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DIPLOMATICALLY SPEAKING By DENNIS IGNATIUS

When bad company and smart partnerships don’t mix

IN recent weeks, Malaysia has once more made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Wisma Putra again saw fit to invite two highly controversial leaders – Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe – to the Langkawi International Dialogue (LID).

Bashir has overseen one of the largest wholesale slaughters of Muslims in recent times. The genocide in Darfur has claimed some 400,000 lives and displaced over 2.7 million people. Thousands of women were raped and entire villages were wiped out.

On March 4, 2009, Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for his crimes against the people of Darfur. A charge of genocide was subsequently added.

As of June this year, the ICC was reporting that war crimes and genocide were still continuing in Darfur.

In her poignant and moving book, Tears of the Desert, Dr Halimah Bashir chronicled the saga of murder and mayhem that befell her people in Darfur. Towards the end of her book as she reflected upon their terrible fate, she asked the question, “Where [was] the Muslim world?”

Indeed, where was Malaysia? Why did we remain silent?

Dr Halimah’s book should be compulsory reading for all our diplomats, it might remind them of the moral consequences of our foreign policy.

When the storm broke over al-Bashir’s attendance at LID, Wisma Putra took the legalistic position that since we were not yet signatories to the ICC convention, we were under no obligation to abide by its rulings. When that did not go down well, it suggested that perhaps it might do some good to engage the man.

The head of a murderous regime should have no place at our conference tables whatever our treaty obligations may be. And the talk of engaging him is a mere chimera.

Wisma Putra has never been known to engage the Sudanese government, or any other Third World regime for that matter, on human rights abuses.

Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi, who visited Darfur in 2007 during his tenure as OIC chairman, for example, said nothing about the mass killing of Dafuris at the hands of his host, al-Bashir.

In a grand gesture, he appointed a special envoy for Darfur but it was obvious from the onset that Darfur was never a serious concern.

Sadly, we have become blind to injustice and human rights abuses in the Third World, holding to a shameful code of silence when it comes to such matters.

Then there’s Mugabe who’s been in power for more than 30 years.

Okay, so there’s no arrest warrant against him, at least not yet, but isn’t his record bad enough? He took a great country and impoverished it by mismanagement, corruption, cronyism, and abuse of power while blaming everyone else for all his country’s problems.

Zimbabwe is today a nation in leg-irons because of this man.

Surely it makes a mockery of the LID process to have a man like Mugabe at the table giving keynote addresses on smart partnerships and good governance. Mugabe’s statement that African nations can learn from Malaysia is laughable given that he himself seems to have learned nothing at all from his long years of participation in the LID process.

If we truly wanted to help the people of Zimbabwe we should have instead invited Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, he at least enjoys popular democratic support at home and may well represent the future of Zimbabwe.

The catchphrase at LID is “smart partnerships”. Surely the most important smart partnership of all is the one between the people and their leaders. Only when it is based on free and fair elections, accountability and respect does peace, progress and stability become sustainable.

This is one of the more obvious lessons that must be learned from the ongoing turmoil in West Asia.

We are only fooling ourselves if we think that simply improving bureaucratic processes or upgrading service delivery is enough. If the LID process is going to make a real difference, it must deal with the more fundamental issues of democratic governance.

Senior government leaders themselves are now questioning Wisma Putra’s approach on such issues.

Breaking with consensus, both Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, and Khairy Jamaluddin, the Umno Youth chief, publicly challenged the decision to invite al-Bashir and Mugabe to this year’s meetings.

Nazri’s comments may have been directly responsible for the cancellation of al-Bashir’s visit.

It is a grand day for Malaysia, and for freedom everywhere, when despots and dictators like al-Bashir and Mugabe are told that they are no longer welcome here.

Wisma Putra, for its part, needs to clean up its act and start reflecting the values that Malaysians cherish and want to see their country stand for internationally – respect for human rights, justice and accountability.

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