In an exclusive interaction with the UNODC Regional Office for South Asia's Samarth Pathak, the Ambassador of the Maldives to India , Ahmed Mohamed, reflects on the key security challenges facing the region today, and calls for stronger regional coordination among SAARC nations to curb extremism and the drug menace.
Q: As the Ambassador of the Maldives to India, please share your thoughts on the key highlights and trends in your country's relations with South Asian countries?
Ambassador Mohamed: The relationship we have with South Asian countries, that is, the seven SAARC countries, is friendly and cordial. With India, the relationship is more than that. It is not only diplomatic relations that exist between us since the past 50 years, but the socio-cultural bond that has existed from times immemorial. History shows that for centuries, there have been strong trade and cultural links between the peoples of both countries.
India is one of our closest neighbours, and being the most resourceful and largest country in the SAARC region, has the potential to assist other countries in their development needs and help in times of disaster management and emergencies. India has always been the first to respond to disaster situations in the Maldives, whether it was the 1998 terrorist attack to overthrow the government of the Maldives, the 2004-2005 Asian Tsunami or even recently, the 2012 water crisis. The India-Maldives relationship is very special and will remain so in the years to come.
Q: From the standpoint of Maldives, what are the key security challenges for the region and the world today?
Ambassador Mohamed: I think the key security challenges would be terrorism, extremism and drug use. The underlying impact of drug use is multidimensional, because it directly contributes to violence, crime and extremism. Drug use is the mother of all crimes and is connected to various other menaces in the society. Like many other countries in the region and beyond the region, these issues pose serious challenges for the Maldives.
These challenges are also related to the geographical nature of the country itself. You would understand that the Maldives is an archipelagic state with many islands. It is small not only in terms of its size but also in terms of its population. We have small pockets of population dispersed in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and the entire country is surrounded by the sea. This means our borders are quite porous, and keeping checks or security posts at every point is almost next to impossible. The Maldives also sits on a couple of important international trade routes, which has its own repercussions. The inherent vulnerabilities of small island developing states exist in the Maldives: in terms of unit cost of providing services, in terms of quick delivery of services, and in terms of the porous nature of its borders. I am sure UNODC would understand these challenges in greater depth, because it has been undertaking surveys and conducting studies.
Q: How serious a challenge is drug use for the Maldives? How is the Maldives addressing this challenge in terms of policy interventions and in terms of cooperation with other countries in the region?
Ambassador Mohamed: The drug user survey that was conducted by UNODC in the Maldives in 2011-2012 gives a very true picture of the status quo in terms of drug use. The issue in Maldives is that there are a number of youth who are trapped in drug use, and a large cohort of the population is also the youth. This is a difficult challenge to address. One aspect of addressing the drug issue is through interdiction, but I have already explained how difficult it is due to the geographical nature of the Maldives. Then there are rehabilitation programs: we have been undertaking rehabilitation programs to reintegrate people back to the society. I think that has been the main policy of the government. We have a Drug Act, which provides for rehabilitation. Under this act, we have also established a special drug court in Maldives to deal with cases of drug use, and if people voluntarily opt for rehabilitation, they are never criminalised. But how successful such drug rehabilitation programmes are, is a matter of debate not only in the Maldives but the world over.
We are a small developing state, so the amount of resources we can actually allocate to combating drug use after taking into account other socio-economic needs and priorities, is a challenge. This is always a balancing act, not only for us but for richer countries as well.
With regard to drug trafficking, we have robust intelligence sharing arrangements with a lot of countries within and beyond the region. Representatives from the Maldives police, the security forces, immigration, the drug agency, the customs, and the education and the health sectors also meet regularly to review the current action plans that are being implemented to overcome the issue of drug use. The Vice President is the Chairman of the National Council on drugs, and there is a strong coordination between the government and related agencies. However, the effectiveness of these mechanisms needs to be assessed.
Q: From the standpoint of the Maldives, how serious an issue is trafficking in persons? What are some of the interventions that the Maldives has introduced to address this crime?
Ambassador Mohamed: Human trafficking is certainly an issue we identify as a challenge in the Maldives. The Maldives is sometimes used as a transit point for trafficked persons. In December 2013, we ratified a new law on anti-human trafficking, which is specifically on preventing trafficking in persons through and across the Maldives. The other aspects of the law focus on establishing crimes of trafficking in persons and prescribe punishments, promoting and protecting the human rights of the victims themselves and also engaging with local and international NGOs on addressing human trafficking issues. The Maldives also ratified the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol in 2016.
One of the very visible trends regarding human trafficking is in people coming into the Maldives for employment purposes. Our population is small and we import a lot of expatriates for unskilled and skilled work. However, there are various agents, not only within our country but also in other countries, who virtually abuse the vulnerabilities of people and gain monetary benefits from them. For example, what we hear is that some agents charge as much as $25,000-$50,000 from workers coming in for unskilled labour in the Maldives for wages as low as $150-200 a month. The greatest impact of this aspect of trafficking is borne greatly by the unskilled workers.
