Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gayoom: the biggest threat to human rights and the environment

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is in a marketing overdrive not only to sell himself to the Maldives electorate for a staggering 7th term in office, but also to the committee that will award the coveted Nobel Peace Prize this year. After causing 30 years of human rights abuse and environmental degradation, Asia’s longest serving dictator is now demanding international acclaim for what he and his family regard as exceptional contribution to the advancement of the environmental cause and human rights.

Maldivians will find it incredulous that the Nobel committee can even consider Gayoom for the prize but there is reasonable ground to believe that they actually might laureate the dictator. Firstly, Gayoom’s foreign ministry team, headed by his daughter Dunya Maumoon, is arguing that it was Gayoom who introduced the idea of environmental rights as a human right to the world, and this concept has been gaining support among international developmental circles. Secondly, the Nobel Peace Prize has never been awarded to anyone in South Asian, a region comprising a sixth of the world’s population, and the organisors may well want to broaden laureates geographically. With co-ordinated effort by the foreign ministry, unscrupulous diplomats in South Asia, and perhaps even a Maldivian environmental NGO hastily put together for the purpose getting Gayoom laureated, the prospect does not seem so inconceivable after all.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the 1980s embraced the environmental buzz sweeping the world, not really taking it to heart but regarding it as a means of earning international praise and aid, most of which is said to have been pocketed by his buddies with whom he ran the country.

Gayoom’s development policy has never in three decades ever seriously considered environmental impacts. For example, he has dynamited the fragile coral reefs of most of the country’s 200 inhabited island to build artificial harbours, and carried out dredging to reclaim land for the growing population. Gayoom also has a habit of building expensive artificial islands to move the population when there are several large island villages with perfect natural harbours. And, the dictator has resisted calls to protect threatened marine species such as sharks; shark teeth, for instance, are still allowed to be sold in souvenir shops even though ordinary Maldivians have long protested.

Moreover, Gayoom owns a fleet of 30-50 vehicles on the two-square kilometer capital of Male, as well as several speed boats for his personal transport, and can accurately be described as the biggest polluter in the Maldives.

In an article published in the International Herald Tribune Gayoom goes to lengths to market himself as a champion of the environment, deriding world leaders for appearing content to allow countries like the Maldives to disappear beneath the waves, while they continue to make a deeply unethical trade-off between human lives and rights on one hand, and economic growth.” Gayoom, while criticising others, fails to realize the neglect by his own government in three decades to meet the basic needs of his people. As much as 60 percent of the Maldivian population has no access to adequate sewage disposal or, indeed, safe drinking water.

When the 2004 tsunami struck the Maldives the dictator downplayed its impacts on national radio and TV without checking on the plight of the people first. Later, when it emerged that several islands, most of which had had its reefs dynamited by Gayoom, were irreparably damaged, he used the worst natural disaster in the country’s living memory to get unprecedented foreign aid. Four years later, nobody has a clue where all the money went but most of the displaced tsunami victims are still in shoddy temporary shelters.

Gayoom’s human rights record is even worse. Ahmed Shafeeg, a respected historian who was jailed and tortured by Gayoom for writing unsavoury comments about him in a personal diary and sharing them with friends, estimates that the deaths of more than 100 people may have been caused by the regime. There are several well-documented cases of prisoner abuse, far more shocking than anything that ever emerged out of Quantanamo, in what can only be described as a culture of torture. As head of police Gayoom knew of the abuse and, indeed, may even have ordered it to force would-be opponents into submission.

One of the earliest opponents of Gayoom, Ahmed Adam, the dictator’s classmate in Egypt, died from years of torture. Madulu Ahmed Waheed, a brilliant writer of the now banned “Hukuru” magazine, which openly criticized Gayoom in the 1990s, didn’t die , but years of abuse in police custody and prison has reduced him to a state of autism. Today, Waheed can be seen walking on the streets of Male, mostly in Machchangolhi, seemingly unresponsive to anyone or anything.

The 2004 beating to death of Hassan Evan Naseem by Gayoom’s police and the point-blank shooting of unarmed prisoners who protested against the murder are also well-documented. Custodial deaths have been happening even as late as 2007, but inquiry by the shameful human rights commission, which comprises of Gayoom’s friends who pretend to be independent, have always cleared the dictator and his regime of wrong-doing. Of the members of the presidential commission which investigated the murder of Evan Naseem and others in prison, Aishath Mohamed Didi and Mohamed Nasheed were silenced with ministerial posts. At present they are the most fervent defenders of Gayoom.

Instead of buying Gayoom’s paltry propaganda, the international community should be helping Maldivians send Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to Hague, for crimes against humanity.

If you’re as outraged as I am about Gayoom’s nomination for the Nobel Peace prize, write to Professor Gair Lundestad, Director, Norwegian Nobel Institute. His email is

You may also want to sign a petition against the nomination