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Ahmed Saleem, Maldives HRC

December 2007: Meet the man who heads up the most recent member institution of the APF.

December 2007: Meet the man who heads up the most recent member institution of the APF.

“Human rights and democracy are two sides of the same coin,” says Mr Ahmed Saleem, who has led the Maldives Human Rights Commission since its establishment in 2003.

“Our country is currently going through a profound transformation to full democracy and that’s why I believe the work of the human rights commission is so critical.”

An important part of this process is to build community awareness and understanding of human rights – a daunting challenge in a population scattered across 200 islands.

A baseline survey conducted by the MHRC in 2006 found that more than 40 per cent of people could not name a single human right. The survey also identified gender-based violence and child abuse as major human rights challenges.

“Many women thought it was acceptable to be disciplined by a man if they disobeyed their husband. These are some of the attitudes we need to address,” says Mr Saleem.

In addition to its community-awareness programs, the MHRC has also recently hosted a training program for police and government officials on torture prevention, run by the APF in partnership with the Association for the Prevention of Torture.

“There has been a culture of brutality in the Maldives, but this is changing. Creating awareness of human rights principles among institutions like the police is an important step. We need to start building a new culture of respect in these institutions – respect for people and respect for human rights,” says Mr Saleem.

In September the MHRC was admitted as an Associate Member of the APF, following the passage of the Human Rights Commission Act in August 2006.

“The reason we couldn’t become a full member of the APF is because of a particular clause in our founding legislation which says that a member of the Commission must be a Muslim.

“Our legislation is very strong and we are very independent from government and I believe that including this clause was not intended to discriminate, as all Maldivians are Muslims. However, it means we can’t become a full member of the APF, or other international bodies, and this undermines our credibility.”

When Mr Saleem raised this issue publicly in October he was criticised by the ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party for offending the Islamic sensitivities of Maldivians. (See news article from Haveeru Online, 16 October 2007.)

Mr Saleem, a former diplomat, says he is unconcerned by the criticism he receives.

“I have been attacked by the government. I’ve been attacked by the opposition,” he says. “I think this means I must be doing something right,” he said.

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