At the Embassy in New Delhi itself, we receive a number of queries from people asking us to check the genuineness of the employment approval that they have received. We send it on behalf of them to the Maldives Immigration, and strangely, a significant proportion of these employment approvals that are forwarded to us are not genuine! This also shows that something wrong is going on somewhere. This issue may perhaps be addressed through regional coordination and sharing of information between countries. UNODC is also assisting the Government of Maldives to draft a law to counter smuggling of migrants.
Q: How does the Maldives view the current scenario with respect to violent extremism and terrorism in South Asia?
Ambassador Mohamed: As you know, the economy of the Maldives is dependent on tourism. The highest share of our GDP comes from the tourism sector. We are very lucky that we have not had any terrorist attacks in the Maldives so far. But while for some aspects our geographical nature becomes a challenge, for the tourism sector it is a blessing. We have a one island-one resort concept, so we are able to provide, safety, security and privacy for all tourists.
But extremists are innovative, and they can find ways and means to undertake their nefarious activities even in highly sophisticated societies like the West. We must not be complacent about our security just because we feel that we are secure.
It is very important for us to address the issue of extremism through regional coordination, because it will be highly devastating for the economy should an attack take place. In a way, we need to get rid of terrorism for the very survival of the Maldives.
Q: How is the government addressing the issue of radicalisation among the youth and the rise of extremism in the Maldives?
Ambassador Mohamed: One thing very ironic and disturbing is the fact that some people try to make things sensational. For instance, the per capita contribution of the Maldives with regard to terrorism is "x" percent, but the denominator is very small. The base population of Maldives is 3,40,000 people. Yes, we may have higher proportions, but the absolute numbers matter. We agree to the fact that like any other country in the world, we are not free from extremism and radicalisation. It is unfortunate that we have had a high proportion of people who have gone to fight in Syria and other countries. However, the people of the Maldives have always practiced-and continue to practice-moderate Islam.
Not many may know this, but all the sermons in Maldivian mosques by Imams are pre-approved by the Government. No Imam can give a sermon of his own, and no person can give a religious lecture without being certified by the Government. Even the Imams of mosques are certified by the government. This is something we have been doing for many decades, traditionally and culturally. These are some positive aspects that still exist within our society and are good opportunities we need to embark on to address the extremist issues.
The most important thing is intelligence sharing. We have established similar mechanisms for sharing of information between partners around the world. Last year, we established the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), which is under the Ministry of Defence, but represented multi-sectorally by the Maldives police, the Maldives Defence Force and other security agencies. Since the establishment of NCTC, we have held two international conferences in the Maldives, that also gave us the opportunity to learn from the experience of others.
A core challenge in addressing extremism and terrorism is the rehabilitation of those whom we are able to bring back from their bases. We have been successful in doing so through bilateral arrangements with different countries, but we do not have the expertise to ensure whether we can safely release a person in the society after rehabilitation. This is one area where UNODC and other relevant UN organisations could help the Maldives.
There is a need to develop a successful rehabilitation program for radicalised and extremist individuals, like we do for the drug users, to bring them back to the society and the mainstream. However, since these are highly brainwashed people, we must understand how effective these programmes can be and whether there are lessons to be learnt.
Q: What is the Maldives stand on the Rohingya crisis?
Ambassador Mohamed : The Government of the Maldives supports the cause of the Rohingyas and has made its stand very clear. We have severed trade relations with Myanmar, because we feel that the situation is not justified.
We are a small country, with little resources. We are trying to mobilise funds for the refugees and it is a continuous and ongoing process. However small our assistance is, we would like to contribute towards the well-being of the refugees.
Q: The Maldives has been a very valued partner for UNODC South Asia since the last several years. How do you see the relationship between UNODC and the Government of the Maldives growing in the years to come?
Ambassador Mohamed : We value the assistance and contributions of UNODC in addressing crime and drug related issues. When I was in Customs, there were many programs implemented there as well, including projects on drug demand reduction, drug law enforcement and the Container Control Programme (CCP), among others. UNODC has helped the Maldives--there is no doubt about that.
I feel UNODC's physical presence in Maldives would make a lot of difference. Yes, the Maldives is a small country, but the problems are as acute as they may be in any other country. Through this interview, I urge UNODC to make resources available to be physically present in the Maldives and make a difference.
We welcome UNODC to come back to Maldives! Besides drug use, we would also like you to share your expertise and experiences in addressing terrorism and extremism as well.
(Samarth Pathak is a New Delhi-based public advocacy specialist with a keen interest in human rights, international relations, politics and SDGs. His writings have appeared in The Guardian, Reuters Alertnet, Dawn, The Kashmir Times, Hardnews and The Asian Age. Views expressed are personal. Connect on Facebook and Twitter.)