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Thursday March 3, 2011

Diplomatically Speaking By Dennis Ignatius

It’s time to break the silence and stand with those who fight for freedom and justice.

WHAT amazing and momentous days we are living in! How inspiring to see freedom break out and bring down once invincible despots.

The experts did not see it coming. Even the best intelligence agencies were unable to decipher its stirrings. It broke upon the world with a suddenness that continues to surprise us all.

And how contagious it is proving to be: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria, Libya and Oman.

In Sudan, President Al Bashir, perhaps hoping to forestall similar unrest, announced he would not stand for re-election. In Saudi Arabia, the King pledged US$36bil (approximately RM110bil) in social welfare programmes to head off rising public disaffection.

In Zimbabwe, an ever fearful President Robert Mugabe cracked down on people who had simply gathered to discuss events in the Middle East. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister warned against street protests. In China, a nascent pro-democracy move was quickly crushed.

Clearly, a giant is being awakened and the world will never be the same again.

These days of upheaval also speak of the betrayal of democracy by its erstwhile standard bearers.

For decades, Western democracies preached freedom and democracy but unabashedly hobnobbed with despots and happily kept them in power with arms and repressive people-control technologies.

Western governments took their foes to task on human rights but went softly, softly with their friends. “Democracy for our foes, dictatorship for our friends,” appeared to be their dictum.

And so, while people fought and died for freedom on the streets of Cairo, Western leaders mostly held their peace or worse, urged Hosni Mubarak to stay for the sake of stability. The people wanted democracy, the West preferred transition.

They just don’t get it that people are willing to accept temporary chaos if it could end permanent oppression.

Even now, so much of the related discourse in Western capitals seems to imply that Arabs are incapable of democracy. The conclusion is obvious: continued dictatorship, benign if possible, is best for the Arabs.

As well, the West believed their own propaganda about militant Islam to such an extent that it blinded them to other realities. And so, while tens of thousands were shouting “hurriya” (freedom), all they could hear was “Allahu Akbar.”

It’s just a bit much now to see Western leaders rushing around like paragons of virtue, full of concern about human rights, but better late than never. The people on the streets fighting for freedom need all the help they can get right now.

Hopefully, the torch of freedom and democracy is being passed to a new generation in a new heartland.

Arab nationalism was usurped by leaders who brought only dictatorship and decay. The deep faith of the Arab people, on the other hand, was exploited by radicals like Osama bin Laden to launch a jihad of mayhem and murder that hurt Muslims more than anyone else. The mullahs in Iran, for their part, have convincingly put the lie to the notion that theocracies are any better.

Perhaps freedom and democracy, if given a chance, could now restore a proud people to their former greatness. The road ahead will be difficult but not impossible. If they succeed, it might well be their greatest contribution to human civilisation.

Hopefully, out of all this will also come a new global commitment to freedom and democracy with respect for human rights a core conditionality in the conduct of international affairs.

Democratic nations must stand up for democratic values every time, everywhere and not barter them away for private advantage. Those who find common cause with tyrants must share the blame for oppression and abuse.

Leaders who abuse their own people and deny them the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the UN Human Rights Declaration must be shunned internationally, regardless of what else they do or don’t do.

They must also be personally sanctioned, their assets frozen and their ill-gotten gains rejected by banks and businesses alike, not after they leave office but when they are still in power.

They should certainly never again be rewarded with a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, as Colonel Gaddafi was.

The Arab League, in a welcome development, has now suspended Libya from its councils. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference must likewise live up to its moral responsibility.

It’s time Islamic nations put human rights in the forefront of their agenda.

Malaysia, too, needs to rise to the occasion. We take pride in being a democracy and offer ourselves as a model for the Islamic and developing world but we don’t always live up to it.

We protest loudly when the West fails to act quickly enough to stop the slaughter of Muslims (e.g. in the former Yugoslavia) but we keep silent when Muslims die at the hands of their own leaders.

It’s time to break the silence and stand with those who fight for freedom and justice. If we are not with them, we are against them!