Veteran diplomat Tan Sri Razali Ismail is supremely optimistic about Malaysia's chances of securing a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council this time around and has a wish-list of what he believes the country should accomplish. Below is the full transcript of the interview with Tan Sri Razali Ismail.
Q: What is your prognosis on Malaysia’s chances of being elected into the UN Security Council (UNSC) again in October this year, for a fourth time?
A: I think our chances are very good. I would be seriously disappointed if we do not get elected. The possibility does not arise.
Usually if you have done it regionally there is more or less a virtual consensus before the time itself.
There may be many a slip between the cup and the lip. But having done the UN before, if you have the region with you and you are a reasonably responsible country, which we have that record, of being more than a responsible country, it should be easy for us to be elected.
We require of course a 2/3 majority. Some work of shepherding countries has to be done. We want to make sure they are there; 2/3 of those present and voting.
We should try not to allow any kind of controversies to surface between now and the actual elections in October. If something should happen, God forbid, that embarrasses us, either of our doing or something happening to us, then people may be put off from spontaneously voting us in. I don’t think these things will happen.
Wisma Putra assures me they have properly choreographed the steps that will lead to the election.
[According to your book, “A UN Chronicle 1988 – 1998), in 1989 you counted people in the hall, went out and found those who were missing…?] At that time, we didn’t have a regional consensus. We came in late. We were guilty of that.
Bangladesh had more or less achieved a kind of consensus although it was not formalised. When we went in, quite a number of countries including then chairman of the Asian region, Saudi Arabia, were pretty annoyed and piqued with us, that we came in rather late.
Nevertheless, we worked hard and the reputation of Malaysia spoke for itself, particularly the personality and performance of Prime Minister [Tun] Dr Mahathir Mohamad meant a lot.
He was already by that time the leader of the developing South. He managed to put out the premise that the problems Malaysia was talking about back then were problems of the South and therefore he was championing the South.
Coupled with the resounding years of success that we had had in terms of development and the upliftment of people in Malaysia at that time, we had a fabulous track record in comparison to Bangladesh. So we could do it.
Nevertheless, I was very nervous. You can never tell about the unpredictability of the delegates.
This time I am virtually 100% sure. We still must be seen to be taking this effort seriously. We must be seen to be talking to the delegates and countries. I am sure our Foreign Minister has gone to many countries to make the point why Malaysia is qualified to be in the SC. We must not take it for granted.
The interesting point is, what are we going to say we are qualified for, to be in the SC now? We did well before.
It is not for me to say. It is for the Government to make the point. If I am going to see countries in this region or that region, to talk about why Malaysia should be in the SC, I have to base that attempt to make us qualified on the basis of what is attendant in politics regionally and globally, what is the preoccupation of people. Even if we are a shoo-in candidate, we must show that we are a serious candidate, very much sensitised about the issues that affect people, not just in Malaysia but elsewhere. These would be development, politics, all sorts of things
At this moment, obviously in political issues, we have always been very consistent. We are supportive of the UN effort to bring about justice and political security to countries that under threat, or groups like the Palestinians who have not been able to realise the inalienable rights to a state and nationhood. We have been supportive of this.
And we have spoken against travesty of justice where people lose out. We have spoken about the inability of developed countries to help developing countries that are being increasingly marginalised.
A new element has come into the picture now. It is about the vulnerability of people. Even the most-established, middle-income countries in Europe, are beginning to find out that people are becoming increasingly more vulnerable in the context of various aspects of globalisation.
If you saved money 15 years ago and you retire 5 years from now, you may find your 20-year effort will not give you the comfort that a person much earlier would have got. The value of your money has dropped. Inflation has taken hold. Your pensions count for very little.
This is what Japan and so many countries are beginning to find out, even in Malaysia. Governments must be able to guarantee the future of their people and others in that context. This is important as a global challenge, that vulnerability.
And, of course, there is vulnerability about missiles that fly at night from unknown areas and unknown perpetrators to kill people in some village or town alleged to have terrorists. This completely confounds and makes nonsense of sovereignty. The respect for sovereignty is not there any more.
It is not act of war. It is something that happened at night. We cannot accept that. This will arise in the SC and Malaysia must not be mute and take into account too much of our partiality or partisanship to certain countries but must speak out. I think we have a record of speaking out.
And the vulnerability to extremist actions. We must be willing to take a position on what is extremism. This will not be difficult for us because this Prime Minister has for the last two years articulated elements of moderation and is pushing the region as a whole in that direction. But in the SC we need to express this, manifest this.
The SC can be captured by major countries to do this and that, the P5. Are we willing to stand up against the P5 as we did before?
This is not playing theatre. This is needed in the context of humanity, in the context of the integrity of the UN. We must be able to withstand the pressure. You can take it for granted that there will be pressure as there were pressures before.
Q: What factors are working for and against us in the election process?
A: There are no factors working against us. I will have to commit sepukku if there are any factors that work against us! The factors for us are clear: the foreign policy that we are now articulating is very relevant to the needs of the area.
We have problems in the region of competing and increasing stridency. What we are talking about in terms of moderation is very relevant. We should take this to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and SC. This will be a plus for us.
