Men and women wave in Maldives. Photo by: Mauroof Khaleel / Presidency Maldives / CC BY-NC

The Maldives has sacrificed economic development support and its representation at key global negotiations by withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat has warned.

Speaking exclusively to Devex in late November 2016, following the country’s decision to leave the intergovernmental organization of now 52 member states, a spokesman said all developmental assistance offered to Maldivians had ceased, and it would no longer be able to represent the country’s needs within international forums such as the Group of 20.

The nation of almost 1,200 small islands has been a development success story for the past three decades, according to the World Bank. Now categorized as a middle-income country, in the early 1980s it was among the world’s 20 poorest nations. Poverty rates have fallen from 40 percent in 1997 to 28 percent in 2004, and it met the Millennium Development Goals to achieve universal primary education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

However, in recent years the country has experienced political turmoil following the resignation of its first democratically elected leader Mohamed Nasheed in 2012, who claimed he was forced to leave office at gunpoint. Local and international organizations such as Amnesty International have reported widespread human rights abuses across the nation. The country’s low-lying position and other factors, such as increases in sea temperature, put it at risk to the threats of climate change and threaten economic development.

The spokesman for the Commonwealth Secretariat, which is led by Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, said the organization had been “actively engaged with Maldives for many years as we sought to advance and champion Commonwealth values including a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” The Maldives joined the commonwealth in 1982.

The secretariat provided developmental assistance through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, which supports member states by sending long- and short-term experts to countries, delivering capacity building activities, and undertaking research and feasibility studies.

Such assistance had been worth 1.85 pounds ($2.31) for every 1 pound the Maldives contributed toward the fund between 2011 and 2016, the spokesman said. Every member of the Commonwealth contributes funds to the body. Projects had included debt management support, capacity building for the judiciary and prosecutors, and providing education and training for a human rights commission, young people and parliamentarians.

In 2013 the Commonwealth Secretariat produced a pan-Commonwealth framework on professional standards for teachers and school leaders after consulting experts across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Maldives government used this framework to develop a national framework for professional standards in education.

More recently the Commonwealth has been focused on strengthening multiparty democracy in the nation, in preparation for presidential elections in 2018. In an effort to tackle human rights abuses, in February the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group called on the Maldives government to release detained political leaders and to allow the return of other leaders from abroad. In September, after a lack of progress, the same group said it was considering suspending the Maldives from the Commonwealth.

Finally on Oct. 13 the Maldives government issued a statement announcing its decision to leave the Commonwealth, saying the organization had treated the country “unjustly and unfairly.”

“The majority of the Commonwealth’s 52 member states are small or developing countries,” explained the spokesman. “One of our major areas of focus is to champion their needs and give a voice to their concerns in forums such as the G-20, global trade negotiations and climate talks.

“Sadly the Commonwealth will now no longer be able to advocate directly for Maldives as it does for other small states, for example on challenges such as vulnerability to financial shocks and climate change.”

The country will also no longer participate in the Commonwealth biennial heads of government meetings or ministerial meetings in finance, health, education, law, and youth, among other areas. It also relinquished its participation in 80 intergovernmental, civil society and professional organizations, including the sporting event the Commonwealth Games.

Writing in the U.K. newspaper The Independent, the Maldives’ minister of foreign affairs Mohamed Asim denied the Commonwealth’s contribution to its development was significant. “Its budget has shrunk year-on-year, meaning programs to improve governance or increase development have fallen by the wayside,” he said.

But some local organizations criticized the decision. Maldivian Democracy Network Executive Director Shahindha Ismail, a local human rights NGO, raised fears of losing Commonwealth scholarships. She tweeted: “The government fails our youth again. What of the scholarships awarded for Commonwealth member states? Not everyone is privileged. #Maldives.”

Champa Patel, Amnesty International South Asia director, called for the government to “address their own human rights situation rather than lash out at legitimate criticism.”

“Human rights have been in a complete freefall in the country over the past few years,” she continued. “The government has locked up opponents through politically motivated trials and led an unprecedented crackdown on independent media. Authorities have also threatened to end a decadeslong moratorium on the death penalty and carry out the first executions in more than 60 years.

“Instead of complaining about unfair treatment, the Maldives government should look at engaging more constructively with the international community.”

Scotland, the Commonwealth secretary-general, said she felt “sadness and disappointment” about the decision, and hoped it would be a “temporary separation.”

Devex contacted the Maldives’ government for a response to concerns about how the decision would affect its development prospects, but did not receive an answer.

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    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.