Why Malaysia has joined the ICC

Malaysia officially became the 124th State Party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 4. The accession of this important, majority Muslim southeast Asian country is a success for the Court. Two issues have undoubtedly played a role in Kuala Lumpur's decision: the destruction of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft over Ukraine in 2014; and crimes committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Why Malaysia has joined the ICC©Mohd RASFAN / AFP
Reason number 1 to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Kuala Lumpur: to bring justice to the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines' flight MH17, shot down in Ukraine on 17 July 2014.
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After resisting for 20 years, Malaysia finally ratified the Statute of Rome on March 4. It thus joins the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent court set up in 1998 which can try crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression committed anywhere in the world.

Malaysia becomes the fourth country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to join the ICC after Cambodia, East Timor and the Philippines. In March 2018, however, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his country's withdrawal from the ICC, after it announced a preliminary examination for crimes against humanity related to his "war on drugs" that killed thousands of people. The Philippines' withdrawal could thus become effective from March 17, 2019.

Flight MH17

There are two main reasons for the decision of Malaysia, which has been led since May 2018 by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad.

The first is related to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a Boeing 777 carrying 298 people including 43 Malaysians that was shot down in July 2014 by a missile most likely fired by pro-Russian armed groups in eastern Ukraine, killing everyone on board.  As most of the victims were Dutch, Malaysia consented to the criminal investigation and judicial process being carried out in the Netherlands. But some Malaysian politicians like Human Resources Minister Kulasegaran suggested that if Malaysia had already ratified the Rome Statute at the time, it could have brought the MH17 case to the ICC. "The best way to bring justice to victims of crimes of this magnitude is for national courts to be complemented by the ICC," he said in November 2018. And after ratification of the treaty, Kulasegaran said that "by joining the ICC, Kuala Lumpur can now play an important role in all matters related to crimes against humanity".

Crimes against the Rohingyas

The other, probably stronger factor is that Malaysia is the only ASEAN member to have clearly denounced the mass crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese military in eastern Myanmar. These crimes resulted in the forced exodus of about one million Rohingya to Bangladesh. In September 2018, ICC judges ruled that the court had jurisdiction over at least some of these crimes, and granted the ICC Prosecutor the right to investigate. Malaysia's ratification therefore makes sense, as it is convinced that only an international mechanism can bring justice to the Rohingya. "For us, it is very important that the (ICC) investigation into the case of Myanmar and humanitarian crimes shed light on the situation, so that the criminals responsible are brought before the Court," said Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in February 2019.

The ratification is also part of the new Malaysian Prime Minister's desire to play a more active role in ASEAN. This is illustrated both by Malaysian government interventions on the Rohingya issue and its support for peace negotiations between the Thai government and separatist rebels in southern Thailand.

Malaysia's accession brings the ICC a much-needed credibility boost. With a population of 31 million mainly Muslims, this country extends the Court's jurisdiction and influence in a region where it had remained little recognized. The last major country to join the ICC was Côte d'Ivoire in 2013 and before that, in 2011, Tunisia and... the Philippines.