MALAYSIA’S new Permanent Representative to the United Nations Datuk Rastam Mohd Isa arrived in New York on March 19 just hours after the first cruise missiles struck Iraq to signal the start of the US-led attack.
It was a long flight from Kuala Lumpur with a five-hour stopover in London, but within two hours of arriving he was at his desk at the Malaysian Mission at 313 East 43rd Street.
“In the two-and-a-half days I’ve been here, I have had meetings and consultations with other permanent representatives as well as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) over the Iraqi issue. To me, this is a great challenge and it gives me great satisfaction,” he said during an interview held long after most of the staff had left the office.
“That’s why when people say I am not getting enough rest, I am quite used to it,” he laughed.
This is the third stint in New York for Rastam who had served as Ambassador to Bosnia, Indonesia and as High Commissioner to Pakistan. He served as counsellor between 1988 and 1991, and was Malaysia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN from1998 to 1999.
“We were having dinner at Tan Sri Musa Hitam’s place on Aug 1, 1990, when we received news that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. That evening, the Security Council met and passed the Resolution 660 – that was the beginning of what we are seeing now,” he said.
At that time, Tan Sri Razali Ismail was Malaysia’s Permanent Representative and Malaysia had a seat on the Security Council.
“Malaysia was president of the Security Council in July 1990 and normally the outgoing president, in handing over his duties, will list out issues and agenda of the council.
“I remember Ambassador Razali telling his Romanian colleague who was taking over not to worry about August, which is usually a quiet month when people go on vacation and there is not much work in the council.
“But on Aug 1, Iraq invaded Kuwait and it turned into a very busy month for the council. In fact, what happened after that even changed the workings of the council.
“Previously, the council seldom met on weekends or late at night. Since then, we have had marathon sessions.
“Another important consequence is that from 1945, when the Security Council was established, to 1990, it had adopted 659 resolutions but after Aug 1 a series of resolutions was adopted when Iraq refused to comply. The figure has risen to at least 1,441 resolutions. That shows how the council has changed.”
Asked how he viewed events at the Security Council over the last few weeks, Rastam said it would appear the council had not been able to address the Iraqi issue but at the same time it showed that the rest of the council stood by their principles.
On whether recent events had raised questions over the position of the five veto-holding permanent members, he said: “One of the changes after 1990 was the manner in which the five worked, arising from many of the resolutions over the Iraqi question.
“The five members met among themselves, agreeing on steps to be taken or drafts to be presented, and then bringing up the matter to the rest of the council and pushing it through.
“For a long time, the Cambodian issue was blocked and did not go up to the council because of resistance from some permanent members.
“Subsequently, when discussing draft resolutions on Iraq the council was able to consult with the permanent five. Together with other members of the council, of which Malaysia was a member, a draft resolution was drawn up and later adopted unanimously,” said Rastam, who was involved in the proceedings then.
He feels that for small countries like Malaysia, the UN remains a vital institution for multilateral diplomacy and should be preserved and strengthened.
“There is also a need to explore new ways of approaching issues with the UN playing a central role,” he said.
On his priorities at the UN, Rastam said there were many issues that were of interest to Malaysia, including international peace and security and economic development.
Part of his duties will be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the NAM coordinating bureau at ambassador level.
“NAM members have certain expectations of Malaysia’s chairmanship and they are willing to support and cooperate with us.”
At the same time, he has to concentrate on economic and social issues because Malaysia is now a member of the Economic and Social council of the UN (Ecosoc).
Like many other countries, Malaysia is greatly concerned with the destruction and loss of lives in the war in Iraq and is looking for its speedy end.
“We have to work hard with other diplomats here to prevent a repeat of this situation in future; and the UN must play a central role in solving disputes or problems between countries. To me, it's a challenge to be part of the UN process,” added Rastam.
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