Dozens of world leaders descended on New York last week for the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the annual fest of hype and hypocrisy, meaningless speeches and inconsequential meetings. Many no doubt saw it as an opportunity to enjoy, at tax-payer expense, a few days of respite in the Big Apple.
The bold & the meek
US President Donald Trump, who yet again brought his own brand of jingoism to the Assembly, set the stage for much of the hypocrisy that followed. He berated America’s enemies for their appalling human rights record but gave America’s allies a free pass. He took China to task for its well documented ill-treatment of Muslim Uighurs but had nothing to say about the massive crackdown on dissent underway in Egypt, or the horrific Saudi aerial bombardment of Yemen that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and pushed the country into a humanitarian crisis of monstrous dimensions.
Hypocrisy, however, was not the sole preserve of Trump and other Western leaders; Muslim leaders rose to the occasion in equally splendid form. They droned on and on
about the plight of the Palestinians, the Rohingya, Islamophobia, the ill-treatment of Muslim minorities in Western nations, etc., but had nothing much to offer by way of solutions. Strangely, they were all silent on the Uighur issue, arguably the worst ongoing case of genocide in the world today. They also made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s collusion with Israel to keep the Palestinians in line.
Fear of China and a false sense of solidarity with Saudi Arabia (dispenser of the all-important Haj visa quotas) allowed both China and Saudi Arabia to avoid the international opprobrium they both richly deserved. As Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad himself later admitted, “China is a very powerful nation” and not to be trifled with.
Hyperbole & hypocrisy
Mahathir, for his part, used the occasion to once again draw attention to some of his pet peeves. He reiterated his old argument that the UN Security Council veto regime was fundamentally undemocratic and unjust and called for it to be reformed. He also panned the way sanctions are being used by the US and others to enforce their own narrow foreign policy goals upon other nations. As well, he pleaded with the UN to refocus its attention on the peaceful settlement of disputes to avoid war.
He was particularly critical, and rightly so, of the international community’s failure to resolve the Palestinian issue as well as protect the Rohingya from ethnic cleansing at the hands of Myanmar’s generals.
However, Mahathir, too, couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in a little hyperbole and hypocrisy. Pointing a finger at the West, for example, he said that “Muslims everywhere have been oppressed, expelled from their countries and refused asylum.”
No doubt the US and other Western nations have inflicted tremendous carnage across the Middle East through war and regime change and deserve every bit of criticism that is levelled against them. However, Muslim nations are not innocent of the very things that Mahathir accuses the West of.
It is, after all, no secret that Muslims are oppressed and killed as much by their own governments as they are by foreign powers. Sunni governments (including our own) oppress Shia; Shia governments oppress Sunni. Millions of Muslims are condemned to poverty and misery by their own hopelessly corrupt political and military elites. And of course, hundreds of thousands of Muslims are driven from their own lands because of war and instability perpetrated by their own governments or homegrown terror groups.
The Saudi bombing campaign has, for example, driven thousands of Yemenis abroad including to Malaysia while the reign of ISIS terror has forced thousands more to flee from their homes.
And, as for being refused asylum, it should be noted that Germany alone has taken in more than a million Muslim refugees in the last few years. How many refugees did Saudi Arabia or UAE take in?
If Malaysia is to stand tall at the UN and speak with real credibility and integrity, it must, of necessity, be prepared to speak out against genocide, injustice and the abuse of power no matter where or by whom. That means being willing to criticise China along with the US, Saudi Arabia along with Israel.
It also means we have to walk the talk at home. It is pure hypocrisy to lament the plight of Muslims in the west when the government harasses minorities like the Shia at home.
Free speech or hate speech?
Predictably, Mahathir also got caught up once again in the whole issue of anti-Semitism. When challenged about his remarks concerning the Jews, Mahathir defended himself by claiming the right to free speech. What he refuses to appreciate is that there is a huge difference between free speech and hate speech. When he condemns Israel for its wanton aggression against the Palestinian people, for its brutal occupation, for its illegal expropriation and annexation of Palestine land, for the killing and maiming of Palestinians, he is entitled to insist upon his right to free speech, and should be lauded for it.
However, when he makes remarks like “the Jews have hooked noses,” he crosses the line from free speech to hate speech and racism. Racial slurs – whether about Jews, Malays, Indians or Chinese – have no place in political discourse either at home or abroad and should be condemned.
And while on the issue of free speech, Mahathir might want to ponder, as he defends his right to free speech abroad, why his fellow citizens at home who invoke the same right to criticise a certain fugitive from India end up being ‘invited’ to Bukit Aman for questioning.
Gone the reformer
All told, the Mahathir who spoke at the 74th UNGA session was a different man from the one who addressed the Assembly last year. Fresh from a historic election victory, Mahathir stood before the 73rd UNGA session as a triumphant democratic reformer anxious to tell the world that Malaysia Baru was ready to take its place in the pantheon of world democracies by acceding to UN treaties on human rights like ICERD and ICC. Having been roundly chastised by his own community, who remain stuck in a racial and religious time warp, Mahathir, this time around, could only regurgitate old speeches and point fingers at others, selectively of course.
Giving great speeches is the easy part; effecting real change is the true test of leadership. And there was little evidence of that in New York.
[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |1st October 2019]