Commonwealth family lost the Maldives

Commonwealth family lost the Maldives

SAM Staff,

By Shiaan Ahmed:


Last week, the Commonwealth family lost another of its members – the third one in the past years. The Maldives took the extremely difficult but inevitable decision to withdraw from the organisation after 34 years of continuous and active participation. People rightfully have wondered, how come a constructive and fully engaged member such as the Maldives, has decided to separate from the Commonwealth family. Perhaps, our story offers a window into why this organisation requires fundamental reform – reform it needs more than ever in the post-Brexit era.

Ever since joining in 1982, the Commonwealth of Nations was seen as the start of a new era in which the member countries would work together, in partnership and as equals, towards a shared future. As a small nation committed to the core Commonwealth principles, the Maldives had always regarded this organisation as an invaluable platform to engage with an international community of like-minded states on the important issues facing the global community; as an organisation that helps its member-States in democratic consolidation, in building institutions, in developing the rule of law, and above all, in achieving sustainable and inclusive growth. The Maldives, being the leading advocate and voice on climate change gave Commonwealth prominence on climate change.

It comes as no surprise that we, one of the smallest nations, had high hopes and expectations to see the Commonwealth serving its role as a champion of small states advocating for their special needs. But as an association born in the twilight of the empire, the Commonwealth has shown surprisingly little empathy towards the struggles of post-colonial states.

No one can deny that the Maldives has faced challenges in recent years, like many other Commonwealth countries. As a new democracy, we are always looking to increase capacity, knowledge and professionalism within our institutions. In doing so, the Government has worked closely with its international partners and we look forward to their continued support in consolidating democracy and to further strengthen our young institutions. And yes, our judiciary, parliament and civil society need further professional development. But this is not unusual. From Asia to Africa and the South Pacific to the Caribbean, these challenges are universal. Many members have also witnessed civil conflict and political upheaval.

Regrettably, and despite the Government’s efforts to give maximum cooperation, show maximum transparency, and engage with the Commonwealth at the highest levels, the Commonwealth decided to intrusively take political stances in the domestic political developments of a member state, against its own Charter. Since 2012, when the former President resigned, the Commonwealth has sought to question the domestic developments rather than putting an effort to know the issues.

Furthermore, it has turned a blind eye to the progress made in cultivating a culture of democracy in the country and in building and strengthening democratic institutions. For example, Commonwealth has conveniently disregarded that the Government has enacted a total of 110 pieces of legislation in the last three years, 94 of which were directly related to the core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. 69 were specifically designed to promote human rights, strengthen democratic governance, and to reinforce the separation of powers. Further, Maldives has per capita more journalists and media outlets (majority being run by the Opposition) than any other Commonwealth country. All political parties including the Opposition parties are paid by the State; a system that not only sustains the opposition but also a provision that very few countries can boast about. Sadly these achievements are below the bar set for Maldives by the Commonwealth.

Sadly this ostentatious behaviour is symptomatic of the modern era Commonwealth. Its budget has shrunk year-on-year, meaning development and institutional building projects have fallen by the wayside. Without the resources to fully look into the issues of the Commonwealth countries, the work of improving governance or increasing development has been replaced by the ever more active and ideological Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), along with the Secretariat, has become embedded in the political discourse of smaller member states. This has helped the Commonwealth leverage its way into international diplomacy.

But the organisation’s desperate need to remain relevant should not mean it morphs into an unaccountable global police force. If the Commonwealth really wanted to engage, it would see progress is being made on our islands. It was within this context that the Maldives became sceptical of the benefits conferred to small nations by Commonwealth membership.

It is hoped that the decision to leave the Commonwealth spurs a reassessment of its role in the 21st century. The Commonwealth has always prided itself on being an organisation in which all nations are committed to working together in partnership and, most importantly, as equals. Equality and inclusivity within the Commonwealth family are vital in ensuring that it remains an organisation that represents the values embedded in the Commonwealth Charter. The Maldives believes that these founding principles should be resurrected.

Let there be no doubt though. The Maldives is not closing its doors to its friends in the Commonwealth. It aims to improve bilateral relations with Commonwealth members, especially with the United Kingdom, and work to reform the Commonwealth from the outside; to make the organisation that is fit for purpose; is value for money; and more importantly serves the aspirations of the member states.

The Maldives takes pride in the active and useful role it plays on international level. Despite our size, our voice is strong and clear. The Maldives reassures that its international engagement will continue both bilaterally and multilaterally.

High Commissioner Ahmed Shiaan presents his credentials to Her Majesty, the Queen at Buckingham Palace in February.


[Shiaan Ahmed is the Maldives Head of Mission to St James’s Court (UK), the EU, the Benelux and Nordic countries. This article appeared on the ‘Diplomat Magazine’ on Nov 5, 2016]