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Maldives: Political Situation

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I repeat what I say most days: if, unaccountably, there are hon. Members who do not wish to hear the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) orating in the Adjournment debate, perhaps they could leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, so that he can address an attentive gathering on the subject of the political situation in the Maldives.

I am extremely grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on the topical and important issue of the current political situation in the Maldives. On 1 February, the full bench of the Supreme Court in the Maldives ordered the retrial of cases against nine political leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, labelling their trials politically influenced. The Supreme Court also ruled that 12 Opposition MPs, barred from Parliament by the Elections Commission, must be allowed to retake their seats, thus handing the opposition a majority in Parliament, which has the power to impeach the President. 

The Maldives police service immediately announced that it would comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Over the next two days, President Yameen fired the police chief, fired his replacement, and installed a third police chief. On 5 February, President Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency. Masked security officials broke through the doors of the Supreme Court and physically dragged the chief justice away and threw him in detention. Another Supreme Court justice was also detained and thrown in jail. Former President Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother, was also detained.

The remaining three Supreme Court Judges then overruled the 1 February judgment, despite it being unconstitutional for a three-bench court to overturn the decision of the full bench. On 20 February, President Yameen petitioned parliament to extend the state of emergency by 30 days. However, the ruling party was unable to gain a quorum in Parliament. Just 40 MPs attended Parliament; a quorum demands 43, but President Yameen announced the state of emergency extension regardless. The prosecutor general has publicly declared the state of emergency extension to be unconstitutional.

Despite the state of emergency and a 10.30 pm curfew in Malé, daily anti-Government protests have spread across the Maldives and have now entered their fourth week. Riot police have severely beaten numerous protesters, hospitalising many. A total of 110 individuals have been arrested since the declaration of the state of emergency and 31 of these are being held without trial under state of emergency rules. There are growing divisions in the security services. Some 50 military and police officials are being detained either at their barracks incommunicado or in detention centres. Four Members of Parliament are currently in detention.

Why should any of this be of interest to the United Kingdom? I would like to make four points this evening; the first concerns radicalisation. President Yameen continues to collude with a network of radical Islamists in the Maldives who are suspected of carrying out 26 murders over the past few years.

I think the right hon. Gentleman knows exactly which angle I am coming from. I congratulate him on securing the debate. He will be aware of the religious persecution that is clearly taking place in the Maldives. Some of my constituents went there on holiday. One was imprisoned and sent back home, because he took his Bible with him and read it. It is against the law for someone to read a Bible, be a Christian and practise their religion in the Maldives. Is that not another example of the human rights abuses carried out in the Maldives, in this case, against those of a religious and Christian belief?

This is the great dilemma of the Maldives. It is, on the one hand, an Islamic country, but on the other it is host to many hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, on whom it depends and who should be free to practise their own religion, even if they are on holiday.

President Mohamed Nasheed was the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, and he was elected after years of having been tortured and abused in that country’s jails by his predecessor. He was a great leader, famously closing the political prisons and holding his first Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight climate change. He was a truly progressive, secular leader in a democratic country. Does my right hon. Friend not share my tremendous sadness at how far this country has fallen at the hands of utterly corrupt and malignant forces?

My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right and I shall go on to say something about this. I very much see the former President Mohamed Nasheed having a role in the future of the Maldives, along with others who have sometimes been his political opponents. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

There have been murders of prominent liberal bloggers and journalists, too. In late September last year Her Majesty’s Government warned that terrorists were “very likely” to carry out an attack on the islands. I understand that this is also the current travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Allegedly, between 200 and 250 Maldivians are either fighting or have fought in Syria and Iraq. US Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells, claimed that the Maldives was the highest foreign fighter contributor per capita to the so-called Islamic State.

Much of the recruiting and radicalisation is promoted by websites such as Bilad al-Sham Media, and Facebook and other social media are more accessible than ever on the remote islands that make up the country.

My second point concerns the safety of our British tourists. The United Kingdom ranks third in a list of visitors to the Maldives in 2016, behind Germany and China, with 7.9% of market share and more than 100,000 visitors. This was an increase of 9.8% compared with 2015.

