The 31st session of the Human Rights Council, which began earlier this week in Geneva, will troop out the usual high-level panels about universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and other such politically-correct verbiage. What is often missing, however, is the Council’s ability to shame those who abuse their own peoples in order to stay in power. Essential Edge co-editor Edward Girardet met with Malaysia’s Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of parliament and daughter of imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, to discuss why the ruling party of Prime Minister Najib Razak represents the sort of corruption that characterizes all too many supposedly democratic regimes today.
GENEVA — Standing out among the world’s human rights transgressors are Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (crimes against humanity and thuggish repression of political opponents while hanging on to power as long as you can), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (beat up the opposition, harass homosexuals and maintain that you have the democratic upper hand), and Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud (flog or behead political and religious critics by branding them as terrorists, while indiscriminately bombing civilian populations and hospitals in Yemen).
The fact that Saudi Arabia is current chair of the Human Rights Council is questionable enough, even if some observers maintain that Riyadh is taking this role seriously by quietly acknowledging that it needs to do more than just talk about eventual reform.
But there are the scores of other regimes further down the global list of abusers, which market themselves as democratic, yet disdain transparency and prefer instead to embrace repression as a means of staying in power. This includes Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has been running the country since independence from Britain in 1957.
Corruption and Lack of Governance
“Najib’s real problem is his corruption and lack of governance,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian parliamentarian for the People’s Justice Party and daughter of opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to five years in jail in February, 2015, for sodomy. The act of sodomy is illegal in Muslim-dominated Malaysia, but the charges are widely regarded as trumped up and politically motivated. Anwar’s own opposition alliance won the popular vote in the 2013 elections, but Najib retained power by gerrymandering the polls in rural areas. Nurul regards the regime’s allegations of sodomy as “a way of debasing my father in order to keep him out of the running.” He is also reportedly suffering from severe medical problems in prison.
Nurul, who, like her father, is a Muslim moderate and sees a potential global mitigating role for Malaysia in the face of religious extremism, was talking in the Café Ariana near the UN’s Palais des Nations packed with the normal surge of after-work aid workers. It is no easy task to get journalists to listen given the large number of NGO, government and other delegates who have descended on Geneva for the Council, all seeking to advocate their own positions and grievances. Nurul, who was also being followed by a British television documentary crew, acknowledged this competition, but stressed the need for the international community to pay more attention to what is happening in Malaysia.
“Much of the world is turning a blind eye, but we need to talk about what is happening in Malaysia and the struggles that ordinary people are facing,” she said. “Najib is trying very hard to entrench himself into the international scene, whether through ASEAN or when talking to China, and he is succeeding.” For some time now, the Malaysian prime minister has also sought to ingratiate himself with both the US and Australian governments.
Despite persistent efforts by the opposition to unseat the regime, Najib has managed to stay in power by cracking down on any form of free press, plus threatening or apprehending those perceived as a threat. Nurul was herself arrested last year for alleged sedition after making a speech in parliament condemning her father’s imprisonment.
Dealing with the “real” issues
The government, which owns or controls virtually all mainstream media, whether radio, television or newspapers, has also been seeking to muzzle critical social media. According to Nurul, the Malaysian press has focused on the sodomy charges rather than explore the “real” issues, such as lack of transparency, corruption, media repression and abuses of the judiciary.
The government recently blocked access to the Malaysian Insider, a widely-read information portal, for its attempts to investigate corruption allegations against the government. Other journalists and media outlets, including political cartoonists, also have been threatened. Najib has been accused of ‘disappearing’ $681 million from a state investment fund into his own personal bank accounts. According to the Wall Street Journal the actual amount is even higher. Over $1.4 billion have actually found their way into Najib accounts since 2011, the newspaper reported this week.
Vehemently denying such accusations, the Prime Minister has ensured that opponents within his own party ranks are removed as a means of stifling any form of real investigation, whether by the state or the media, into the scandal. Malaysia’s attorney-general last January cleared Najib of any wrong doing by agreeing that the money had been a “personal donation” by the Saudi royal family.
Culture of Fear
Both Nurul and various human rights monitoring groups, such as Amnesty International, maintain that Najib has become even more repressive in recent months. Human Rights Watch recently described Najib’s government as creating a “culture of fear.”
International perception, however, is beginning to change, Nurul points out. Over the past few weeks, Washington has become far more critical of the Kuala Lumpur government. The US State Department has expressed itself as “very concerned” by Najib’s efforts to curb freedom of expression, including the Internet. There is also worry regarding the manner with which Najib appears to be cozying up to the so-called Islamic State (IS). Radical Muslims in Malaysia have long cultivated ties with Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalist elements, including the Taliban, and more recently have developed closer links to Syria, Iraq and Libya with volunteers fighting among IS ranks.
Such concerns are not only being raised abroad, but at home as well. The Malaysian Prime Minister was particularly embarrassed earlier this week by a “Free Anwar” Twitter poll, which, based on 5,000 respondents, said that 49 per cent of those polled said they supported Anwar Ibrahim, while only 5 per cent backed Najib. Furthermore, at the end of February, Mohamed Mahathir, who is 90 and the country’s longest-serving former prime minister from 1981 to 2003, himself resigned from UMNO, which he called ‘Najib’s party’. He claimed that he could no longer be seen to be “supporting corruption” and called upon Najib to resign, a public condemnation that brought him 46 per cent support in the Twitter poll.
A country in crisis mode
“What we need is real change,” said Nurul, who, at 35, is also a Johns Hopkins’ graduate in International Relations. “We are in a crisis mode with young people becoming more and more worried about their futures. Many of the educated ones are leaving. Everything is at risk.”
Najib, however, is steadfastly resisting such calls for change, she added, maintaining that her main reason for coming to Geneva was to voice her concerns to organizations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union. She also wanted to remind the international community of the need to engage with all the stakeholders if the outside world is really to understand what is going on in Malaysia. “You cannot expect a government that has lost legitimacy to be heard.”
Edward Girardet is a Geneva-based journalist and author. His most recent books “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” and “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan” (4th fully revised edition).