They say when you go to prison, you find out who your real friends are. And you remember who dumped you, or forgot about you, or who didn’t do all they could to get you out.
On Wednesday, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop was quick off the mark in welcoming the release of Malaysia’s jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. She said “We have followed Anwar’s trial and incarceration closely and have expressed concern to the previous Malaysian Government.”
Anwar’s release is of course good news and worthy of an Australian government statement. The statement is also strategic – Anwar is the Malaysian leader-in-waiting and crucial for continued close bilateral trade and security ties.
Yet during Anwar’s eight years of incarceration since 1999 – imprisoned twice on politically motivated sodomy and corruption charges – Australia’s overall response to the Malaysian government crackdown on activists and political opponents was less forthright and far more “muted,” as Anwar himself has noted.
Australian officials such as Bishop were quick to point out that more was happening “behind the scenes” and that Australian diplomats favour “quiet diplomacy.” Yet it’s hard to see the effectiveness of that approach.
One problem with quiet diplomacy is that no one hears it. It’s too much about developing collaborative relationships with government leaders in public, while supposedly raising troublesome issues like human rights behind closed doors.
Shortly after his release, Anwar told an Australian journalist that countries like Australia shouldn’t be seen to be “appeasing ruthless, corrupt, authoritarian leaders” in the interests of furthering trade relations and their economies. “It’s very painful for democrats, those who are struggling for freedom,” he said.
His frustration is understandable. In 2014, a Dfat official admitted Australia's reluctance to pressure the Malaysian government while court proceedings against Anwar were ongoing, telling Senator Nick Xenophon that, “As with all legal proceedings in that nature, we have not made specific representations on that case as it is still subject of further appeal to Malaysia’s highest court.”
But even after the failure of Anwar’s final appeal in 2015, the Australian government declined to call publicly for his release. Instead, it issued a limp statement: “As a friend of Malaysia, Australia encourages the Malaysian Government to consider the impact of recent decisions, including the Anwar verdict and the retention of the Sedition Act, on its international standing and its commitment to human rights.” Visits to Malaysia by senior Australian officials similarly failed to include public calls for Anwar’s freedom.
As Anwar himself has noted, other countries look to Australia, as a functioning and well-established democracy, to speak up when democratic freedoms are threatened elsewhere. This becomes even more important as a non-democratic China grows more assertive in the region.
In reality, the human rights issues get sidelined for closer trade and security ties.
We saw this in full effect in March, when prime minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted the leaders of Asean countries for a summit in Sydney. The focus was on generating closer business ties and counter-terrorism cooperation. Serious human rights concerns affecting a number of Asean countries were only discussed in response to questions from journalists.
Perhaps human rights issues were raised privately with Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak. However, all the Malaysian public saw from the visit were the beaming selfies that Najib posted of himself and Turnbull enjoying Sydney Harbour. This is another problem with quiet diplomacy – it enables leaders to ignore those conversations and spin high-level visits into expressions of public support for their rule.
Critics of a bolder human rights foreign policy argue that “lecturing” other countries isn’t helpful, but issuing public statements does not have to mean lecturing. Instead, standing in solidarity with the people of those countries is a powerful gesture of what the Australian government stands for.
Of course, Australia’s moral authority to speak publicly and convincingly on human rights in the region gets undercut by its own shortcomings in its rights record, especially its deplorable treatment of refugees and asylum seekers warehoused offshore. And Australia is desperate to maintain friendly relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours because their cooperation is crucial to maintaining Australia strict border control policies. Many of the migrants destined for Australia have wound up instead in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, making Australia even less willing to criticise these governments.
But as Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper notes, promoting an international rules-based order grounded in human rights is in Australia’s interests: “We are a determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights. The government believes that our support internationally for these values also serves to advance our national interests.”
Australia’s lame response to Anwar’s imprisonment in Malaysia cannot be undone. But Asian prisons still unjustly incarcerate many prominent activists and opposition politicians, among them Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha. Speaking out clearly and regularly for their release should begin now.