Several government institutions of Maldives, on Wednesday, delivered statements about the situation of the country and steps taken for improvement, in the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) held at Geneva, Switzerland.
UPR is a review held to assess and gauge the efforts of United Nation's member states to protect human rights and carry out their responsibility to do so.
During Wednesday's session, Maldives' progress in protecting human rights within the past four and a half years were reviewed, including the information submitted in the National Report submitted on February 3, 2020, stakeholder reports submitted by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) and social organisations, and details submitted about the island nation by UN parties.
Following the review, 97 countries will lodge their recommendations for Maldives to further improve the current situation of the island nation. However, Maldives will reject all recommendations that contradict its constitution and the tenets of Islam.
In the UPR, Attorney General Ibrahim Riffath submitted an intervention regarding justice and legal sector reform, which noted that corruption and political influence affected the judiciary during the past years, preventing the independent functioning of the legal system.
Reiterating that judicial reform is one of the main key pledges of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's administration, the AG highlighted the main efforts carried out by the incumbent government to rectify these issues.
Noting that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) was regaining public trust, he stated that this reflected in the number of cases lodged at the judicial watchdog recently.
The Solih administration saw several judges and magistrates across Maldives being investigated for disciplinary and criminal issues, eventually leading to their sacking or resignations. JSC's persistent probes replaced many posts in the legal sector, in an attempt at judicial reform.
Moreover, September 18, 2019, to September 18, 2020, was described as the Supreme Court's most productive year ever since its establishment 12 years ago, with a record amount of 251 hearings.
Some of the high-profile recent rulings by the judiciary were applauded by the public, such as the first-ever conviction of marital rape in Maldives.
In her speech at the UPR, Minister of Gender, Family and Social Services Aishath Mohamed Didi mainly focused on the state's efforts to ensure protection for marginalised groups in society.
She counted the amendments to the Decentralisation Act, which now mandates 33 percent of council seats to belong to women, as a major win for the country, along with the fact that women make up 33 percent of the cabinet, 29 percent of state ministers, 63 percent of civil servants and 22.3 percent of managerial positions.
Minister Aishath also highlighted that the senior positions of foreign affairs are dominated by women, adding that all of the aforementioned points are a testament to the progress made in the fight for gender equality.
However, admitting to the lack of female parliament representatives, just 4.6 percent, the minister stated that discussions were underway to increase the involvement in women in politics and political positions, allow equal campaigning opportunities and provide financial support.
In Maldives, women lead in academics and higher education qualifications with a lead of 10 percent over men, although these values are not reflected in work environments, especially at higher positions.
On the topic of domestic violence, Minister Aishath spoke about the "Geveshi Gulhun" programme, which mainly focuses on raising awareness about the issue amongst men. She also listed the incumbent administration's aim to invest in shelters for victims, establish a reliable hotline for reports and provide them with financial support as well as other forms of assistance.
An ever-present and pressing issue, cases of domestic violence in the island nation surged in the third quarter of 2020, hitting 242 within the months of July, August and September.
As experts projected that the lockdowns implemented amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may result in a spike of domestic violence as many victims are locked in with their abusers, the Gender Minister assured that coordination and responses were improved to deal with the influx of domestic violence cases during these difficult times.
Throughout 2020, public outcry remained loud over the government's meagre record of arresting and convicting perpetrators of sexual offences despite several promises to support the rights of children and women.
Protesters demanding justice for rape and sexual assault victims held demonstrations during June and July in front of Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services as well as the roads of capital Male', following an upsurge of reported cases and alleged misconduct of police during investigations.
Despite the loud calls for action, the government's response to some of the most high-profile and controversial cases of the year continue to spark further outrage as protesters are arrested and government officials make "irresponsible" comments on sensitive issues.
The minister did not go into detail about rape and sexual assault at the UPR, although it has remained the loudest topic of public discussion in recent times, but she underlined the introduction of the Child Rights Protection Act and the Juvenile Justice Act, both ratified in 2019, which aims to ensure the rights of children.
