Adjournment Debate: The Political Situation in the Maldives

In response to an Adjournment debate tabled by Sir Hugo Swire (Member for East Devon) last night on the ongoing political situation in the Maldives, Mark made the below statement to the House. You can find a transcript of the whole debate on Hansard by clicking here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

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.

Jim Shannon

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.

Mark Field

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.

Sir Hugo Swire

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.

Mark Field

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.