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UN rights chief says Maldives must take further steps on path to democracy

Aerial view of Malé, the capital of the Maldives.
Aerial view of Malé, the capital of the Maldives.

UN rights chief says Maldives must take further steps on path to democracy

The Maldives has made "significant advances" during the first few years of its transition to democracy, but a large gap still exists between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground, the United Nations human rights chief said today.

Wrapping up a visit to the Indian Ocean archipelago, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told journalists that the Maldives deserved credit for the progress it has made since a reform agenda began nearly a decade ago. Multi-party presidential elections were held for the first time in 2008, ending 30 years of one-party rule, and the country has ratified six of the seven core international treaties.

Ms. Pillay – who met with President Mohamed Nasheed, senior Government officials, opposition figures, leading judges, parliamentarians and representatives of civil society during her visit – noted there has been "a dramatic reduction in the incidence of torture" and the country is also promoting dialogue within both South Asia and the Islamic world on the importance of human rights.

"Yet, as virtually all my interlocutors have noted, the process of transition is far from over, and some of the achievements still have shallow roots," she said.

"Some of those with whom I have spoken pointed to a large gap between the political rhetoric and actual implementation of reforms on the ground."

The High Commissioner noted that the Majlis, or parliament, is not in session because of a series of disputes and has therefore passed just five bills and three amendments so far this year.

"The enactment of some vital human rights-related pieces of legislation envisaged in the constitution have been held up. These include, most notably, the penal code, the criminal and civil procedures, the law on domestic violence and the right to information bill."

While she found bipartisan political agreement on the need for such laws, "their progress has been paralyzed by the political impasse. I urge politicians of all stripes to set their disputes to one side, because these laws are both necessary and overdue."

Women are also severely under-represented in the country's judiciary and political ranks – only five of the nearly 200 judges and magistrates are female, for example.

"For women to fulfil their potential, they need respect, education, and equal rights and opportunities. This is clearly recognized in the Maldives' constitution. Yet the widespread domestic violence against women in the Maldives indicates a lack of respect – as does the failure to enact the draft law designed to deal with this issue. And the shortage of women in high-powered jobs indicates both a lack of opportunities, and a lack of ambition solidified by deficiencies in the education of girls."

Ms. Pillay said a starting point to improve female representation would be to expand the role of women on the local councils on the islands, "where their practical experience and know-how could bring quick benefits and recognition."

She also voiced concern about the country's health-care system, which she described as deteriorating the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, particularly those from Bangladesh the state of religious freedom and tolerance and the continuing practice of flogging some offenders.