Interview with Malaysia’s Ambassador to the United Nations

Dato’ Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob presents his credentials to Antonio Guterres

 

May 23, 2017 – Javier Delgado Rivera sat down in New York with Malaysia´s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Dato’ Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob. Among other issues, they talked about Kuala Lumpur’s role in the United Nations Security Council during its 2015-16 membership as well as the Council’s controversial resolution on Palestine last December; Malaysia’s sizable involvement in peacekeeping operations around the word; and the country’s coordination with the U.N. in the aftermath of the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur.

During 2015-2016 Malaysia served a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – the world’s top diplomatic body. What was Malaysia’s top achievement?

There were several accomplishments that I could highlight, but if I have to single out one I would pick the historic UNSC Resolution 2334 (2016) of last December, where we played a leading role towards its adoption. The resolution called for Israel to stop the illegal construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. It was the first time in 36 years that the Council issued such a warning on Israeli settlements and we were behind this significant success. The last attempt by the Council to adopt such a resolution was vetoed by the U.S. back in 2011.   

Just before the adoption of that resolution, your predecessor, Ambassador Ramlan Ibrahim, stated thatfor far too long, the Council has been in a state of inaction when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” What should the UNSC be doing to help settle the situation in Palestine after more than half a century of clashes and tensions? Is there any scope for that to happen now with a Trump’s administration in the U.S. much more supportive of Israel than the Obama’s ever was?  

A political deal should be reached based on the two-state solution where Israel and Palestine live side by side, along the lines of the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is not only our focus but the one of the majority of U.N. member states. Together with them, we will continue to assess current and future actions taken by the new U.S. administration in our collective efforts to find amicable solutions to the conflicts of the Middle East.

Currently Malaysia contributes 891 personnel to U.N. peacekeeping operations across 7 missions – with 825 alone stationed in the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Since Malaysia began sending blue helmets in 1960, the country has suffered 29 fatalities in 13 missions. What do Malaysians gain from getting involved in U.N. peacekeeping missions?

Supporting the U.N.’s goal of maintaining international peace and security is a fundamental responsibility of all its member states. As a small country, Malaysia believes that one of the areas where we can make a substantive contribution to conflict resolution and nation building in the world’s most trouble spots is through peacekeeping initiatives. As you point out, we have suffered 29 fatalities, although actually only one of our soldiers was killed in action, specifically during the 1993 Bakara market incident in Somalia [an incident which had been made into a Hollywood film, the Black Hawk Down]. The remaining 28 died in unfortunate circumstances, like road accidents. The sacrifices made by our soldiers and police personnel will not be forgotten. In fact, they further strengthen Malaysia’s resolve to support future U.N. peacekeeping efforts around the world.

Tan Sri Dr. Ramon Navaratnam, a prominent Malaysian economist, recently wrote that Malaysia could be the first country in the world to fully implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – or Global Goals, a UN-spearheaded initiative launched in 2016 to end poverty and hunger and lift the living standards of the world’s most vulnerable people by 2030. Yet according to UNESCO, 4 out of 10 Malaysians are in the lowest income bracket. Are you as optimistic as Dr. Navaratnam?

I am very optimistic about Malaysia’s ability to achieve the 17 Global Goals. Remember that in the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (the SDGs precursor), our government did a remarkable job in raising the living standards of millions of Malaysians by breaking the circle of exclusion and destitution in which they were trapped for generations.

As the U.N. highlighted in its 2015 Malaysia’s Millennium Development Goals Report, poverty incidence has already been halved in all Malaysian states and their poverty rate (population living with less than US$ 1 per day) is today less than 1% – except for the state of Sabah and Labuan Federal Territory.

The Malaysian government, through its Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), is decidedly committed to ensuring equitable opportunities for all with a focus on the bottom 40% of the country’s households. For this to happen, the government will launch initiatives centered on productivity assistance, entrepreneurship and skills training, as well as technology adoption and investment in connectivity, to name just a few targets.

Representatives of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have warned that without effective collaboration among ASEAN partners, terrorism in Southeast Asia will thrive, noting that as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) continues to lose territorial control in the Middle East, its fighters will disperse and move back to their countries of origin – it is reckoned that they are more than 1,000 IS militants from Southeast Asia fighting in the Middle East. Do these U.N. officials have a point?

They do, although this problem does not affect every ASEAN state in the same way. In fact, ASEAN has the mechanisms in place to address the question of IS returnees and its members are already addressing security issues and concerns linked to this phenomenon, such as human trafficking, counter-terrorism and drugs. This also includes cooperation and arrangements in information sharing among the organization’s ten member states.

In Malaysia we have foiled several terrorist attempts carried out by IS sympathizers. In only one instance extremists were able to inflict some damage, when in June 2016 a hand grenade was thrown at a night club at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur injuring eight people. This highlights that the threat is real and therefore, we must remain vigilant.

A few weeks ago, Malaysian Foreign Minister said that Kuala Lumpur does not acknowledge Beijing’s “nine-dash line” expansive claim over territories in the South China Sea. Have you actually talked about this with your Chinese counterpart?

I have not discussed this issue with my Chinese colleague here in New York. We focus our work around issues on the U.N. agenda.

In late February, the UK Ambassador to the U.N. urged Malaysia to share evidence with the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Security Council about the gas used in the attack that killed a half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport on February 13. Has this already happened?

At that point of time it was too early for us to share the information as investigations were still ongoing. We have now identified the gas used in this assassination as VX, a powerful nerve agent classified by the U.N. as a weapon of mass destruction. We are now working closely with the OPCW to address a host of questions around this incident, such as how the gas was brought in or whether there could be any stockpiles in the country or the region.

Last month Malaysia decided to ask the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) to review a 2008 ruling on Singapore’s ownership of the small island of Pedra Banca (Pulau Batu Puteh by Malaysia). Why this is happening now?

We have the right to do so. Article 61 of the ICJ Statute allows for the resumption of a claim if it is brought within six months of the discovery of the new evidence or facts, and within 10 years of the date of the judgment. We have recently found new evidence to strengthen our arguments, so we are requesting the ICJ to review this case.

Javier Delgado Rivera is a freelance journalist covering the United Nations and is the editor of The UN Times @TheUNTimes. He is on Twitter @JavichuDR