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Summon the moral courage to uphold human rights for all

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On the occasion of Human Rights Day, which is observed on 10 December annually, the Malaysian Bar notes the commendable and much welcomed progress in the strengthening of human rights in Malaysia over the past seven months.

The progress can be seen in the government’s announcements of its intention to:

  • abolish the death penalty for all offences
  • accede to the remaining six core international human rights instruments to which Malaysia is not yet a state party
  • establish an ondependent police complaints and misconduct commission
  • abolish laws that it itself had described as “tyrannical” and “oppressive”

We also note the government’s stated acknowledgement of and respect for the constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

But several events in recent weeks have cast a shadow over the government’s vision of stronger protection of human rights in Malaysia.

Notwithstanding the advancements that have been made —

  • the prime minister’s strong speech in support of human rights at the United Nations General Assembly (“UNGA”) in New York on 28 September 2018
  • the resolution in Parliament on 16 October 2018 making the prime minister’s UN speech the foundation of Malaysia’s foreign policy
  • the reiteration of Malaysia’s commitment to human rights during the Universal Periodic Review of Malaysia by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 8 November 2018 —

– the about-turn in the government’s intention to accede to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to placate certain parties is at the very least, a disappointment.

At worst, however, it could signal a reneging of those very same manifesto promises that attracted voters to support a change in government on 9 May 2018.

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The same may be said of the government’s announcement that it has decided to withdraw the moratorium that it had imposed on the use of the Sedition Act 1948, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, and the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 in reaction to incidents of disorderly conduct at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya.

Although the government’s backpedalling on these human rights issues may, at least partly, be due to a desire for expediency in executive action to achieve its desired results, it is a step in the wrong direction.

It takes leaders with an unwavering moral compass and a steadfast commitment to human rights and the rule of law to uphold the dignity of the human being at all times, even in the face of fierce opposition.

On the occasion of Human Rights Day 2018, and particularly on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Malaysian Bar calls on the government to remain faithful to its manifesto promises on human rights and resolute in their implementation.

In this regard, we recall the words of the late Robert F Kennedy, the 64th United States Attorney General: “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

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George Varughese is president of the Malaysian Bar.

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