A petition calling for Malaysia to accede to a treaty that established the International Criminal Court has garnered thousands of signatures since April 6, despite Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad saying that the nation would pull out of the Rome Statute.
Malaysia, which initially agreed to join the ICC, made a U-turn last week after strong opposition from a powerful sultan and opposition members.
A few days later, a group of student and youth activists leaked to the public the contents of a 10-page report prepared by four academics who argued against supporting the Rome Statute. The report has been presented to the Council of Rulers, which is composed of nine sultans of the 13 Malay states.
“We have more than 10,000 signatures since we launched this petition last Saturday,” Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi, one of the youth activists, told BenarNews.
The activists believe the academic report was a factor in swaying the rulers to oppose the Rome Statute, which in turn led to the government’s decision not to proceed with its ratification.
That same group of students and activists is now behind this petition urging the Conference of Rulers and the government to give way so that Malaysia can ratify the Rome Statute.
By not acceding to the Rome Statute, Malaysia has not been able to seek justice for the victims of MH17, Asheeq said, referring to the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over territory in Ukraine held by Russia-backed rebels almost five years ago.
“Malaysia should step in and force and push investigations into MH17. That is the whole purpose of acceding to the Rome Statute,” he said. “But we are not acceding to it, do you think they [ICC] will ever entertain us?”
Flight MH17, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 wide-bodied jet, was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when a missile brought it down over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Last week, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a news conference that the country would not accede to the Rome Statute because opposition politicians had been able “to create confusion in the minds of the people, that this law negates the rights of the Malays and the rights of the rulers.”
“This is not because we are against it, but because of the political confusion about what it entails, caused by people with vested interests,” Mahathir said.
On Monday, Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad said the government should tread carefully on Malay issues because a potential coup d’etat could take place, given that Malays represented the nation’s majority, according to the Star newspaper.
“As you know, the police and military are also fundamentally Malay-based institutions. That is why it is very important for us to handle this issue with care,” the daily quoted him as saying.
Khalid drew the example of Egypt’s 2013 coup d’etat in which the military toppled Mohamed Morsi as president, the Star report said.
Malaysia, which became independent in August 1957, has never experienced a coup, but the government declared a state of national emergency in May 1969 after race-related rioting killed almost 200 people. Western diplomats at that time suggested a death toll of close to 600.
Liable to prosecution
In the leaked academic summary, the four authors claimed that becoming a signatory to the Rome Statute would make Malaysia’s King liable to prosecution at the Hague-based court in his role as supreme commander of the Armed Forces.
However, constitutional law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi, a University of Malaya professor, debunked that theory, saying the king, as a constitutional monarch, would not be held liable for any war crimes because he only acts upon the advice of the prime minister and the cabinet.
“The person who would be liable would be the prime minister and the armed forces chief,” Faruqi told BenarNews.
Asked whether the Council of Rulers had sought his advice, he said, “No, but the King did invite me to speak. I appeared before him with written answers.”
Malaysia would be in a much-better position in arguing for issues such as the Rohingya and Palestinian causes once it had acceded to the ICC’s founding treaty, according to Faruqi.
“Our hands are weak because we cannot negotiate with the Myanmar government because like them, we are not a member of the ICC,” he said.
“We pay lip service about genocide in Palestine, crimes against humanity in Myanmar, but we are not prepared to endorse those laws now,” Faruqi said, referring to the statute. The treaty established the ICC’s functions and jurisdiction in prosecuting perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression.
The ICC, which was established in 2002, is dubbed the “court of last resort” because it only takes legal action when a government is unwilling or unable to prosecute individuals accused of any of those four crimes. As of March 2019, 122 countries had signed the Rome Statute.
Since he took power after a stunning electoral triumph in May last year, the 93-year-old Mahathir has also opted to dump a campaign promise to ratify a U.N. treaty against racial discrimination, amid a backlash from critics who expressed fears that it could undermine privileges for Malays enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution.
Observer: Treaty ‘deliberately weaponized’
Former diplomat Dennis Ignatius said it was not confusion, ignorance or misunderstanding that derailed Malaysia’s support for the treaty but an orchestrated campaign of misinformation and disinformation.
“The Rome Statute was deliberately weaponized by powerful groups as part of a dangerous scheme to challenge and destabilize the government” Ignatius wrote in the Free Malaysia Today news portal on April 10.
“Clearly, powerful people … [who] feel threatened by the new government and its reform agenda are determined to undermine it in any way they can,” Ignatius said.
“It is not Mahathir who is betraying the trust of the people,” he said, "but those who are seeking to turn the rulers against the elected government."