The Maldives economy remains a tourism driven economy in that it contributes more than 25% of the country’s GDP. While the tourism sector supplies more than 70% of the foreign exchange earnings to the country, one third of the Government revenue is generated from this sector. Tourism is also known as the leading employment generator in the country. In 2016, tourism contributed 36.4% to the Government revenue. But as a result of the current situation, the Maldives is facing financial ruin, with the tourism industry estimated to be losing $20 million a day since the start of the state of emergency. If the trend continues, it will lead to unemployment and dissatisfaction—to my way of thinking both active recruiting sergeants for radicalisation. With our tourists spread out over 115 square miles in 105 resorts it is almost impossible to guarantee their safety.

My third point concerns the Commonwealth. After 30 years of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule, it was President Nasheed who introduced democracy into the Maldives. From 1982, it was a welcome member of the Commonwealth family. It was President Yameen who took the country out of the Commonwealth in 2016.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and draw Members’ attention to my registered interests on the Maldives. Is the right hon. Gentleman going to draw some attention to the fact that the United Kingdom’s reach on the Maldives has declined somewhat because it has left the Commonwealth? What can we do to rebuild that relationship, working with the ambassador, who is based in Europe? What can we do to rebuild the relationship with the Government for the very reasons the right hon. Gentleman has outlined—to make the country more prosperous and, more importantly, to turn it away from what would be a terrible plight if his predictions came true?

Indeed, and two of the neighbouring countries, Sri Lanka and India, are members of the Commonwealth. I will say later in my speech that, although I believe much needs to be done before the Maldives comes back into the Commonwealth, its proper place is back in the Commonwealth family.

President Yameen’s unconstitutional behaviour has seen him arrest three lawmakers and instigate a witch hunt of the families of his political opponents, including wives and children. President Maumoon and the justices at the supreme court have been charged with treason and bribery, and access to lawyers and family has been restricted, with reports of ill-treatment. Following the arrest of President Gayoom, all the leaders of the opposition political parties are under detention, or have been sentenced under similar trumped-up charges. The Government continue to defend their actions, claiming that state-of-emergency powers are applicable only to those who are believed to have planned or carried out illegal acts in conjunction with the 1 February Supreme Court ruling. That has led to increasingly politicised targeting of the opposition by security services.

President Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya, resigned last week as the state health Minister, and has herself now appealed for support from the international community. I hope very much that she will work with former President Nasheed and other members of the opposition, and that they will come together to chart a democratic future for the country—a future, hopefully, back in the Commonwealth family.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that a situation under the guise of a state of emergency in which judges are arrested, the normal business of courts is suspended, Members of Parliament are arrested and Parliament too is suspended makes a mockery of any notion of democracy, and, furthermore, constitutes an affront to human rights? Should not Members on both sides of the House of Commons condemn that action in the strongest possible terms?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, there can be no pretence that democracy is alive in the Maldives at the moment.

The Maldives Government also continue to condemn foreign criticism of their actions—no doubt they will now be criticising my right hon. Friend for his intervention—asking members of the international community not to chastise them publicly, and to visit the Maldives to assess the situation on the ground for themselves. However, when a delegation of EU Heads of Missions did visit Malé, the Government refused to meet them. Similarly, members of a delegation from LAWASIA—the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific—were detained and deported on their arrival at the airport in Malé on Tuesday, 27 February, although they had informed relevant Government authorities in ample time of their intention to visit.

My fourth point concerns the possibility of regional conflict. In recent years, China has been sending more tourists to the islands and investing in the economy. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, we see China building a port at Hambantota, an 11,500-foot runway capable of taking an Airbus A380, and docks where oil tankers can refuel. That has caused understandable nervousness in India, and it is difficult to believe that the Indians will allow the Chinese to gain a similar foothold in the Maldives. It is also reported that the Japanese navy recently spotted a Maldivian-registered tanker, which allegedly is linked to President Yameen’s nephew, transferring suspected crude oil to a North Korean tanker, in violation of UN sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to that.

I have seen the statement put out by the European External Action Service on 6 February and the Foreign Secretary’s statement of 5 February, but will Her Majesty’s Government now go further, building on the calls made on the Government of the Maldives by the International Democrat Union on 21 February? Will they call for the release of, and access to lawyers for, all political prisoners? Will they lobby for a UN-backed mission, led by someone like Kofi Annan, to go to the Maldives without delay? Will they call for free and properly convened elections later this year, to be overseen by an international body? Will they provide support and assistance in the wholesale reform of judges and the judicial system? Will they work with other like-minded countries to counter Islamic radicalisation in the Maldives? Will they raise the issue of the Maldives at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London in April? Will they ask the opposition parties to provide a list of resorts owned by President Yameen’s circle, so that they can be publicised and boycotted in the event of none of the above happening? At the same time, will they put plans in place to increase targeted sanctions against the Yameen regime if the Supreme Court ruling is not fully implemented?

