Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Mahathir Mohamad embraces human rights?

  • 08 March 2007

"We, the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and such other crimes as contained in the relevant international laws and conventions do hereby petition (the commission) to act on our petition pertaining to the various injustices committed against us."

These were the words of a memorandum submitted to the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal on February 7. The petitioners (some accounts put the number at 17) were mainly from the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Lebanon. Among them, former Baghdad university lecturer Ali Shalah Qaissi, a victim of electric torture at Abu Ghraib and Walid Salah, a Palestinian doctor from the occupied territories. The accused: President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister John Howard.

The present Malaysian government has been wrong-footed by the efforts of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to set up this tribunal, but not overly so. They are only too familiar with Mahathir’s extra-curricular activities. Cunningly, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar claimed the tribunal was an expression of democracy in action. In a statement which must have grated with some in the West, Mr Hamid called it "(An) independent tribunal. Let them take the initiative which is within their rights as citizens of Malaysia… it is nice to see freedom being exercised." No one can doubt that such tribunals have their place, even as haphazard legal instruments. Convened in public settings by non-government officials, these tribunals have the potential to sway public opinion and spur debate. They can do little else, having no legal authority or power to enforce penalties.

There are echoes of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal in this new War Crimes Tribunal, though Russell's Tribunal was unusual for its intellectual calibre, and criticised for its seemingly contradictory assembly of intellectuals. Convened in 1967 in Copenhagen and Stockholm by Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, it was in equal parts praised and pilloried. Some saw it as an exposé of alleged American war crimes in Vietnam; others, such as then Secretary of State Dean Rusk saw it as a game played by "a 94-year-old English Professor."

Despite Rusk’s nonchalance, the administration of then president Lyndon Johnson was privately worried by it. Swedish Prime Minister Erlander was told in Bonn by Walt Rostow, Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, on April 25, 1967, "The burden of newspaper stories on you at this time would be heavy and that, in fact,