Last week, I took part in a panel discussion about the intimidation of bloggers in South Asia on the sidelines of the 30th UNHRC regular session in Geneva.
I spoke about the enforced disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the #FindMoyameehaa campaign. I highlighted rapidly deteriorating space for free speech in the Maldives that has accompanied the collapse of democracy.
The panel was organized by NGOs Forum-ASIA, IFEX and APC, and the audience comprised of representatives of diplomatic missions and civil society organizations. After the panel concluded, I also had individual meetings with representatives from various Geneva based missions and NGOs.
They listened patiently to every word we spoke – and expressed concern and shock and support. Many had attended another panel event the day before, organized by Amnesty International, where lawyer Amal Clooney and others spoke about President Nasheed’s incarceration and the absence of rule of law in the Maldives.
The subject of our panel discussion was not hypothetical to me or my fellow panelists. The threat faced by dissident bloggers in the region is real. I have lost actual friends to this. My fellow panelists have faced this violence up close.
In fact, for security reasons, the organizers didn’t mention the names of the bloggers on the event flyers – to safeguard their identity ahead of the event. The actual discussion was off the record, and the audience was urged to not to photograph or record the event.
And yet, sitting there in the heart of the UN HRC establishment, surrounded by men in suits, I was not sure whether the human cost and suffering truly registered in the minds of the diplomats seemingly preoccupied with protocols, semantics and agenda items.
When I spoke about death threats that we face daily, and the regime’s attempts to thwart attempts to find my abducted friend – I was not really seeking assurances from them “to consult with stakeholders and push to include some language to that effect in a draft proposal for an upcoming resolution where key items relevant to FoE will be sent for deliberations”.
What I really wanted was for the culture of impunity in the Maldives – and the region – to be confronted and dealt with. But while, on the ground, websites were being blocked, TV stations were being firebombed, and bloggers were being forcibly disappeared or hacked to death, I simply didn’t quite sense the urgency there in the halls of power.
In between meetings, we walked around a bit.
The security melted away before my fancy accreditation badge, and I was able to walk unhindered right into the famous Room XX at the Palais des Nations where the HRC session was in progress.
Inside, diplomats spoke into microphones in a dozen languages in the plush, state-of-the-art conference room.
Above them, colourful stalactites of brilliant hues were hanging from the iconic, multi-million dollar domed ceiling designed by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.
Afterwards, I too floated about in my blazer and tie through a sea of men in suits sitting in a comfortable lounge filled with sunlight, discussing undoubtedly important matters.
Outside the large windows, one could see immaculate green lawns and a beautifully landscaped garden with a view of a lake.
There were peacocks strutting around among the plants, shimmering in the bright sun.
While endless negotiations over language and protocol continued here in the safety and serenity of the Palais des Nations, I would fly back to Malé the next evening; back to wondering who would be the next writer/lawyer/human rights activist to get stabbed/murdered/disappeared.
Inaction and the Maldives UPR
Today, I watched the the Maldives UPR adoption.
In his opening remarks, the Maldives regime Foreign Secretary Dr. Ali Naseer Mohamed straightaway declared that the Maldives would reject recommendations from member states regarding freedom of religion and LGBT rights for being “contrary to Islamic values”.
He then made some preposterous (and blatantly false-) claims about a “publicly announced and transparently conducted” process to appoint new members of the Human Rights Commission – a body whose independence was already shredded earlier by an 11 point “guidelines” issued by the regime controlled Supreme Court.
After months of bad press, international coverage of human rights violations and kangaroo court trials of political opponents, one would expect that the Maldives would be taken to task by the international community.
Instead, over a dozen states spoke, each praising the Maldives for the “progress” it has allegedly made in “human rights” and social development.
Among the states applauding the Maldives were such champions of human rights as China and Egypt.
Only Belgium managed to expressed concern about the Maldives regime’s determination to end a long standing moratorium against the death penalty, and its eagerness to legally execute children under the age of 18.
Speaking after the member states, Geneva-based NGO UN Watch condemned the political trials of opposition members, and unlawful incarceration of the Maldives first (and only) ever democratically elected President Nasheed. They also mentioned the regime secretly eavesdropping on President Nasheed’s meeting with his attorneys.
Forum-ASIA spoke about the attacks on media with complete impunity. They highlighted the case of enforced disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, saying:
“While failing to conduct a credible investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance, the police have attempted to thwart demands for accountability as demonstrated by the violent crackdown on the rally that marked one year of his disappearance”
Other NGOs too uniformly condemned the Maldives regime, highlighting gross injustices, women’s rights issues and severe problems with the Maldives judiciary.
All their concerns were duly entered into the record. The session came to a close. The UPR report was adopted unanimously. The men in suits all congratulated each other on a job well done and, presumably, went on to other important agenda items, or perhaps closed-room deliberations on the specific language of some working draft on some resolution.
While the important men and women in Geneva attended briefings, and read dossiers, and wrote up reports, I was left wondering how any of this translated to change on the ground.
Speaking earlier during the panel discussion, I told the gathered stakeholders that the Maldives dictatorship essentially counted on the international community to continue to fail to act – just as it had failed to act after the 2012 coup that toppled the democratic government, and again after the very shameful 2013 undermining of the elections by the police and supreme court.
If the international community couldn’t influence positive change in a tiny country like the Maldives that is actually dependent on them for even drinking water, what hope does it have to fix anything anywhere else in the world?
Meeting some heroes
Watching the UPR report being adopted today, I wondered if traveling across time zones to speak to these diplomats was a waste of time and effort.
I console myself with the knowledge that I did meet some brave people from this troubled region, whose fiery courage I thought contrasted deeply with the dull proceedings around me.
Joining me on the panel was Bonya Ahmed, wife of murdered Bangladeshi American blogger Avijit Roy. She suffered horrific injuries in the cowardly attack that took her husband’s life in February this year, but she continues to remain defiant. I doubt I will ever find the words to truly do justice to her endless reservoir of courage and spirit.
Also on the panel was Pakistani activist Gulalai Ismail, who started her organization at the tender age of 16, and has dedicated most of her life to women’s causes despite serious intimidation.
She too remains steadfast in her desire to fix the world, despite harrowing episodes like gunmen turning up at her house while her family members were inside.
I also had the pleasure to meet Shahzad Ahmad, who works to counter the difficult internet freedom situation in Pakistan.
I am honoured to have met and spoke to some of the finest, most courageous people in existence. These are people who fight against overwhelming odds in the face of dire threats – willing to sacrifice their lives to remedy the failures of those in power.
Today, I am haunted by a dreadful thought: perhaps we’re ultimately doomed to a world where writers and human rights defenders have to forever risk their lives and personal safety to fix things on the ground, while faraway in Geneva and New York and in countless capitals and conference rooms around the world, leaders and envoys and diplomats sit and deliberate over whether, in fact, it will ever be the right time to act.