Maldives: constitutional trouble in paradise

Helen Taylor

The ongoing political crisis in the Maldives reignited this week when the Maldivian Supreme Court reversed its own decision to free nine convicted politicians. This article aims to shed some light on the situation in the Maldives and highlight the importance of being aware of the political turmoil enfolding. The article also discusses the crisis in the context of the realist conception of international law.

Beneath the sandy beaches, palm trees and turquoise oceans of the Maldives lies an unstable political reality in which the Maldivian government continues to clamp down on individual freedoms and opposition. The situation escalated when President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency on the 5th February and arrested two top judges on corruption charges. This comes after the Supreme Court quashed its previous conviction against the leader of the opposition, Mohamed Nasheed, and other opposition politicians. Nasheed was the first democratically elected President of the Maldives yet was forced to step down from the Presidency in 2012 after (in Nasheed’s words) he was held “at gunpoint”1 by police and army officers. He was convicted in 2015 under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives in what can only be described as a sham trial: Nasheed was not allowed legal representation and 2/3 of the judges in the trial gave evidence against him.2 Indeed the UN called the trial “vastly unfair, arbitrary and disproportionate”.3 The declaration of emergency rule by President Yameen, following Nasheed’s release, only goes to reinforce the current government’s clampdown on political opposition, it allowing for measures that give security forces more freedom to make arrests and that ban public gatherings.  

It is clear now that a disturbing reality lies behind the picturesque beachfront scenes we usually conjure when we think about the Maldives. It is important that such oppression is exposed so that the international community can help to improve the situation and to protect values which are universal to us all. On this point it is noteworthy that the deprivation of liberty in the Maldives invokes one of the key aims of the UN: “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.4 Furthermore, it is especially important that Western tourists – and likely readers of this blog post – engage with such turmoil because of their active involvement with the Maldives (tourism is the largest economy industry of the Maldives). Whilst there is a difficult balance to be struck between taking sanctions against a corrupt government and safeguarding innocent populations from the effects of such sanctions, potential visitors should be mindful about the Maldivian situation and think about whether they should instead be taking more of a stand against the present government. Finally, the crisis in the Maldives should be pertinent to us concerns the effects of the country’s instability. The European Parliament has reported that the Maldives has the highest per capita rate of recruitment to ISIS in the world.5 States such as the UK, therefore, have a direct interest in helping to restore stability and security to the country, which in turn may lessen the appeal of radicalisation.  

Finally, it is worth looking at this episode in terms of legal theory. The realist conception of international law and international relations envisages states as being motivated not by international legal standards and normative commitments, but by their own interests. This conception is compelling on an empirical level when we look at the reaction to the clampdown of rights that we have witnessed over the past few years in the Maldives – although heads of state have publicly condemned the situation, not enough action has been taken and the crisis has largely fallen under the radar. In sum, the episode calls into question the effectiveness of the international law, especially given, as already mentioned, that the UN has explicitly recognised that there have been violations of justice. Going forward, therefore, the challenge for the international community is to put greater pressure on governments which are in breach of their obligations to remedy the situation. Until then, the Maldivian crisis will once again go under the radar until there is another surge in action and will fall into the all too growing category of nations which are, although “condemned” by international bodies and states, left to flout the rule of law (if indeed we can say that any such conception exists at an international level).

The article is written with the caveat that the political situation in the Maldives is fast moving and the following commentary is only as up to date as the time it was written (7th February 2018).

  1. North, Andrew. "Maldives Ex-president Mohamed Nasheed Was 'Forced Out'." BBC News. BBC, 08 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Feb. 2018.
  2. Clooney, Amal. "Release Mohamed Nasheed – an Innocent Man and the Maldives' Great Hope | Amal Clooney." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 09 Feb. 2018.
  3. UN. "Maldives: UN Rights Office Says Trial of Former President Politicized, Unfair." UN News Center. United Nations, 01 May 2015. Web. 09 Feb. 2018
  4. Charter of the United Nations 1945, Chapter 1, Article 1(3)
  5. Parliament, European. "Motion for a Resolution on the Situation in the Maldives."; Motion for a Resolution on the Situation in the Maldives - B8-0556/2017. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2018