Holidaymakers warned of paradises lost

Travellers may not realise that their summer destinations are also hotspots of human rights violations, warns Amnesty International
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The Independent Travel

Next time you are lying on a beach in, say, the Maldive Islands or Turkey's Dalmatian coast, slapping on suntan lotion, spare a thought for Mohammed Nasheed and Eren Keskin.

Mr Nasheed, a writer and pro-reform member of the Maldives parliament, was arrested two years ago and held incommunicado in an underground cell for eight weeks before, in a two-hour trial, being banished to a remote atoll on charges of theft of unspecified government property.

Mr Keskin, a Turkish lawyer and human rights activist who has attempted to expose the torture of women prisoners, has received numerous death threats, been assaulted by a police officer, arbitrarily detained and eventually charged, in one trial, with "insulting the state security forces".

It is cases such as theirs that Amnesty International wants tourists to be aware of when they are planning breaks. The ethical tourist, they say, should be as concerned about the rights afforded to local people as they are about environmental issues. In a report out today, Amnesty details serious allegations against the government of the Maldives, often seen as the archetypal tropical paradise, a favoured destination of the international jet-set and once-in-a-lifetime honeymooners. Behind that façade, says Amnesty, there is scant regard for human rights.

But Amnesty stresses that it is not only the Maldives where our consciences should be disturbed: the records of several other favourite holiday destinations for Britons, such as Turkey, Jamaica and Thailand, are full of claims of state- sponsored brutality, the use of the death penalty and corrupt law enforcement.

Amnesty and other organisations, such as Tourism Concern, which promotes ethical or "fair" tourism, reject the idea that they should ask people not to visit countries that have poor human rights or environmental records. With only one exception - Burma - they say people should be made aware of the concerns and then left to make their own minds up.

Similarly, they are deeply reluctant to name any countries that might be considered a politically correct destination for the ethical tourist, citing places such as the Solomon Islands, once considered a typical Pacific paradise but now a hotbed of tribal warfare and illegal weapons. Even the UK, they point out, has not escaped criticism - ethical tourists from overseas may choose to avoid Britain because of its overcrowded jails, treatment of asylum-seekers or the war on Iraq.

"We are not saying people shouldn't go to a country but that they should go with their eyes open,'' says Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty. "The responsible traveller should acquaint themselves with the human rights situation of their chosen destination, checking, for example, on whether it is a safe place to openly express your religious or political views.

"Discovering through research, or even during your visit, that local people's basic human rights are breached could act as a spur to making a difference in the future.''

Sue Wheat, of Tourism Concern, which has recently campaigned to end the exploitation of poorly paid guides who help Western trekkers in Nepal, added: "It has to be a personal decision. For instance, some people might not want to visit the United States at the moment because of Iraq. A lot of people are dependent on tourism and by not going it is not usually the government that is punished but those most in need of assistance.''

The exception is Burma, which Tourism Concern asks people not to visit because of a request from the elected government - which the military junta has not allowed to take office. Burma is also considered unique in that it has used slave labour to develop its tourist infrastructure. But even Amnesty does not specifically request people not to visit.

While the case of Burma is well known to any self- respecting ethical tourist, it is the revelations about countries such as the Maldives that are likely to make many Britons pause for thought when picking their dream holiday.

The Maldives gained independence from Britain in 1965. A moderate Muslim state with a form of sharia law (no death penalty, no stonings and no amputations), it has been a member of the Commonwealth since 1985 but is, in essence, a one-party state very far from guaranteeing freedom of expression to all its people. The President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who took office in 1978 and is serving his fifth consecutive term, is elected (unopposed) by the legislature and heads both the executive and the judiciary.

Members of the Majlis, or parliament, are elected as independents, generally unopposed. There are no political parties, despite laws passed that permits them to exist. Even now, those who have tried to form a political party have found themselves hauled before the courts for other, generally spurious, offences.

According to Amnesty, when individuals come to the attention of the authorities, by voicing criticism of the authorities, for instance; by alleging official corruption, or trying to exercise their right to engage in party-political activity, they find themselves in a dark, labyrinthine world about as far as can be imagined from the blue skies and white beaches of the holiday brochures.

One form of ill-treatment entails being forced to stand on a chair with a coconut in either hand; another is being chained to a palm tree for hours on end. Those detained for political reasons find themselves without the right to legal representation; not informed of the charges against them or the date of their trial; refused access to all legal documents or even of pen and paper on which to record their defence, or their intention to appeal.

Amnesty's report has come at a critical point when the question of ethical tourism is moving from the margins to become a more central concern - mirroring the way in which, for instance, organic food now occupies a much larger space on supermarket shelves than it did only a few years ago.

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), which represents the mainstream tourism industry, acknowledges that ethical concerns have to be addressed: "Tourists should do a lot of research, find out the issues that affect locals and be aware of any activities they might become involved in which might be problematic.''

Later this year, Abta is launching the Travel Foundation, a scheme in which companies such as Thomas Cook or First Choice fund ethically responsible projects in host countries. Projects already supported include helping local craftsmen, guides and fruit-sellers in the Gambia to benefit from tourism and, in Cyprus, help introduce day trips to neglected rural areas to help improve the local economy.

Even the Foreign Office now urges Britons to respect local culture and customs, and indicates a concern for environmental issues - protecting coral reefs, for example. However, it has nothing to say about the plight of Mohammed Nasheed.

SO WHERE TO GO?

AUSTRALIA

Picture-postcard beaches, lush rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef lure tourists to the humid tropics of Queensland. (although their itineraries rarely include Townsville, recently dubbed the country's most racist city due to a string of violent attacks on Aborigines)

CANADA

Vast, open spaces and a healthy, outdoor lifestyle attract hordes of tourists. (Although many may not feel quite so at ease with the country's controversial stance on growing vast quantities of cross-contaminated GM crops)

SWITZERLAND

A country famous for the healing properties of its clean mountain air. (Unfortunately, it is also the homeland of Nestlé, a company that is not universally admired for its marketing policies in the Third World, and secretive bank accounts that look after the money of questionable customers)

NORWAY

Its pristine fjords, clean air and remoteness attract nature-lovers. The cultured, inhabitants also speak impeccable English.

(But its Eurovision song contest entries have been lamentable)

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