As we exit the European Union, this is a good opportunity for the United Kingdom to show that we have our own foreign policy, and are working with like-minded friends.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) for securing this debate. During his time as one of my predecessors in the office I currently hold, he was tireless in his efforts to improve the political and human rights situation for all the people of the Maldives. I pay great tribute to him for his continued commitment to this cause and share his disappointment and alarm at the recent deterioration in the political outlook in the Maldives. While I cannot promise that I will deliver on every last bit of the shopping list in his speech, he can rest assured that it provides not just food for thought, but an important pointer for the future, and we will look at all his proposals. I am also very grateful for the interest and shorter contributions of other Members, and I shall try to respond to a range of the points made during this debate.

Let me start by setting out the current situation in the Maldives, which is deeply concerning, and this Government’s response, before touching on the implications for visitors and the wider international context. For several years, particularly since 2015, President Yameen has been cracking down on the rights of political opponents, judicial institutions and the independent media, all in a bid to strengthen his own grip on power, despite growing popular discontent at his rule. Over the past year, the leaders of all Maldivian opposition parties have spent time either in jail or in exile. In July, President Yameen used the military to enforce a shutdown of Parliament to prevent the opposition from voting to impeach the Speaker, a close confidante of his. Parliament has in essence been ineffective in the Maldives since that time.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon pointed out, on 1 February this year the Supreme Court of the Maldives ruled that Parliament should release nine prominent opposition leaders from prison and reinstate the 12 MPs who had been stripped of their seats when they sought to leave the President’s party for the opposition. They included former President Nasheed, who is well known to several UK political figures, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). He currently resides here in the UK in exile. His time in office was, to be honest, turbulent, but he did represent an era of significant steps forward towards a more open and democratic Maldives—a secular Maldives, which would have taken religious freedom seriously in the way the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would wish all to experience.

However, just four days later, on 5 February, President Yameen declared a state of emergency in response to the Supreme Court decision. The effect of this is to suspend, among other things, the rights to privacy, freedom of assembly and silence following arrest, as well as protections from unlawful arrest. These measures were extended on 20 February for a further 30 days. In the weeks since the emergency was declared, the Maldivian Parliament has been closed down, two of five Supreme Court judges, including the chief justice, have been arrested, more opposition leaders and their families have been jailed and journalists and protestors have been pepper-sprayed and arrested.

Wider human rights concerns persist, including the Government’s highly regrettable and stated intention to resume executions under the death penalty. Freedom of speech is being persistently curtailed, and human rights defenders and independent journalists are being intimidated. A new anti-defamation Act is being used to attack independent media outlets, some of which have had temporarily to close out of fear for the safety of their employees.

This situation is entirely unacceptable. As for the state of emergency, let us make no bones about it: President Yameen has suspended the basic rights of his citizens because the Supreme Court ruled against him. It is an affront to any sense of democratic principles and the rule of law and a blatant power grab. It is entirely right that these actions have been condemned internationally. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation as an “all-out assault” on democracy, and the International Commission of Jurists has said that the Maldivian authorities

“have not even come close to meeting the high threshold set by international law for the derogation of rights in times of genuine emergency”.

Those of us who follow media reporting will have seen speculation about how various regional powers might respond, particularly given that the Maldives is located close to the important shipping lanes that run from Malacca to Hormuz. The UK’s position on this is clear: the current situation in the Maldives is a political crisis that requires a political and diplomatic solution.

To address one of the points raised by my right hon. Friend, the Government are aware of reports about a Maldives-flagged vessel apparently engaging in ship-to-ship transfers with a DPRK vessel, in defiance of the UN Security Council sanction. We are also aware of the Maldives Government’s response that the ship does not belong to the Maldives. I think that it is only fair and right that we conduct further inquiries about this potentially serious case before coming to any judgment. Broadly speaking, I have to say that our response to the deteriorating situation over the past three years has been robust, as it will continue to be.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a statement on 5 February, calling for President Yameen to end the state of emergency peacefully, restore suspended rights and permit the full, free and proper functioning of Parliament. I will meet the Maldivian ambassador later this week to seek his explanation of what his Government are doing in these areas. Our ambassador, James Dauris, who is based at our embassy in Colombo in Sri Lanka, flew to Malé on 8 February to raise our concerns directly with the Maldives Government and to meet opposition politicians and journalists.

