Hugo Swire – 2018 Speech on the Maldives

Below is the text of the speech made by Hugo Swire, the Conservative MP for East Devon, in the House of Commons on 6 March 2018.

I am extremely grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on the topical and important issue of the current political situation in the Maldives. On 1 February, the full bench of the Supreme Court in the Maldives ordered the retrial of cases against nine political leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, labelling their trials politically influenced. The Supreme Court also ruled that 12 Opposition MPs, barred from Parliament by the Elections Commission, must be allowed to retake their seats, thus handing the opposition a majority in Parliament, which has the power to impeach the President.

The Maldives police service immediately announced that it would comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Over the next two days, President Yameen fired the police chief, fired his replacement, and installed a third police chief. On 5 February, President Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency. Masked security officials broke through the doors of the Supreme Court and physically dragged the chief justice away and threw him in detention. Another Supreme Court justice was also detained and thrown in jail. Former President Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother, was also detained.

The remaining three Supreme Court Judges then overruled the 1 February judgment, despite it being unconstitutional for a three-bench court to overturn the decision of the full bench. On 20 February, President Yameen petitioned parliament to extend the state of emergency by 30 days. However, the ruling party was unable to gain a quorum in Parliament. Just 40 MPs attended Parliament; a quorum demands 43, but President Yameen announced the state of emergency extension regardless. The prosecutor general has publicly declared the state of emergency extension to be unconstitutional.

Despite the state of emergency and a 10.30 pm curfew in Malé, daily anti-Government protests have spread across the Maldives and have now entered their fourth week. Riot police have severely beaten numerous protesters, hospitalising many. A total of 110 individuals have been arrested since the declaration of the state of emergency and 31 of these are being held without trial under state of emergency rules. There are growing divisions in the security services. Some 50 military and police officials are being detained either at their barracks incommunicado or in detention centres. Four Members of Parliament are currently in detention.

Why should any of this be of interest to the United Kingdom? I would like to make four points this evening; the first concerns radicalisation. President Yameen continues to collude with a network of radical Islamists in the Maldives who are suspected of carrying out 26 murders over the past few years.

​Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose

Sir Hugo Swire I give way to the hon. Gentleman— I suspect that I know which angle he is coming from.

Jim Shannon I think the right hon. Gentleman knows exactly which angle I am coming from. I congratulate him on securing the debate. He will be aware of the religious persecution that is clearly taking place in the Maldives. Some of my constituents went there on holiday. One was imprisoned and sent back home, because he took his Bible with him and read it. It is against the law for someone to read a Bible, be a Christian and practise their religion in the Maldives. Is that not another example of the human rights abuses carried out in the Maldives, in this case, against those of a religious and Christian belief?

Sir Hugo Swire This is the great dilemma of the Maldives. It is, on the one hand, an Islamic country, but on the other it is host to many hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, on whom it depends and who should be free to practise their own religion, even if they are on holiday.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con) President Mohamed Nasheed was the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, and he was elected after years of having been tortured and abused in that country’s jails by his predecessor. He was a great leader, famously closing the political prisons and holding his first Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight climate change. He was a truly progressive, secular leader in a democratic country. Does my right hon. Friend not share my tremendous sadness at how far this country has fallen at the hands of utterly corrupt and malignant forces?

Sir Hugo Swire My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right and I shall go on to say something about this. I very much see the former President Mohamed Nasheed having a role in the future of the Maldives, along with others who have sometimes been his political opponents. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

There have been murders of prominent liberal bloggers and journalists, too. In late September last year Her Majesty’s Government warned that terrorists were “very likely” to carry out an attack on the islands. I understand that this is also the current travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Allegedly, between 200 and 250 Maldivians are either fighting or have fought in Syria and Iraq. US Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells, claimed that the Maldives was the highest foreign fighter contributor per capita to the so-called Islamic State.

Much of the recruiting and radicalisation is promoted by websites such as Bilad al-Sham Media, and Facebook and other social media are more accessible than ever on the remote islands that make up the country.

My second point concerns the safety of our British tourists. The United Kingdom ranks third in a list of visitors to the Maldives in 2016, behind Germany and China, with 7.9% of market share and more than 100,000 visitors. This was an increase of 9.8% compared with 2015.

The Maldives economy remains a tourism driven economy in that it contributes more than 25% of the country’s GDP. While the tourism sector supplies more ​than 70% of the foreign exchange earnings to the country, one third of the Government revenue is generated from this sector. Tourism is also known as the leading employment generator in the country. In 2016, tourism contributed 36.4% to the Government revenue. But as a result of the current situation, the Maldives is facing financial ruin, with the tourism industry estimated to be losing $20 million a day since the start of the state of emergency. If the trend continues, it will lead to unemployment and dissatisfaction, to my way of thinking both active recruiting sergeants for radicalisation, and with our tourists spread out over 115 square miles in 105 resorts it is almost impossible to guarantee their safety.

