Roaming around Rome

PROMISE 26 of the Pakatan Harapan manifesto is to “make our human rights record respected by the world”, and the last paragraph says that “suitable international conventions that are not yet ratified will be ratified as soon as possible”.

But like all statements of intent, it is often not sufficient for a government to simply charge ahead as if everything in the manifesto was equally understood – let alone supported with equal enthusiasm – even by voters who voted for their candidates.

To achieve lasting success, stakeholders must be consulted, the argument must be seen to have been won and public support must be demonstrated.

This holds true for all areas of public policy. In some cases, the government has grasped this well, for example by consulting extensively with civil society organisations on the National Anti-Corruption Plan and holding ongoing discussions about the formation of the Malaysia Media Council.

No equivalent efforts have been made for the signing of international treaties.

At the same time, while the creation of the six new parliamentary standing committees will increase bipartisan scrutiny in areas such as the budget, defence and home affairs, there is no committee for foreign policy or international treaties.

Traditionally, foreign policy is the exclusive preserve of the executive (a legacy we inherited from Westminster), without requiring the approval of anyone else.

(Ironically, in Westminster itself, this is changing, with a convention emerging that Her Majesty’s government must seek a majority vote in the House of Commons before taking any military action abroad.)

With fewer parliamentary checks and balances, it is no surprise that other institutions will be asked to step in. And as can be seen in many cases, many Malaysians feel that the Rulers should play a role.

Just last week, a rally was held in Cameron Highlands calling for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s intervention to prevent the eviction of farmers. And when the current government was in opposition, there were also calls for royal intervention following the mismanagement of state resources.

Indeed, in October 2015, the Conference of Rulers issued a unprecedented statement about 1Malaysia Development Berhad, stating that “the failure to give convincing clarifications and answers is feared to have resulted in a crisis of confidence” and that a comprehensive and transparent investigation must be carried out followed by “appropriate stern action” against those involved.

Unfortunately, institutions such as the police and Attorney General’s Chambers failed to act at that time (despite the best efforts of some brave officers who lost their jobs). Following the change of government, prosecutions have finally been brought.

However, the ongoing challenge for the government is to restore and sustain public confidence in our institutions while balancing the impatience for reform on one side against the fear of overly hasty change on the other.

On practical terms, whether or not Malaysia ratifies the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) won’t significantly change everyday lives (unlike the 1951 Convention of Refugees, which I mentioned last week, that would require Malaysia to change policies affecting refugees).

It is inconceivable that any Malaysian leader intends to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or crimes of aggression.

And, as has been pointed out, leaders are nonetheless held accountable for such crimes whether or not their countries are party to the Rome Statute, while the ICC has been accused of bias, particularly from African states who say they are picked upon while crimes committed by powerful states are ignored.

Thus, the main significance of signing the Rome Statute comes in its symbolism. It has been noted that 15 of the 124 countries that are party to it are constitutional monarchies, and several (including Jordan, Palestine and Afghanistan) are Muslim countries.

It has also been noted that there are significant powers that have not signed it such as the United States, and that the most recent country to have withdrawn is the Philippines, in a perceived bid to evade investigations into its president’s war on drugs.

Of course, whether or not other countries have or have not signed it shouldn’t be our prime consideration. We are a sovereign country with unique institutions and we should decide whether to join international treaties based on our own values and situation.

Furthermore, treaties aren’t the only way to achieve positive goals – a point often made in trade policy where a country can unilaterally open its markets or reduce barriers without needing bilateral or multilateral trade agreements.

For the time being, I hope that all stakeholders will evaluate international treaties in a rational and evidential way, rather than an alarmist one, so that our human rights record can indeed be respected by the world ... for Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Founding President of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.