The laws prohibit sentencing minors for capital punishment, criminalises child marriage and raises the age for criminal punishment to 15.
Stating that the administration had implemented efforts to increase inclusivity for disabled persons, Minister Aishath noted that opportunities were provided for them in employment and training, as well as sports, with the establishment of a Paralympic Office.
Addressing the prominent drug problem of Maldives, she spoke about the government's aim to establish rehabilitation centres in seven locations across Maldives, upgrade existing halfway houses and amending treatment programmes for effective outcomes, such as introducing methadone therapy.
Reiterating the country's willingness to make progress in all the aforementioned areas, she described Maldives' unique geography as one of the biggest challenges in overcoming the complications.
Minister of Home Affairs Imran Abdulla's main talking points at the UPR revolved around the reform of Maldives Police Service and the prison system, in addition to ensuring the right to assemble.
Although various parties, including the international community, raised alarm over the Maldivian government's implementation of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act in July 2020, the home minister declared that "freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are granted to the highest degree" in Maldives.
Amended in former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's administration, with the target of restricting the right to protest, the prickly law was not repealed by the incumbent administration following President Solih's election in 2018.
Although the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Relations finally abolished the amendments in October, after much discussion by relevant authorities and Imran suggesting that scrapping the amendment may "disrupt the system", police responded to recent peaceful protests by arresting participants, claiming that they had violated the Health Protection Agency (HPA) guidelines.
The security forces are a point of heavy scrutiny, while public criticism remains high over the police's response to peaceful protests in addition to their handling of sensitive cases and allegations of perpetuating impunity for certain "well-connected" individuals.
During the UPR session, Minister Imran assured that the implementation of the Strategic Action Plan (SAP), designed to increase public trust in police, increase the quality of their service and ensure accountability exempt from political influence, was underway.
Counting the government's wins, the minister also highlighted the prison audit conducted within the first 100 days of the Solih administration, which identified the issues in the prison system that required immediate attention.
Moreover, he mentioned the state's goal of ensuring that all prison officers are well-versed in the Nelson Mandela Rules by the end of 2021.
Listing down the lack of a cyber-crime law and congestion as the major challenges under the Home Ministry's mandate, Imran stated that efforts are underway to solve these issues by introducing new laws and kicking off stronger rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.
Minister of Economics Fayyaz Ismail asserted at the UPR that rights will be ensured for all expatriate workers in Maldives.
He made this statement a few months after the country recorded a number of expat-led protests amidst renewed concerns from rights groups as well as the general public, over the continued exploitation of foreign workers in Maldives.
Violations include withholding of wages, human trafficking, poor living conditions, and other human rights violations. Further, the aforementioned low quality of life has cemented the disproportionate effect had by Maldives' ongoing COVID-19 outbreak on its vast migrant population.
Fayyaz noted that the state was working closely with relevant institutions to tackle the issue, through amending laws and improving the living conditions for migrant workers.
On the 21st of July 2020, the Chief of Defence Force reported to the Parliament that there were 179,964 registered and 66,000 non-registered labour workers in the country reaching a total of 245,964 expatriate workers.
In June 2020, the United States 'Trafficking in Persons Report' placed Maldives in its 'Tier 2 Watch List' for failing to prevent forced labour, fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, debt-based coercion and human trafficking. Maldives has remained on Tier 2 for the past two years.
On July 30, the government announced the implementation of a 'National Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan 2020–2022', which will be carried out in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC).
However, Fayyaz admitted that there were various challenges in implementing the action plan, adding that Maldives had to further work on punishing perpetrators of human trafficking.
He added that the state had set up temporary shelters for victims of human trafficking, in addition to making arrangements for their repatriation with the cooperation of the international community.
The Maldivian delegation has until December 14 to decide on its positions in response to the recommendations it receives.
The UPR process aims to improve the human rights situations in all countries, along with addressing violations. It involves a review of the human rights records of all member states of the UN, where each state declares the actions taken to improve the human rights situations in their respective countries.
The UPR Working Group holds three two-week sessions per year and is currently in the midst of its Third Cycle review which began in 2017 and will conclude in 2021.