By Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria (Proham Secretary General)Every year the United Nations sets aside March 21 as the day to celebrate inter-racial and ethnic diversity and to combat racism. It is a day to make a stand for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination in our society and the world we live in.
In many parts of world ethnic tensions and conflicts continue to exist. In all societies there is some element of prejudice and indifference among the different peoples of the world.
However we cannot be complacent about these but must address these based on fundamental values of the goodness of humanity – that all human beings, irrespective of the colour of their skin or religion or place of origin have human dignity and human rights which are universal.
Our foundations could be based on our religious or cultural values but fundamental is the ‘inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ which is documented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), the Cairo Declaration and the Asean Declaration of Human RightsAt the global level we have had and continue to have incidents where the instrument of the state have supported and nurtured racial superiority and instituted mechanisms for discrimination, exploitation, cruelty and abuse including murder and genocide.
In our global history we have had majorities victimising minorities or minorities victimising the majorities. We have witnessed the oppression of slavery in the West and the suffering of the Afro-Caribbean communities, the brutal abuse of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the genocide by Hitler & the Nazis, the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnians, Rwandans, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and the plight of the Palestinians & Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The UN Convention (ICERD)The global body formulated a global commitment to fight racism through a UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination (ICERD) in 1965. Majority of the countries of the world have ratified ICERD including a majority of ASEAN and Muslim majority countries of OIC. However there are only 16 countries which have not.
Malaysia is one of them. Others are Anglo, Myanmar, Singapore and North Korea who have not ratified ICERD. For Malaysian not doing this comes as a surprise as we have always highlighted the richness of our cultural, linguist and ethnic diversity. Malaysia has also been promoting moderation at the global levels. Therefore there is an urgent need for Malaysia to ratify ICERD and stand talk among the nations of the worldICERD seeks “to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.
Malaysian reluctance to ratify
So the question remains why is Malaysia not among the majority nations of the world? Why is Malaysia resisting the ratification when it has already ratified other UN Conventions and Malaysia plays an active global role not just in peace keeping force but also in the promotion of the movement of moderates and its role both at Asean and the human rights commissionIn a number of roundtables discussions on .ICERD and ratification’ there are number of common concerns that are frequently highlighted especially by civil servants and politicians from the Federal government. These concerns have been well documented in the UKM Ethnic Studies paper series 21 (Oct 2012).
First, is pertaining to the idea that UDHR and UN declarations and conventions are anti-Islam or not compatible with Islamic teaching. The document heighted in contrast is the OIC–Cairo Declaration on Human Rights as the standard bench mark. This kind of thinking is not well informed as a majority of OIC countries have ratified a majority of UN conventions and Cairo Declaration is consistent with ICERD and moves beyond by recognising God as the creator God of all human beings and therefore there can be no discrimination. In some areas especially family law, sexuality and religious freedom some countries have reservations but as these Muslim majority countries are part of the UN system they subscribe to the UN standards have ratified them.The second frequent concern and at times objection is based on the Federal Constitution article 153 on the special position of the Malays and natives. This objection is also not well placed as the ICERD makes provision for affirmative action or positive discrimination with a special article 4 on ‘special measures’. In addition there is another provision entitled General Recommendation No 32 entitled ‘The meaning and scope of special measures in ICERD’
However there are some guidelines in the implementation of special measuresimplying that there is no provision for interpreting this provision as special rights or even from a stand point of view as racial superiority. It is seen as a short term measure to address historical socio-economic disadvantage but once the disadvantage has been addressed the provision must be terminated and equally accessible to all communities.This position of ICERD is consistent with the thrust of the Federal constitution of Malaysia where it states in Article 8 “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”. Article 153 on the ‘special position of the Malays and natives’ must be read not as racial superiority, but addressing a disadvantage situation. This must be in balance with the ‘legitimate rights of other communities’ which is another dimension of article 153 which has not received sufficient attention in legal interpretations and administrative delivery of services.
There is a possibility that some politicians and civil servants have a difficulty with this aspect that in the long term all affirmative action and positive discrimination aspects need to cease if the position of disadvantage has been addressed.There could be another factor that with the ratification there must also be a full public disclosure of all affirmative action assistance provided such as scholarships, business license & permits, positions in the civil service etc. This aspect of full disclosure and transparency is in fact very good for good governance in order to ensure that the special measure really reaches the actual target group and not abused by the elites.
Thirdly often during round table discussions some official’s float a number of objections and concerns. These are, the old argument of Asian values and the irrelevance of UDHR. Others raise issues that Malaysia is not ready or issues pertaining to the interference of the global body on Malaysia’s domestic affairs. Some indicate that it is better for us to correct some our internal problems so that when we ratify we can be able to fulfil them. There are some other local issues which need to be address pertaining to land matters and the 20 agreement during the formation of Malaysia especially by Sabah and Sarawak and the Federation.Malaysia’s future response
Any kind of reason or excuse seems futile in the current global climate of globalisation and the pro-democracy position of a majority of countries of the world. Malaysia cannot afford to be among the minority nations that are resisting the benchmarking of our ethnic relations with the UN global community instrument of ICERDTherefore as we approach GE 13 we must reflect on political parties and candidates that say ‘NO’ to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. We must elected candidates who have a track record of fighting racial discrimination and who will after GE 13 play an advocacy role in Parliament for its ratification by the Federal government.
We must read the election manifestos to discern if the political parties and the leaders will be change agents to truly establish a society where there is transformational shift from tolerance to appreciation to acceptance of inter-ethnic and religious differences. Let us truly build a united, peaceful, happy and prosperous Malaysia for all Malaysians.-------------------------
Article was first published in Malay Mail (March 18, 2013).
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