become “increasingly irrelevant, marginalized and ignored”.
Mr Nasheed, 48, was elected president of the Indian Ocean island nation in 2008 after three decades of autocratic rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He was ousted in controversial circumstances in 2012. Last year he was jailed on terrorism charges, despite international criticism of the trial as unfair. Speaking at the 10th international conference of the Commonwealth Journalists Association in London, Mr Nasheed said: “The Commonwealth must stand up and protect journalists, and other human rights defenders, far better than it currently does.” The 53-country organisation could no longer be a “private members’ club … that merely serves to protect the status quo – however autocratic and corrupt that may be”.
Mr Nasheed added: “The Commonwealth, in short, needs to stop giving legitimacy, and thus helping to prop up, the dictators and authoritarians who abuse their people and flout the values that the Commonwealth is supposed to stand for.” He said the organisation should emulate the United Nations and appoint a commissioner for human rights, who is independent and does not report to the Secretary-General.
The former president said he was often asked how many times he had been to jail, or how long he had spent there in total. “To be honest, I can’t remember. I think I’ve been to prison at least 20 times. And I’ve probably spent about half my adult life in one form of detention or another. And of course, the current Maldives regime is keen to add to this tally.” Mr Nasheed was allowed out of jail in January for spinal surgery in London, and is seeking an extension of his stay. He said that if he returned home, he was certain to be imprisoned again, “but if I stay, I will be a fugitive”.
He said: “The Commonwealth is such a diverse organisation, with such an excellent reach to countries right across the world. It would be a tremendous shame to see this go to waste. So I believe we need to create an informal lobby within the Commonwealth calling for change. This should include progressive members states, NGOs, journalists and Commonwealth citizens. I appreciate that some nations might stand in the way of such reform. But one only need look at history to see how big nations, such as India, who were initially skeptical of the Commonwealth, soon came to understand its importance and power in upholding fundamental human rights.”
Raymond Whittaker is a member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association UK Branch