Malaysian Prime Minister Muhammad Mahathir lashed out at Western standards of justice while opening the 12th annual Commonwealth Law Conference in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Malaysia's judiciary system, already suspect by many for its sentencing to six years in prison of former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, has suffered another round of international outcry over the recent jailing of Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert. Mahathir's defense of his country's judiciary system, which carried with it a strong condemnation of alleged Western double standards, poses questions as to the legitimacy of his defense and that of his accusations.
While many in the West are quick to discount anything that comes out of Mahathir's mouth, his adept analyses of world affairs from a developing world perspective have a legitimacy of their own despite Mahathir's seemingly dismal record in dealing with political dissidents.
Following the jailing of Hiebert, the Malaysia bureau chief for the Hong Kong based Far Eastern Economic Review, allegedly for criticizing the Malaysia's judiciary system, the Canadian and U.S. governments issued harsh condemnations of the action. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a press release calling the action an "outrage." Many jurists threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Law Conference and, in an address to the conference, the president of Malaysia's Bar Association called for greater accountability in the Malaysian judiciary system. Mahathir defended the judiciary in saying that respect for human rights should not include the unrestricted right to political dissidence, especially when such action endangers the lives of others.
In opening the conference, Mahathir bewailed the fact that, from a Western perspective, human rights meant that, "The death of others, possibly innocent people, is of less importance than a person's freedom to dissent," as quoted by Malaysia's Star Online on September 14. Mahathir also reportedly defended the judicial system as independent of the executive branch, a fact often forgotten as a result of a basic Western disrespect for justice in developing countries.
While Western criticism over Malaysia's suppression of political dissents has sharply increased since the sacking of Ibrahim, Mahathir's record of intolerance for dissents extends back to his earlier years in office. And this intolerance cannot always be dismissed as an issue of the country's internal security or of misrepresentation of biased observers. Mahathir, who came to power in 1981, first used the infamous Internal Security Act for a large-scale crackdown on opposition in 1987. This led to mass detentions of Mahathir's critics and the dismissal of politicians seen as too interfering.
But the instances of political intolerance are not enough to dismiss wholesale the relevance of some of Mahathir's accusations against the West. Mahathir used the occasion of the Commonwealth conference to call for a focus on problems in international trade and politics and the imposition of the will of richer countries on poorer countries. He accused the United Nations of unfairly maintaining the hegemony of the five permanent members of the Security Council and likened the power balance to feudalism, where those in power could not be expected to give it up.
Mahathir also accused the West of having a "peculiar" sense of human rights. He said that the rights of rioters, pornography peddlers and currency traders were defended at the expense of ordinary citizens, while more severe Western violations were ignored. Mahathir said, "Impoverishing millions of people, depriving them of medicine, even killing large numbers of them directly or indirectly are not considered violation of human rights," as quoted by the BBC on September 13.
The conference speech on Monday was not the first time Mahathir has stood to champion the rights of developing countries. Mahathir first set the tone for his defense of the rights of formerly colonized peoples with a book entitled the Malay Dilemma, a work which would later catapult him to power in an atmosphere of anti-Western sentiment.
Upon taking power, Mahathir quickly transformed Malaysia into one of the fastest-growing of the Asian Tiger economies, but he remained critical of Western double standards concerning free trade, where giant Western corporations were allowed free reign at a government's expense. Mahathir worked to champion the rights of the non-aligned countries and to form an Asian economic community.
His ideas have found resonance in a variety of venues, from other leaders of the developing world to scholars skeptical of the equality of the mainly US-backed free trade policy. In an article for Z Magazine, Robin Hahnel, co-author of the book, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics, is critical of the humanitarian disasters that occur in developing countries when the "bust" phenomenon occurs as a result of the unpredictability of the global market - a phenomenon that is often considered healthy by some economic strategists. In apparent agreement with Mahathir's long-time criticism of the Western double standard with regard to human rights through its globalization policies, Hahnel writes, "The human consequences of the bust are almost always far worse than revealed by the capitalist media."
It is undeniable that Mahathir has made Malaysia into one of the strongest economies of the developing world and that Malaysia, perhaps partly through Mahathir's rejection of IMF loans as a neo-colonialist plot, is a leader in the Asian economic recovery following the collapse of 1997-1998. Mahathir has additionally been an uncompromising critic of the injustices associated with the continued dominance of the richer Western countries over the developing world through colonization and most recently through the policy of globalization.
But Mahathir's own record in regard to human rights admittedly leaves much to be desired. And it is impossible to know whether Mahathir is forced into harshness because of alleged Western interference or if he is just using the specter of the West to justify his inherent dictatorial tendencies.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com