I thank the Minister for all that he does, which is deeply appreciated by everyone in the House—I mean that sincerely, because we all appreciate the influence he has around the world. When he meets the Maldivian ambassador, will he express the concerns that I and many other Members have, as was shown in last Thursday’s debate in Westminster Hall, about the persecution of Christians, who do not have an opportunity to worship their God in the way they want?

I will certainly do so. I have rather long list of things to raise with the ambassador, but I will do my level best to ensure that that issue is discussed.

The UK is also leading the international response, understandably. We helped to drive the EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on 26 February, which called for the state of emergency to be lifted. The Council announced that it would consider targeted measures if progress was not made. I also expect the UK to lead a statement of concern at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva later this week, as we did last June on behalf of more than 30 other countries.

On human rights more broadly, the Maldives has been one of the Foreign Office’s human rights priority countries for several years. We have regularly raised our concerns about human rights, in particular the threatened re-imposition of the death penalty, with my Maldivian counterparts, as have my Government colleagues. We will continue to fund projects that support efforts by Maldivian civil society to promote human rights, strengthen democratic institutions and advocate a greater role for women in public life.

We are deeply concerned by reports of increasing radicalisation in the Maldives and take them very seriously. We co-operate with the Government of the Maldives in the global fight against terrorism. Our view is that open and pluralistic societies are better placed to combat the underlying drivers of radicalisation.

My right hon. Friend was right to point out that the decision by the Maldives to leave the Commonwealth in 2016—an institution that was assisting it in addressing a number of these concerns—remains a source of deep sadness to us. We hope that in time the Maldives will return to the Commonwealth family by reapplying for membership, but clearly in its current state that cannot happen.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the safety of British visitors to the Maldives, and many of them are there as we speak. That is clearly an extremely important consideration for us. Nearly 100,000 British tourists visit the islands every year—not necessarily in the most built-up areas of Malé, but they are visitors none the less. He rightly pointed out that there are also significant numbers of Chinese and German tourists.

We regularly review Foreign Office travel advice to ensure that travellers have the latest information. We have updated it twice since 5 February, most recently on 21 February, following the extension of the state of emergency. Our current advice states that political unrest has to date largely been confined to the capital island Malé or to major population centres.

I suspect that the majority of tourists do not go to Malé because it is only atoll in the entire Maldives that is dry. My point is that many atolls are many miles away from Malé and would be difficult to get to in a crisis. Further, the fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq do come from the remote areas because, as I said, they have been radicalised through the mosques, the internet and social media. Just because tourists are not in Malé, which is the centre of unrest, that does not mean that there are no problems elsewhere.

My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. He can be assured that we will be asking our embassy and James Dauris, our excellent ambassador based in Colombo, to keep our advice under constant review.

Although few British tourists visit the major population centres, we advise those who do so that they should exercise caution and avoid any protests or rallies, but I will ensure that we give further thought along the lines of my right hon. Friend’s intervention. We have had no indication to date that any British tourists have been affected directly by the unrest or, indeed, that it has affected the resorts in which they stay or the functioning of Malé’s international airport. The safety of British nationals will always be our primary priority, and we shall continue to keep our travel advice under constant review.

The current situation in the Maldives is deeply worrying. President Yameen’s crackdown on media, judges and political opponents through the suspension of fundamental rights is unacceptable in any country that calls itself a democracy, and I shall make that argument when I see the Maldivian ambassador tomorrow at the Foreign Office. I know that he works closely with UK parliamentarians to promote his country in a positive light here in the UK, and I hope he will have heard many of the concerns that have been raised tonight, not least because they have been raised by parliamentarians who have the interests of the Maldives and its citizens close to their heart.

Colleagues will share my concerns at the sustained misuse of parliamentary process used to justify such measures. The members of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group, while understandably keen not to talk down the islands’ reputation, might usefully consider ways in which they could speaking out against the abuse. We shall continue to work, both bilaterally and with international partners, to urge President Yameen to end the state of emergency peacefully, to restore all articles of the constitution and to restore the proper functioning of Parliament, so that the people of Maldives can once more enjoy their full democratic rights and freedoms and live without fear or intimidation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.