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Promises, promises… as Malaysia eyes seat on UN Human Rights Council

Let’s hope the pledges made at the international level will hold true on the ground in Malaysia

Can Malaysia live up to its human rights pledges? - geneva.usmission.gov

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The government recently published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website its voluntary pledges and commitments for its candidature to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the 2022-24 term.

According to the website post, Malaysia was unanimously endorsed by Asean as the Southeast Asia regional grouping’s candidate to the council.

If elected to the UNHRC, Malaysia has pledged to:

  1. Take a whole-of-society approach in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country, primarily in the assessment, monitoring and implementation of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations [Under this review, the council reviews the human rights record of each nation, giving government representatives the chance to say what the country has done to improve human rights.]
  2. Cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other relevant UN agencies towards the promotion of human rights in the country and globally
  3. Continue to engage constructively with the UNHRC and its mechanisms while espousing a moderate and balanced perspective to nurture a spirit of cooperation
  4. Implement policies and legislations that promote and protect the rights of the most vulnerable groups
  5. Strengthen efforts to achieve gender equality, women’s empowerment and eliminate violence against women
  6. Take greater steps in engaging and empowering youth
  7. Develop a national action plan on business and human rights
  8. Intensify efforts to promote a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and improve understanding of the effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights
  9. Continue to promote diversity through respect for cultural rights
  10. Continue to strengthen the human rights institution (Suhakam) and mechanism in Malaysia
  11. Continue to engage constructively with other all UN member states and stakeholders towards the full realisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The document then lists how the country will fulfil these pledges. It contains phrases like whole-of-society approach, promotion of human rights, engaging constructively, protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, sustainable environment, promoting diversity, strengthening human rights institution and achieving gender equality.

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But what do these terms and phrases really mean given the ongoing struggle for human rights on the ground in Malaysia. There seems to be a dissonance between some of these pledges and plans in the document and the reality on the ground.

Take, for example, pledge 5: Strengthen efforts to achieve gender equality, women empowerment and eliminate violence against women.

Much of what is written under this section are ongoing efforts, ie 30% participation of women at decision-making levels in the country, a host of initiatives to address domestic violence, women’s digital literacy and initiatives for childcare services during the Covid-19 pandemic and plans to improve the Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women, which includes the development of a gender mainstreaming framework.

But the actual outreach of these efforts or how these efforts are being monitored for effective implementation or evaluated is another matter.

The write-up in this section stresses the government’s priority to women’s empowerment and gender equality, as well as the development of a gender equality bill.

 Malaysia has always given utmost priority to women empowerment and gender equality. As a HRC member, Malaysia would remain fully committed to upholding its treaty obligations to CEDAW….

As part of the effort to strengthen the legal framework to advance gender equality and women empowerment, the Government is developing the Sexual Harassment Bill and Gender Equality Bill.

There are many things to say about how gender is defined and understood by the government. But let’s just look at gender and our nationality laws.

Under Malaysian law (Federal Constitution, Second Schedule, Part II Citizenship by operation of law of persons born on or after Malaysia Day, a Malaysian man can confer his citizenship automatically when his child is born abroad to a foreign spouse. The law is silent for a Malaysian mother in a similar situation (ie married to a foreign spouse and living abroad).

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The interpretation of the law until now is that she cannot automatically pass her citizenship to her child born outside Malaysia. She can make a separate application under Article 15(2), which states:

Subject to Article 18, the Federal Government may cause any person under the age of twenty-one years whose parents one at least is (or was at death) a citizen, to be registered as a citizen upon application made to the Federal Government by his parent or guardian.

However, the reality is that obtaining a successful application of citizenship for children this way reportedly has been a lengthy and difficult process with only a faint chance of success.

If gender equality was really a priority of the government, in line with its pledge, wouldn’t it have taken steps to amend this legislation ages ago?

In 1995, Malaysia ratified a UN document of commitment towards removing all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw), albeit with some reservations. A quarter of a century (ie 25 years) later, while several reservations have been removed, the reservation on Article Nine of Cedaw – equal rights of men and women in conferring nationality to their children – remains.

If gender equality was truly a priority for the government, in line with its pledge, would there have been a need for six Malaysian mothers and an NGO, Family Frontiers, to go to court to challenge the nationality laws in the Constitution, which they claim are sexist and deny them equal rights to confer citizenship on their children?

The suit filed seeks a declaration that the right to citizenship should also be granted to children of Malaysian mothers. The suit also seeks to compel the government and its agencies to issue citizenship documents, including identity cards and passports, to all children born to Malaysian mothers outside of Malaysia.

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If gender equality was truly a priority for the government, as the pledge suggests, would the government have sought to strike out this lawsuit citing it as frivolous and an abuse of the court process?

And if the pledge towards legislation on gender equality is to be honoured, would the nationality laws continue to exist and be interpreted in the current existing manner?

There are many other examples of dissonance between the pledges and the realities on the ground.

All around us we continue to see the struggles of the poor, the Orang Asli, the Orang Asal, the farmers, the fisherfolk, the contract cleaners, the LGBT community, the migrant workers, the refugees and asylum seekers and many other vulnerable groups.

And let us not forget the deaths in custody and the desperate need for accountability from enforcement agencies. Let us also uphold the right to freedom of thought and expression. There are so many unjust situations in the country which need addressing.

The government can sit on some international platform somewhere and discuss human rights for all. Yes, for sure there is a role to be played in making sure voices and interests of the South or of Asean are heard at the international level.

But the people of this country need a government that is honest in what it says and does – both abroad and at home. Let’s hope that the pledges made at the international level will hold true on the ground in Malaysia, irrespective of whether the country gets a seat on the UNHRC.

With such pledges and plans made, our government must fulfil its duty to act locally, honestly and immediately. Because this is where it matters.

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