I was saddened when in October the Maldives Government announced its decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, an organisation committed to the development of free and fair societies, peace and prosperity.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the decision as “difficult but inevitable”, explaining that it was felt that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) had not recognised progress and had treated the Maldives unjustly and unfairly.
The UK is not a member of the CMAG at the moment, though from South Asia both India and Pakistan are. When the CMAG met in September, its nine members expressed their regret that a substantive political dialogue had not yet begun, and their deep disappointment at the lack of progress in priority areas identified earlier in the year. These priorities included stronger political pluralism, the release of political leaders under detention, recommendations on the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and measures to promote freedom and space for civil society. These relationships, rights and freedoms are, of course, all ones that are enshrined in the Maldives’ own Constitution.
The CMAG’s statement was intended to be taken, I think, in the spirit of well-intended advice offered by good friends. By good friends I mean friends who, meaning well, care about us enough to feel it matters to tell us when they think we are getting things wrong as well as when we are getting them right.
The CMAG was established more than twenty years ago to uphold the Harare Declaration, which sets out the Commonwealth’s core political values. It reaffirms: “We believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives”.
The Commonwealth brings together a remarkable group of 2.2 billion people in more than fifty countries across six continents. Its principles and values – among them of democracy, good governance, human rights, freedom of expression, separation of powers and the protection of the environment – have helped its members prosper. I think we will agree that these principles and values are as important in the Maldives as they are in so many other countries.
Commonwealth membership brings a wide range of benefits, many of which the Maldives, to its credit, has taken full advantage of.
It brings together many small island states – until October the Maldives among them. It provides a valuable platform for discussions on development issues, challenges and concerns, including climate change. The Maldives has received support from the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation. Lots of Maldivians have benefited from the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. The Commonwealth supported advances in the Maldivian health care system after the 2006 tsunami. It provided assistance to strengthen the country’s electoral system ahead of the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. Its election observation missions have helped to give people more confidence that elections will be free and fair, as they want them to be.
Through dozens of associations accredited to it, the Commonwealth brings all kinds of people together – members of parliaments, academics, doctors and nurses, judges, scientists. Over many years Maldivians have been valued for their active and positive role in thematic meetings on youth affairs, health, education and women’s rights. And in sport lots of us will have enjoyed seeing 25 of the best Maldivian athletes participating in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I share the disappointment of all those talented young sportsmen and women who were hoping to be selected for the Gold Coast 2018 Games but now won’t be able to be there.
While there’s always room for every organisation to do some things better, I share my Government’s belief in the Commonwealth as a strong organisation with a meaningful role in today’s world. We believe in its commitment to improving the lives of people across all its member states. Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland has made clear that she hopes that “this will be a temporary separation and that the Maldives will feel able to return to the Commonwealth family in due course”.
As a long-standing friend, the British Government will continue to work with the Maldives and with Maldivians in pursuit of common interests, principles and values, including helping strengthen democracy and human rights. That said, we and many other friends will miss having you with us in the Commonwealth: your loss is ours too.