Human rights are for everybody, irrespective of who you are and where you are from, Khoo Ying Hooi writes.
Not a day goes by without news of human rights violations in countries across all regions of the world.
In the South East Asia region itself, we are confronted with arrests of political dissidents and activists in Cambodia; infringement of media freedom and freedom of expression in Malaysia; repression of dissent in the Philippines and the list goes on.
Covid-19 has, to a large extent, worsened the existing threats to human rights and peace in the region. Certain groups such as refugees and migrant workers continue to be denied their rights and face discrimination. Malaysia’s xenophobic response to migrant workers in Malaysia is one example.
The question that must be asked is, have human rights failed? I have been fortunate to explore its central ideas and concepts amid the myths and misconceptions of human rights, a subject often debated yet little understood. Although many misconceptions and much resistance towards the concept of human rights remain, we cannot deny the role it plays in our daily life.
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Let me share some thoughts about this hotly debated issue. Before we judge whether human rights have failed, it is crucial for us to first ask ourselves, what are human rights? Human rights are rights that belong to all of us by virtue of our being human. Underpinning all rights is the foundation of non-discrimination, that these rights are inalienable irrespective of gender, race, religion, sexuality or any other grounds. It involves rules and norms for human interaction, which are often explained with a moral component.
As time passes, human rights have been codified into declarations, laws and institutions that classify how human beings should treat each other. Basically, they refer to what we need to live a life with dignity.
There have been various misconceptions of human rights in the South East Asian region. The most profound one is the belief that international human rights reflect “Western values”, and it would be insensitive to impose them on non-Western cultures. The concept of Asian values is sometimes being put forward to argue against the universality of human rights.
Some might question, how can human rights be universal in such a politically diverse world? What happens when fundamental rights clash with one another? Which rights should prevail? Whose rights should be given priority?
It is equally important to be culturally sensitive as we observe the debate between universalism and cultural relativism, however to divide it between Western vs non-Western would be to ignore the evolution of human rights itself.
For that reason, the text of the international human rights instruments has been carefully drafted. For instance, when a country ratifies a human rights treaty, they can put forward their reservations concerning certain provisions if they wish. Countries are expected to incorporate these instruments into their domestic laws.
The Dalai Lama, in a speech delivered in 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, observed: “Internationally, our rich diversity of cultures and religions should help to strengthen fundamental human rights in all communities. Underlying this diversity are basic human principles that bind us all together as members of the same human family.
“The question of human rights is so fundamentally important that there should be no difference of views about it. We all have common human needs and concerns. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering regardless of our race, religion, sex or social status. However, mere maintenance of a diversity of traditions should never justify the violations of human rights. Thus, discrimination against persons of different races, against women, and against weaker sections of society may be traditional in some regions, but if they are inconsistent with universally recognized human rights, these forms of behaviour should change. The universal principle of the equality of all human beings must take precedence.”
Fundamental human rights are designed to protect the inherent dignity of all of us, despite our different cultures or backgrounds. No one should be tortured or imprisoned without a fair trial or deprived of fair access to food, water, health, shelter or education. These principles, which emphasise human dignity and of the importance of justice, are reflected in the teachings of all religions and all cultures across the world.
The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by a vote of 48 in favour (14 European and other Western nations, 19 from Latin America, 15 from Africa and Asia), none against, and eight abstentions. Over the decades since the adoption of the declaration, governments from all regions have expressed their support for its 30 articles including freedom to have leisure.
The other turning point in the history of human rights was the Vienna Declaration, adopted by 171 governments with consensus at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights. The Declaration reaffirmed: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
So, have human rights failed?
The stark fact is that human rights have proven far more useful to us than they did to those living in that era. Apart from the UN, different regions and countries have legal systems that can protect and implement those rights. Often, what is lacking is the will to do so.
The myths and misconceptions of human rights need further clarification and understanding. We need to find ways to demystify human rights.
Human rights are for everybody, irrespective of who you are and where you are from.