Last week, Malaysia played host to the third Perdana Global Peace Forum which this time focused on War Crimes and an attempt to ‘criminalize’ war.
The idea is to set up the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, which will hear cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ‘deep crimes of aggression’. The Tribunal will be one of ‘equity and conscience’ and will not discriminate with regards to ‘language, ethnicity, wealth, race or any other status.’
The genesis of the KL Tribunal can be traced back to the office of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who has recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. With the backdrop of Iraq, the War on Terror, the occupation in Palestine and the ongoing violence in Lebanon, the Tribunal is a protest against ongoing Western crimes in these theatres of war, highlighting the devastation of the local populations in these largely Islamic nations. It was also a protest at the recent circumvention of international and UN law by the United States that is designed to protect any state from an aggressive act of war, and a valiant attempt to hear from the victims who have not received a hearing at the International Criminal Court and elsewhere.
Those who came to hear the senior Asian statesman stridently voice his opposition to the carnage of Iraq would not have been disappointed. Backed by a sophisticated display of images and rolling text, Mahathir laid out the case for trying Western leaders such as President Bush, Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard for war crimes.
‘History should not remember Blair and Bush as the Killer of Children or as the Lying Prime Minister and President. What Blair and Bush had done is worse than Saddam had done. We should not hang Blair if the Tribunal finds him guilty but he should always carry the label war Criminal, Killer of Children, Liar. And so should Bush and the pocket of bushlands in Australia’.
He also laid out the hypocrisy of Western powers through their mantra of ‘human rights’:
‘We talk of human rights. Can there be a greater right than the right to life? Yet the very people who talk endlessly of human rights in all its permutations, would spend trillions of dollars developing and producing ever more efficient weapons to kill people and at the slightest excuse would actually use them to kill hundreds of thousands of people. And worse still they often do this in the name of human rights. Can there be any greater hypocrisy than this?’
Elsewhere, he engaged in serious reflection about the ongoing future horror of war: depleted uranium and its side effects, the 600,000 Iraqi and Afghan deaths from an ongoing war, and future the weaponisation of space. Quoting US Space Command’s VISION 2020 and former US Space Command head General Joseph Ashy, Mahathir raised the US desire to make space a military theatre:
‘We are going to fight from space and we are going to fight into space. That’s why the US has developed programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms.’
It is true Mahathir did not help his cause by his sometimes outrageous remarks namely during the closing address and subsequent press conference. They may have been made for a domestic audience and a mainly Muslim one at that, but it makes a mockery of the Tribunal’s lofty ideals and the ability form a consensus from which the Tribunal can work. More importantly it undermines an otherwise landmark initiative that he himself has helped create that could be an important step in addressing the war crimes of the last five years.
But Mahathir aside – and Mahathir was not the central player in this event – few who have been present the last few days and witnessed the extraordinary testimony of speakers and their accounts of torture and suffering at the hands of occupation forces, could deny the power of this event.
Take the statutory declaration of Ali Shalal, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib. He spoke quietly of abuse, of being beaten repeatedly, of having a barrel of a rifle inserted into his rectum which caused him to bleed internally. He was administered electric shocks on three separate occasions before being thrown out onto a highway after six months of detention and torture.
‘The interrogators returned and forcefully placed me on top of a carton box containing can food. They connected the wires to my fingers and ordered me to stretch my hand out horizontally, and switched the electric power. As the electric current entered my whole body, I felt as if my eyes were being forced out as sparks flying out. My teeth were clattering violently and my legs shaking violently as well. My whole body was shaking all over.’
During his interrogation he was photographed and abused by guards, who claimed he was part of the Iraqi resistance despite his repeated denials. It was an emotional address, given by a clearly aged 45 year old former education lecturer. But as important as the graphic details of his abuse, was his response to interrogation during his imprisonment.
‘The first question they asked me was ‘Are you a Sunni or a Shiia?’ I answered that this is the first time I have been asked this question in my life. I was surprised by this question, as in Iraq there is no such distinction or difference. The American interrogator replied that I answer directly the questions and not to reply outside the questions. He then said that in Iraq there are Sunni, Shiias and Kurds.’
In his Iraq, there are no ethnic divisions. It is a sentiment that young French Iraqi journalist Hana Al Bayaty reinforced with her passionate denunciation of the current attempt to break Iraq into ethnic enclaves, declaring that the reporting of Sunni, Shiia or Baathist Iraq is simply a fabrication that does not reflect the non-sectarian nature of the Iraqi resistance.
The audience of over a thousand listened as this young courageous woman openly challenged the myths perpetuated in the Western media, describing not just the unified nature of the resistance, but Western involvement in the so-called sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart. She has documented this through her work as an executive committee member for the Brussels War Crime Tribunal.
At lunch, I sat with an Iraqi who now works in Malaysia . He was visibly emotional as he talked of the importance of this conference, and the possibility for others to hear what is going on in his country.
