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Some weeks ago, ambassador Mohd Arshad Hussain, our representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was recalled for “consultations” after voting against a resolution that was critical of Iran’s nuclear program.

From what we now know, the government had apparently committed itself to supporting the emerging international consensus to censure Iran by either voting in favor of the resolution or. at a minimum, abstaining.Somehow we ended up doing the very opposite we voted against the resolution. Votingin favor of the resolution, or at least abstaining, would have been the right thing to do. Its high time we took a principled stand on such issues rather than blindly allowing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) solidarity to predetermine our vote.

For too long we have allowed our commitment to NAM or OIC solidarity to neutralize our nobler instincts in the face of many horrific human rights abuses (in Zimbabwe and Sudan, for example).The decision by the government to at least abstain on the aforementioned IAEA resolution therefore represented a bold and refreshing break.Unfortunately, this welcome change of policy was overshadowed by the miscast vote and the shoddy way Wisma Putra handled the subsequent fallout. Wisma Putra quickly let it be known that Arshad had not followed procedures. Deputy Foreign Minister A. Kohilan Pillai went as far as to publicly hint that disciplinary action could follow and lamented the damage that had been done by the ambassador’s actions.

The media, perhaps taking its cue from the ministry, also joined in pillorying Arshad. He was called a “maverick”, accused of “misadventure” and of willfully disobeying instructions, and even of pursuing some personal agenda. Never in my 36-year career with the Foreign Service have I seen such a spectacle.It is true that ambassadors are often recalled for consultations but when such recalls are made public, it is always intended to make a point. The question is what signal was Wisma Putra intending to send by publicly shaming one of its own ambassadors? It appears likely that Wisma Putra wanted to indicate, especially to the Americans to whom the Government had given some assurances of a change in policy, that a mistake had been made. Perhaps it was felt that some sort of sacrificial offering was also necessary to mollify the Americans.

Whatever it is, Wisma Putra clearly overreacted and badly mishandled the whole affair. In the process, it also needlessly humiliated a public servant and undermined the important mission entrusted to him. It now seems clear that the miscast vote was really the consequence of a lack of communication and consultation within the ministry.
The change in government policy was apparently not properly communicated to Arshad who continued to faithfully adhere to the long-standing policy of NAM / OIC consensus. Bear in mind that historically, Malaysia has very rarely supported a resolution critical of an OIC member. At worst, Arshad was errant in not anticipating the propensity of some NAM or OIC members to shift their positions at the last minute, and responding appropriately. Arshad has now been allowed to quietly return to Vienna, though it is unclear whether he will resume his normal duties.

By publicly undermining his credibility, Wisma Putra has certainly made it difficult for Arshad to discharge his duties as chairman of the IAEA Board of Governors. Unless the Government quickly exonerates him and reiterates its confidence in him, he will most likely have to step down. The representative of another country is likely to assume the chairmanship. It would be a loss to Malaysia. Incredibly, the ministry continues to insist that the whole affair was “a normal part of diplomatic practice”, as its Dec. 24 statement indicates. If so, I can only conclude that Wisma Putra has forgotten what diplomacy is all about

Wisma Putra has also seen fit to lash out against a commentary in The Star on this matter, suggesting that it was mischievous and somehow even against national interests. Rather than hitting out at the press, or scapegoating others, Wisma Putra should take stock of its own shortcomings and ensure that this kind of fiasco is not repeated. After all, none of this would have happened if Wisma Putra had acted with professionalism in the first place.