“Most people understand the rights themselves, but not what it means to have them. In a democracy, we hope that the people will all play a role.”
Commissioner Ahmed Tholal represented the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) at yesterday’s UNDP “Did You Know?” event at the Surf Point, the second in a campaign begun last year. The event targeted awareness building on human rights and the judicial system, particularly as provided in Chapter Two of the constitution. Over a dozen groups including Police Services, the Faculty of Shari’ah Law, Employment Tribunal, Courts, and the Elections Commission offered pamphlets and demonstrations of their social purpose.
“These kinds of things people will forget unless you keep on promoting it,” said UNDP National Project Manager Naaz Aminath. “It’s not something you can just accomplish by handing out pamphlets.”
Many groups interviewed said raising awareness of civil rights and how to exercise them was their biggest challenge.
Representatives from the Supreme Court defined the court as “part of a larger enforcement of human rights in the Maldives,” which she said “are there in the constitution but people don’t know how they can exercise them, or how they can defend them.”
She noted that though many citizens are unfamiliar with case filing procedures, the court had seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of cases filed and expected the trend to continue.
Speaking of the court as a robust institution, representatives concurred that there was room for improvement. “It’s only three years old, right, and it’s still growing. You can never reach maturity, right? There’s still room for improvement in anything, anywhere.”
Across the square, Police Integrity Commission (PIC) member Dr. Hala Hameed also reported a rising case rate.
“We are getting more reports of police misconduct than previously,” she said. “People are more aware of the commission and so they are using its services more.”
Hameed stressed that the PIC supports the police as well as the community. “We are here to empower the police and ensure that they have the appropriate resources to do their work, as well as oversee their operations.”
Saying that awareness was a concern, she said the PIC’s independent status validated its operations. “People know that if there is an independent commission to oversee the police activities then it will be effective.”
While many booths provided hard information about social services, several catered to the younger generations. Kids were invited to decorate cakes and paint pictures for various causes. At Care Society, children learned sign language from a hearing impaired instructor and familiarized themselves with disability icons over a board game.
One Care Society representative said community awareness had improved in recent years, “especially since the passing of the Disability Law last year.” But community tolerance “is an issue we are working to address. “
“There is still a fair amount of people who don’t understand the nature of various disabilities and how to interact with those individuals. It’s something that needs to be corrected,” she said.
HRCM Commissioner Tholal said social reform goes deeper than a pamphlet.
Attributing misconceptions of human rights to social instability, Tholal observed that “There’s this idea that if a prisoner has rights, it’s at someone else’s expense. But human rights are not about protecting one person’s rights and not another’s.
“The idea of self-expression and human rights is still fairly new to the Maldives under the new government, so as things stabilise I think the view of human rights could improve as well.”
According to Tholal, the HRCM has been targeted by proponents of Islamic fundamentalists, but the larger Islamic community has supported the commission’s work.
“The key thing for the public to understand is that the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country,” he said. “The rules and regulations that this status calls for can exist within the framework of human rights. They’re not incompatible. If anyone says otherwise, they negate the mission of the HRC. The idea that human rights are compatible with Islam, and the constitution, needs to be accepted by the people.”
Tholal did not wish to comment on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recent critique of the constitution’s provisions for flogging and mono-religious practice.
Calling for a more concerted media effort, Tholal said media is one of the most important factors for establishing a stable human rights framework. He criticised local media outlets for endorsing only a fraction of the rights issue.
“A lot more focus is placed on civil and political rights in the media, as opposed to social, economic and basic human rights,” he said, emphasizing that women and children are significantly under-represented. “Some media outlets, whether deliberately or inadvertently, have programs which impinge on the rights of women and rights, such as the right to work. In this environment, we need to focus on what is really crucial to people–like social rights.”
Earlier this year, a UNDP study found that gender equality is an area of development in which the country is lagging behind most.
HRCM will hold a media training program later this year.
Keeping the beat
After last year’s launch, the “Did You Know?” campaign aimed to tour Male’, Vilingili, Hulhumale, and the capital islands. “We exceeded expectations and reached 80 islands in 20 atolls,” said Aminath. “But we realized that it was just not possible to reach all the islands with the small number of volunteers we had.”
Aminath said the next phase of the campaign training approximately 10 NGOs across the country to providing information on the judicial system to islanders year-round.
“There are two main obstacles: geography, and capacity,” Aminath said. “The island geography makes it difficult for people to learn of and access all parts of the judicial system. And the Maldives has many many civil society groups, but not enough people to do the work.”
A UNDP report earlier this year found that although the civil society sector is impressive in size, it lacks efficiency and organisation. Aminath said collaborating with NGOs would support both the campaign’s purpose and the NGOs’ interest in capacity building.
Aminath said islanders are often aware of their rights, but that Maldivian culture is not traditionally litigal.
“People are used to talking and solving the problems that way. Going to court is a process, and if you appeal you have to go Male’ which takes time and money. There needs to be someone in the islands telling people how they can proceed with a complaint,” she said.
Plans to develop a mobile high court are indefinite.
This year’s event was widely attended by families and youth who enjoyed the activities, free candy, and social milling. Most booths were hosted either fully or in part by young people eagerly offering pamphlets.
Aminath said the UN strives to involve youth in most activities, and that they are the backbone to the “Did You Know?” campaign.
“Most of my volunteers are ages 19 to 30, and they’re an excellent group. They came on all 80 island trips this year. They also represent a real cross section of civil service, coming from the courts, the prosecutor general’s office, the police and other parts of society,” she said. “I couldn’t do these kinds of events without their support.”
At UNDP’s Democracy Day ceremony earlier this year, a study observed that youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives. Currently, youth ages 18 to 25 comprise nearly half of the country’s population.