It is difficult to be cynical about platforms such as these that clearly are allowing the public to hear the realities of this brutal war. People from around Malaysia packed the halls to listen and ask questions from the panel of experts while Malaysian moderators repeatedly talked of the importance of taking this information and using it constructively within organizations or just at home.
Conferences such as Kuala Lumpur are not perfect. Sometimes it is overly heavy on rhetoric and light on evidence, but is it any different in the State of the Union address? Or any long expose on ‘terrorism’ that frequently appears in our mainstream press that still refuses to acknowledge that Osama bin Laden is still at large, not one of the pilots of 9/11 came from Afghanistan, or that Iraq did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction?
There are those such as the people of Iraq , Palestine, and Lebanon who have experienced and understand the geo-politics behind tragedy and their denunciation of great powers such as the United States is not illegitimate. They are citizens who have seen and endured war, wars that have been instigated and supported by Western powers. People who have not seen or experienced war cannot denounce the anger of victims, or scorn their sometimes irrational desire for revenge. It is a normal response to debilitating suffering and oppression that has been quietly sanctioned in the corridors of power.
As Ibrahim Mousawi, editor of Lebanon ‘s Al-Intiqad and Al-Manar TV so succinctly put it in his address to the Commission:
‘Resistance is not political, it is a sign of life. It is survival.’
The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal did go further than others have gone â€“ with its attempt to create a legal structure as a form of redress for silent victims. It has a Commission that will deliberate on the evidence and legal structure of the Tribunal, as well as procedural matters. Both the Tribunal and Commission have legal experts both from within and outside Malaysia. Evidence was presented to the Commission by witnesses on war crimes in Iraq , Lebanon, and ‘The War on Terror’, and the Commission will determine whether legally they have a case that can be brought before the Tribunal.
It is imperfect, with Mahathir ‘s ill-considered theatrical denunciations rather ‘Chavez’ in nature, but it exists and without him, it would not. He may be controversial, but he serves an important role in balancing to the otherwise blatant public relation machines of Washington, Whitehall, and Canberra that still maintains the Balkans project was a humanitarian endeavor, and continues to regionally perpetuate an artificial Asian ‘War On Terror’.
Significantly, Malaysia is a small Asian country that has witnessed European and Japanese occupation, and remembers well the history of the Cold War in Asia where thousands were murdered and accused of Communist sympathies. Where the brutalities of Vietnam and the silent bombing of Cambodia are not so distant, and where the possibility lingers that it may one day again become a violent playground for the competing powers, China and the United States. Mahathir himself alluded to these geo-political realities in his final address, and in an interview with me in Kuala Lumpur.
‘They (the US) are all the time containing China , threatening China , and what would be the response of China? If they ( China) are threatened, then obviously they are going to prepare themselves to face the threatâ€¦..
â€¦we have been trading with China for over 1000 years and they never tried to conquer us. The Portuguese came to trade and colonized us. When they see China strong, they think it wants to conquer the world. They say China could re-armâ€¦we don’t think China wants to re-arm to conquer us. There are a lot of American intentions in this area.’
But Mahathir knows his audience. He too is balancing the superpowers, like every country in the region. Part of his anti-American rhetoric may be designed to appease the large economic elephant in the room â€“ China â€“ whose ethnic group in Malaysia has been ironically limited by Mahathir’s own pro-Malay policies. Huzir Sulaiman writing in the Malaysian Star this week, pointed to US declassified documents that revealed during ‘Konfrontasi’ Malaysian officials were willing to work with the US to destablise the Sukarno government.
‘Ghazali’s preferred solution to the whole problem emerged as requiring change in the nature of the Indonesian Government, authority being returned to the people of the individual islands, the central government in Djakarta being removed or downgraded as the source of power, and a federal system like that in the United States or Malaysia being installed. If such a system were developed, according to Ghazali, Malaysia would be willing to be a part of it, and this in his view would be the only way of keeping Communism out of the area.’
These day, diplomats and politicians worldwide think we cannot know about the China subtext and think that the public is ignorant of the silent tussle. Moreover, they naively believe that Asian audiences will stay quiet and not call the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ despite the fact that it will be ordinary Asian civilians who’ll suffer if and when China and the United States decide that they have had enough of their polite words and endless diplomatic backstabbing, and stupidly resort to military endeavor.
But rather than criticizing such ventures from lofty cushioned rooftops, perhaps it is time for the international and Asian communities to support civilian structures like the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal as an opportunity to forge forward where other international bodies have so obviously failed, as a guarantee of future peace.
An attempt to create a body to hear the crimes of the past five years is not idealism. It is a desperate attempt to publicly acknowledge the horrors of this war, form a powerful symbol of redress, and most crucially, a civilian structure for future state-sanctioned war. In this last respect, we cannot rely on any politician to serve the interests of truth when for them, economically, there is so much is at stake.
Maryann Keady is a freelance journalist who has reported for ABC and SBS TV in the Asia-Pacific, and recently a fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Her radio program www.asia2025.com will broadcast an interview with Dr Mahathir and other Perdana participants from February 21 st.
For those wishing to get more information on the conference or read conference transcripts, they can visit www.perdana4peace.org.