The Rt. Hon. The Lord Naseby, Honourable Members, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
I wish to thank the Right Honourable The Lord Naseby, the Chairperson of the All Party Parliament Group on the Maldives, for inviting me and the members of my delegation to this wonderful gathering, and for the kind sentiments that were expressed about me just now.
I would also like to thank all of you here for taking the time to attend today’s reception. The relationship between Great Britain and the Maldives has always been marked by warmth, shared values and friendship, and it gives me great pleasure to see so many friends here today.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The highlight of my current visit will of course be the honour and privilege of meeting, once again, Her Majesty the Queen tomorrow.
I have taken the opportunity of my visit to make two keynote speeches on issues that I consider to be of great importance to both the United Kingdom and the Maldives, and indeed to the wider world.
On Monday, I spoke on Islam and tolerance at Oxford University’s Centre for Islamic Studies. I used the occasion to stress my belief that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance; not a religion of violence or hate as some would have us think. Only by promoting understanding and tolerance between different religions and communities can we hope to solve many of the difficult problems we face today.
Then, yesterday, I addressed the Royal Commonwealth Society on the question “Is there a Right to a Safe Environment?” This speech reviewed the recent history of efforts to highlight and respond to the threat of climate change, and suggested that every human being has an inalienable right to live in a safe and sustainable environment. The consequences of climate change – and from the Maldives viewpoint, I especially refer to sea-level rise – represent, I argued, a direct challenge to that right.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am delighted to say that the UK-Maldives ties have been further strengthened in recent years in many areas. Our friendship of course dates back many decades, and relations have been supplemented by exchanges in areas such as tourism, trade, investment and development cooperation.
Tourism continues to represent the lifeblood of the Maldives economy, and every year we welcome tens of thousands of Britons eager to escape the traditional British weather! Turning to academia, many of our most talented youngsters choose the UK for their higher education. And I certainly cannot leave here today without drawing particular attention to the extraordinary generosity extended to us by the British people in the aftermath of the December 2004 Tsunami. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the gratitude of the people and Government of the Maldives for your help and support, which I assure you continues to be deeply appreciated by all our people.
Britain’s continued interest in and engagement with our democratic reform agenda has also brought the two countries closer together. It has been a source of great encouragement to us. The Westminster House talks of last year between the Government and the opposition MDP, facilitated by the British High Commissioner to the Maldives, were a clear demonstration of our constructive bilateral engagement.
Reforms are being implemented in all aspects of governance, the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the criminal justice system, the civil service and the media. What many countries had achieved over the course of decades or even centuries is being introduced in the Maldives in only a handful of years.
Despite this ambitious timetable, much progress has already been made. In just three years, the reform agenda has transformed the political landscape of the Maldives. The introduction of political parties for the first time in our history, a free press, stronger human rights standards and independent oversight mechanisms are among the many reforms already in place as part of the wider reform agenda.
I am pleased to say that the centrepiece of the agenda – the work of the People’s Special Majlis to revise the Constitution – is also moving ahead well. The decision of the Special Majlis to finalise the new Constitution by 30 November of this year, has added further vigour to the process. The challenge ahead is, therefore, to complete the electoral reform and civic and voter education process, before holding the country’s first multiparty election in the final quarter of 2008.
A key priority of the reform agenda in the Maldives is to increase transparency and accountability, and indeed the agenda itself is being implemented with a high degree of openness and dialogue. The support and assistance of our many stakeholders, including the international community, feature as great strengths of the reform agenda.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Modern democracy can only be introduced with strong human rights safeguards. This reality underpins our reform agenda.
An independent national Human Rights Commission that prescribes to the UN’s Paris Principles has been established. We have also recently become a party to the UN’s core human rights treaties, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). As a consequence, the rights of all Maldivians are now guaranteed through international as well as domestic law. I am also proud to say that the Maldives was among the first twenty State Parties to the new Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture which allows independent UN inspections of our places of detention. The Maldives was also the first country in Asia to ratify the Protocol.
Moreover, I am happy to say that the Maldives Government is one of only 56 around the world to have extended a standing invitation to all UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs to make country visit as and when they wish. Such visits open a country to regular and detailed scrutiny of its human rights performance, and we are pleased to note that two special rapporteurs have already visited the Maldives and have presented their reports to the UN’s Human Rights Council. Both praised the Maldives for its open and constructive attitude.
Mindful that conventions need honouring and recommendations need implementing, the Government has also engaged with international organisations and NGOs to build capacity and develop expertise. In addition to NGO workshops on torture prevention, Commonwealth training on policing and human rights, and UN workshops on Treaty reporting, I am pleased to announce today that later this week, the first ever dedicated United Nations Human Rights Advisor will arrive in the Maldives to take up his new post.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The 2004 tsunami disaster left a trail of destruction, misery and suffering nationwide. On overall national impact, none of the tsunami-affected countries had to suffer the same extent of damage as did the Maldives. We lost 108 lives, and nearly 7% of the population was left displaced. The destruction was estimated at 62% of the GDP.
Two and a half years into the recovery programme, a lot has been achieved. However, much remains to be done.
The biggest obstacle to the recovery programme is the substantial funding shortfall that still remains in key aspects of recovery, in particular, in the areas of repair and reconstruction of housing, transportation, water and sanitation and environmental mitigation. The funding gap now stands at around US$ 75 million. I wish to take this opportunity to call on our friends in the UK to continue their support and assistance towards the post-tsunami recovery programme in the Maldives.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The progress in the democratic reform work owes much to the promising social and economic development of the country over the past quarter century. We are today on the verge of graduation from the list of Least Developed Countries and we are on course, despite the Tsunami, to meet many if not all of the Millennium Development Goals.
These are exciting times indeed for the Maldives. We are consolidating our economic and social development, while introducing a modern democratic system. Through these mutually supporting pillars, we aim to establish a peaceful, prosperous and just society for all Maldivians. The Maldives Government is determined to complete the journey towards this goal; and we are equally convinced that our friends in the United Kingdom have an important role to play in helping us along the road.