Malaysia’s election into the new United Nations Human Rights Council should have been a matter of pride, but Angeline Loh wonders whether the government will be able to fulfil its lofty pledges to uphold human rights.
Malaysia’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council is received with mixed feelings. The government should be congratulated on its success in getting Malaysia represented once again in the world human rights body, having been a member of the former United Nations Human Rights Commission for four terms including the 2005 to 2007 term. This is, however, quite surprising since the new international human rights council is to replace the soon-to-be-abolished Human Rights Commission which fell into disrepute after being politicised, ineffective and inefficient.
Moreover, in contrast to some other members of the United Nations Organisation who failed to be elected to the UNHR Council, Malaysia is amongst the member states that have ratified the least number of human rights treaties and conventions. For example, Krgyzstan, which was in the running and only garnered 88 votes has actually ratified 11 human rights treaties, according to Human Rights Watch figures. This is as many as have been ratified by the Philippines and Sri Lanka who have also won places on UNHRC. The only other nation which is low on ratifications is Pakistan, but which is signatory to 3 human rights treaties, one more than Malaysia.
We hope that, being a member of the new UNHRC, will compel Malaysia to fulfil its duties and obligations under the UN mandate in a more visible and concrete manner than it has done in the past. Malaysia should be looking to ratify more international human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as others.
Should we be proud?
Yes, we should be proud to be elected as one of the “pioneer” nations on this newly revamped body of the United Nations, but we should also justify our position there by being seen to fulfil the promise to uphold our obligations as a member of the United Nations under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The incorporation of international human rights law into our national laws would be a firm statement of our commitment to upholding and promoting human rights as a member of the UNHRC.
Malaysia’s three pledges
According to the Aide-Memoire submitted to the United Nations Secretariat in New York, dated 28 April 2006 by our government, Malaysia has pledged to recognise basic human rights in holding free, fair and peaceful elections, having a free media including the online media, upholding mutual racial and religious tolerance in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society; as was stated in paragraph 5 of the said document, “…respect for diversity which is based on an inclusive and responsive political and legal system which balances civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and opinion and the wider needs of society.” (Quoted from the Aide-Memoire).
Moreover, the Malaysian government pledged to encourage “active and vibrant civil societies”.
Amongst other things, the role of SUHAKAM was clearly stated as a monitor of human rights developments in the country and is empowered to investigate complaints relating to human rights violations (Paragraph 6, Aide-Memoire). The pledge stops short of defining what measures the government will take to alleviate or remedy an abuse or violation of human rights.
The Aide-Memoire further touches on good governance, integrity and transparency in the public sector, as stated in paragraph 9: “Malaysia is fully aware that good governance, integrity in the public sector and transparency in Government’s activities are essential if the goals of full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms are to be achieved”.
The points discussed are those thought to be important to highlight with regard to our present circumstances. It is good that these pledges by our government are made public – which is a step in the right direction towards the promotion of human rights in a home country of a member of the UNHRC.
What should Malaysia do now?
Malaysia should be looking to carry out its pledges and fulfilling its obligations as a long time member of the world human rights body and working to reduce human rights violations nationally, therefore creating an environment in which the human rights of all are protected nationally and internationally.
We should also ratify more international human rights treaties and find ways and means to increase respect for and prevent abuse of human rights in this country, especially in cases of abuse known to occur in prisons, police lock ups, and immigration detention centres as well as in situations of violence against women and gender, racial, religious, and economic discrimination. Malaysia should also invite the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders to visit our country. This UN representative had repeatedly indicated her interest in visiting Malaysia but had “no positive response” from the Malaysian government.
For the government to hold itself out as supporting human rights and for our country to be a significant member of the international community as a UN Human Rights Council member, it would not be satisfactory or appropriate to backtrack on the pledges it has made. We would lose the respect of the international community, if this should happen.
The disrupted forum
To put events in sequence and considering that Malaysia had actually been a member of the UN Human Rights body (formerly the UNHR Commission), election to the UN Human Rights Council came before the protest against the Aliran/Article 11 Forum. Even so, it is difficult to excuse the authorities, particularly the police who should have been able to do their job under the circumstances and should have allowed the forum to continue as planned, because participants and organisers of the forum were not causing any public disturbance. In fact, Aliran and Article 11, as the organisers, bent over backwards, by allowing some of the leaders of the protest into the hall without any hindrance to listen to what was being said by the speakers.
It is most regrettable and unfortunate that these representatives of the Anti-Inter-Faith Commission protestors did not use this opportunity to state their case in an intelligent and rational manner but sought merely to disrupt the proceedings without stopping to think of what the forum was really about.
The forum would have looked at some of the problems arising in the rights enshrined in our Federal Constitution, including the overlapping jurisdiction of the civil (secular) and Syariah courts. The problems arising from the existing gap in the law as was explained by Professor Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi and the cases in which this problem arises, as stated by Ms. Honey Tan, were the core issues to be discussed by the forum.
In contrast, the protestors were protesting about a non-issue as discussion about the Inter-Faith Commission was NOT on the agenda and the forum was NOT going to address this issue. It is surprising and disappointing that the protestors appeared to be confused as to what the forum was all about, giving the impression that they could have been misled and misinformed by others, thus jeopardising national unity and harmony.
The government’s stance – in condemning the protestors but at the same time going along with the police action to cut short the forum – runs contrary to their pledge to ensure that human rights is upheld.
If the trend of succumbing to mob rule continues, then Malaysia’s election to the UNHRC can only be seen as another public relations exercise between the international community and the ruling party.
It remains to be seen if the government’s commitment to human rights is serious and whether it will use this golden opportunity to make Malaysia a model democratic state, an aspiration that is so frequently expressed by the government but is not yet a reality.
The UN, for its part, should only elect to the Human Rights Council those countries with exemplary human rights records rather than using geographical considerations, which in some cases could lead to a mockery of the principles of justice.