My third point concerns the Commonwealth. After 30 years of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule, it was President Nasheed who introduced democracy into the Maldives. From 1982, it was a welcome member of the Commonwealth family. It was President Yameen who took the country out of the Commonwealth in 2016.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP) I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and draw Members’ attention to my registered interests on the Maldives. Is the right hon. Gentleman going to draw some attention to the fact that the United Kingdom’s reach on the Maldives has declined somewhat because it has left the Commonwealth? What can we do to rebuild that relationship, working with the ambassador, who is based in Europe? What can we do to rebuild the relationship with the Government for the very reasons the right hon. Gentleman has outlined—to make the country more prosperous and, more importantly, to turn it away from what would be a terrible plight if his predictions came true?

Sir Hugo Swire Indeed, and two of the surrounding countries, Sri Lanka and India, are members of the Commonwealth. I will say later in my speech that, although I believe much needs to be done before the Maldives comes back into the Commonwealth, its proper place is back in the Commonwealth family.

President Yameen’s unconstitutional behaviour has seen him arrest three lawmakers and instigate a witch hunt of the families of his political opponents, including wives and children. President Maumoon and the justices at the supreme court have been charged with treason and bribery, and access to lawyers and family has been restricted, with reports of ill-treatment. Following the arrest of President Gayoom, all the leaders of the opposition political parties are under detention, or have been sentenced under similar trumped-up charges. The Government continue to defend their actions, claiming that state-of-emergency powers are applicable only to those who are believed to have planned or carried out illegal acts in conjunction with the 1 February Supreme Court ruling. That has led to increasingly politicised targeting of the opposition by security services.

President Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya, resigned last week as the state health Minister, and has herself now appealed for support from the international community. I hope very much that she will work with former President Nasheed and other members of the opposition, and that they will come together to chart a democratic future for the country—a future, hopefully, back in the Commonwealth family.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con) My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that a situation under the guise of a state of emergency in which judges are arrested, the normal business of courts is suspended, Members of Parliament are arrested and Parliament too is suspended makes a mockery of any notion of democracy, and, furthermore, constitutes an affront to human rights? Should not Members on both sides of the House of Commons condemn that action in the strongest possible terms?

Sir Hugo Swire My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, there can be no pretence that democracy is alive in the Maldives at the moment.

The Maldives Government also continue to condemn foreign criticism of their actions—no doubt they will now be criticising my right hon. Friend for his intervention—asking members of the international community not to chastise them publicly, and to visit the Maldives to assess the situation on the ground for themselves. However, when a delegation of EU Heads of Missions did visit Malé, the Government refused to meet them. Similarly, members of a delegation from LAWASIA—the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific—were detained and deported on their arrival at the airport in Malé on Tuesday, 27 February, although they had informed relevant Government authorities in ample time of their intention to visit.

My fourth point concerns the possibility of regional conflict. In recent years, China has been sending more tourists to the islands and investing in the economy. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, we see China building a port at Hambantota, an 11,500-foot runway capable of taking an Airbus A380, and docks where oil tankers can refuel. That has caused understandable nervousness in India, and it is difficult to believe that the Indians will allow the Chinese to gain a similar foothold in the Maldives. It is also reported that the Japanese navy recently spotted a Maldivian-registered tanker, which allegedly is linked to President Yameen’s nephew, transferring suspected crude oil to a North Korean tanker, in violation of UN sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to that.

I have seen the statement put out by the European External Action Service on 6 February and the Foreign Secretary’s statement of 5 February, but will Her Majesty’s Government now go further, building on the calls made on the Government of the Maldives by the International Democrat Union on 21 February? Will they call for the release of, and access to lawyers for, all political prisoners? Will they lobby for a UN-backed mission, led by someone like Kofi Annan, to go to the Maldives without delay? Will they call for free and properly convened elections later this year, to be overseen by an international body? Will they provide support and assistance in the wholesale reform of judges and the judicial system? Will they work with other like-minded countries to counter Islamic radicalisation in the Maldives? Will they raise the issue of the Maldives at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London in April? Will they ask the opposition parties to provide a list of resorts owned by President Yameen’s circle, so that they can be publicised and boycotted in the event of none of the above happening? At the same time, will they put plans in place to increase targeted sanctions against the Yameen regime if the Supreme Court ruling is not fully implemented?​

As we exit the European Union, this is a good opportunity for the United Kingdom to show that we have our own foreign policy, and are working with like-minded friends.