In talking about moderation, we must not be seen to be giving up on the legitimate pursuits of certain countries or communities like the Palestinians. We must remind the major powers, particularly those that are relevant in the context of the Middle East, that they have to bring about an honourable solution to the Israeli and Palestinian problem otherwise there will always be a reason and a cause for terrorism and extremism.
Q: Do the costs outweigh the benefits? E.g. in 1965 Pakistan broke off diplomatic relations due to Malaysia’s perceived partiality towards India.
A: It was not perceived, there was clear partiality to India. The benefits are very clear. If you are in the SC even for just 2 years as a non-permanent member, you acquire a certain status and you are singled out among the 15…for that period, that determine issues dealing with war and peace, politics and security. It’s very important, a special role. You must not take this lightly.
If you don’t know how to do it or if you are afraid of pressure, you shouldn’t do it. Some countries have chosen not to be in the SC. For a long time, Mexico refrained from aspiring to be a member. It’s just too complicated.
You don’t know what the political topography will be. I don’t know whether there will be another desert war where pressure will fall on us. I hope not
I don’t know whether there will be another Bush, and I say this figuratively, who will try to push the weight and pressure of the US to make the SC go this way or that way, take advantage and do things militarily with sanctions in the UN completely out of proportion, which they did?
We came under immense pressure. I admire the integrity of Malaysia in being able to also see how it was wrong of Saddam to invade Kuwait and there is no denial that he had invaded Kuwait and that he had to go out of Kuwait.
Q: What was your role in this bid for the UNSC? Were you consulted for pointers, or roped in in any way?
A: I have not been roped in. If at all, I pushed my nose into it, in a way. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been made aware of how I see it. There are some very good, thinking people within the hierarchy of Wisma Putra and I’m happy about that.
[Has Malaysia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Datuk Gulam Hussin Gulam Haniff turned to you for advice?] I’m not the oracle or sifu. I’m happily retired and do not push myself that way. But they do keep in touch.
[What did you tell them?] We must be much better than what we were before. In the first place, we must have enough able people, in various aspects, including the legality of things. When we were there the other time, we had no real lawyers, international lawyers, helping us to look at these issues. I’m assured that there will be enough people. You don’t know what kind of issues will surface, will explode into the SC theatre. You have to anticipate…
Q: The Security Council of 2015/16 bears a certain resemblance to the UNSC 1996/1997, when you were president of the UNGA, in that there were also interventions carried out in what you called “cataclysmic, value-challenging” conflict areas before then (Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina – but not in Rwanda). What lessons can we draw from 1996/1997 that might be applicable today? Are we allowing history to repeat itself?
A: In the book I said the UN has no sense of institutional remorse or shame. The UNSC, UNGA and Secretary-General must not make mistakes and let thousands of people die as we did in those years. The Tutsis cut off the legs of the taller Hutus when they took over Rwanda.
There was no UN to try to prevent that from happening. Nobody wanted to go into that area, to get killed.
Where is the sense of responsibility?
If you believe that all humanity must be protected, if you talk about so many high standards, if those things happen again and if there is another travesty of justice as in the Srebenica where there was total bombing and massacre of the Bosnians, then the SC that Malaysia would be serving in now does not deserve to be seen as the premier organ of peace and security in the world.
We cannot make those mistakes. If we did it before, we must learn from those lessons and we must do our utmost not to do this again.
I am very attracted to the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which started as early as [former secretary-general] Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and was fully explored by Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then Kofi Annan tried to implement it. Now it is a notion that is more or less accepted.
It has to be refined further because some countries are fearful of what this implies. But we have this R2P people beyond our boundaries as much as we have R2P people who are victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
Q: As Chairman of the Global Movement of the Moderates Foundation, former UNSC president in Jan 1989 and July 1990, and former president of the UNGA in 1996/7, will you be bringing a resolution to the UNSC on moderation, and if so, what do you expect to achieve with the resolution?
A: That is not for me to say. Whatever I’ve done before is not relevant to this.
It is for Wisma Putra and the Government to consider first whether it is necessary to do it in the SC, and when would it be the right moment to think of a resolution.
There are more grounds to support having a resolution in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), on moderation. Let us practise and apply moderation in the UNSC in terms of bringing about a realisation of collective responsibility and underlining legitimacy of certain causes like the Palestinian cause, in the SC, in the name of moderation. Let us try to do that.
Q: In “A UN Chronicle”, you urged that if Malaysia is elected into the Council again, it must be prepared and must know its limits. How would you define our limits?
A: We mustn’t be overambitious, we mustn’t be like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. We must understand the limits of our capacity. If an issue is quite difficult and quite outside the political understanding of Malaysia, for example something that happens in Latin America, maybe we should take heed from how others do it.
But if it is Asia or Southeast Asia and we have now espoused moderation, we are the activists on global moderation, obviously we have to take a position, whatever would be the difficulties, and there will be difficulties.
If there are problems with the Chinese on the South China Sea, the Spratlys and all those claims and counter-claims, if it ever gets to the SC, it will be a great test for Malaysia and I hope Malaysia will fare very well in that test. I would be very disappointed if we are seen to have taken a back seat on such deliberations because those things are relevant to us in our part of the world.
Q: You also wrote that if Malaysia re-learns how to shadow play at the UN alongside touting the substantive and the ethical then it would be operating as an international player in all dimensions. Could you give some examples of current situations where such a combination would be effective?
A: Performance in the UN is a combination of what you are able to do, what you can provide, your whole area of philosophical foundation, ethos, track record. It is also the theatre where you give the idea that you are more than what you are. It is the consummate application of diplomacy.
In the best of times, when you do it well, as I think, if I may say so, we did when we were in the SC, you get kudos for it. If there is an opportunity to do this again, of course Malaysia must do it. The people that will be there and the political leadership must do it. Otherwise we are not projecting our country to the maximum possible.
If we go around tilting at every windmill, making ourselves hyper-active on every issue, we become some kind of nuisance. South China Sea, issues dealing with vulnerability of people in our part of the world, terrorism, the need to prevent certain pockets of dystopia or serious economic malaise in our part of the world, all those things we know about and have neighbours undergoing so we have to play a role.
Q: If Malaysia is elected to the Council again, what role do you hope it can play? In reform, for example, since it has not been restructured since 1963 and the Open Ended Working Group (asking for more equitable representation, increased membership and abolishing veto) has been meeting since 1994?
You wrote that the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, Britain, USA), the P5, “fight to the death over any attempt to reduce their powers and privileges”, prevent reports from the Secretary-General’s office from coming out and block resolutions thanks to the requirement for consensus, and that there is an unwritten understanding that the Council cannot convene, even for an informal meeting, unless the P5 agree. (You also addresed UNGA in 1993 about “unwillingness” of UNSC to enforce its own resolutions and respect UNGA resolutions calling for cessation of hostilities and respect for humanitarian law e.g. Bosnia.)
A: Not to my knowledge. I would be pleasantly surprised if we want to do it again. It must come from the GA. There is no issue about the reform of the SC among the agenda of the SC. I am not aware of any renewed initiative. I failed but it was good energy expended.
Q: What role would Malaysia play in advancing the Palestinian cause?
A: When Malaysia gets into the SC, we are honour-bound. It is what the people of Malaysia expect the government to do, to really push for improvement and elevation of Palestine’s status even in small but significant ways so that eventually they would be like any other country in the UN. France, Britain, Russia and China are quite open to having this done.
They have improved their status in various degrees over time but they are not yet a member of the GA as we all are. That’s not good enough.
Usually it is better if there are issues and we use the issues to dramatise the need, that they are vulnerable or marginalised. I am not an expert. Many things have happened that perhaps might make it easier for the palestinians but in the time that it was my responsibility, it was very, very difficult.
Q: You wrote that when you were president of the Council, the “Gang of Four”– Colombia, Cuba, Malaysia and Yemen – did manage to change substantive points in drafts which the P5 had made, although its peace initiative to prevent the first Gulf War of 1991 failed. You also wrote that the non-aligned parties are not as strong now as they were then. If Malaysia is elected to the Council again, do you expect it to play a similar role among the non-aligned parties, and to have a similar impact? E.g with support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth and Asian Group members?
A: Religiously, we should be seen to be consulting the non-aligned group. It is still there. I’m told they are not as effective as before, but if it is not effective, it will be easier for other countries to get their way.
It is important that the P5 should not always be seen to get away, doing things the way they want to.
There must be enough caclulations insisted by us, enough time to study things. We accept that they have a greater role, greater understanding of things from the perch where they are but we must be allowed to play our part in the 2 years that we serve in the SC.
Q: Any further thoughts on Malaysia’s bid for the SC?
A: More and more, since the time when we were in the SC, whatever happens in our country now is immediately flashed all over the world. If you are a member of the UNSC, even more so the negative things that happen in your country, whether you like it or not, can be dramatically exposed there. In the time that we are in the SC, we must also try to have a kind of manifest stability and clearmindedness in the conduct of Government and politics within our country.
When we were in the SC, in the UN, it was a total, almost permanent guarantee that Malaysia was stable politically therefore we had the strength and authority to speak boldly because the country was united. But if there are instances where this begins to fray, the impression is changed, that much more it affects us in terms of our image and credibility in the SC.
When we are in the SC, one of the things that we will be pushing is moderation and national reconciliation within parties, reconciliation within a certain territorial environment and regional reconciliation.
If we cannot manifest national reconciliation in Malaysia, if the political parties squabble, then we are not going to project the idea of national cohesion and national coherence.
When we were in the SC before, we were not only doing well economically and development-wise, we were also doing well projecting ourselves as a country, as a force.
Are we still having that energy now? I don’t know. There are bodies challenging the Constitution. The country doesn’t seem to be as at peace as before.
Another thing that disturbs me is instances of people using us as an area where things fomented for extremist actions. That is bad. If it is there it must be completely removed. The bodies that are responsible have to do it. There is no reason to try to sweep things under the carpet or to deny. If it is there it must be completely expunged.