BY SHERIDAN MAHAVERA
November 17, 2013 (Malaysian Insider)
During the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, Finland got some harsh words on its treatment of ethnic minorities, and the critic was none other than Malaysia.
Malaysia wanted the Nordic nation to combat racism, intolerance and growing xenophobia in its society. It also urged Finland do more to promote multi-culturalism and protect religious minorities.
Malaysia even lambasted, using diplomatic language, the United Kingdom. Putrajaya said Britain must do more to address negative attitudes towards minority groups which include Muslims, and to stop racial profiling.
It smacked of the Malaysian government's hypocrisy, coming at a time the country barred its own Christian minority from using the word Allah, and the stoking of racial tensions, particularly against the Chinese, in the wake of the 13th general election.
According to the Suhakam commissioner, Malaysia’s hypocrisy reflected the futility of the whole UN process.
This year's UPR was held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, involving 104 countries.
According to Proham secretary-general Datuk Denison Jayasooria, the UPR is a peer-review process with participating countries scrutinising each other's human rights situation.
He explained that the UN conventions on universal human rights act as the yardstick which all member countries have agreed to in the UPR process.
The UPR calls attention to problems and recommends actions that should be taken to solve those problems in each country.
So Malaysia gets to point out other countries’ problems and to recommend solutions. In turn, these countries draw attention to Malaysia’s human rights.
The countries can then decide whether to accept the recommendations, or simply ignore them completely.
It is this point that struck critics of the UPR.
“So it’s like a meeting where everybody lives in a glass house and throws stones at each other,” said the Suhakam member, sarcastically.
Such cynicism is not unqualified.
What’s the point of participating when there is no real international pressure for Malaysia to improve its human rights record?
Would it not be better to just concentrate on pushing for change from within the country?
Lawyer Andrew Khoo explained that the peer review process of the UPR was essentially a forum for countries to talk frankly about their neighbours without seeming to interfere in each other’s affairs.
“For Asean countries, especially, it’s one of the rare ways in which they can point to each other's problems since Asean has a very strong principle of non-interference.
“Because what happens in one country affects others,” added Khoo, a co-chair of the Bar Council’s human rights committee who was in Geneva to attend the UPR session on Malaysia on October 24.
This is illustrated in the comments made by Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Nepal on Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers.
In total, Malaysia received 232 recommendations from Asian, African, Latin American and European countries.
There were 20 recommendations for Malaysia to improve access to healthcare in rural areas. This is while the country boasts of its success in eradicating poverty.
According to Khoo, most of the recommendations want Malaysia to do more to protect political and civil liberties, including freedom of assembly and speech, as well as rights of religious minorities.
They urge Malaysia to endorse the nine main international treaties on human rights, including a convention to end all forms of racial and gender discrimination, to protect civil rights, to end torture, and to provide for disabled persons, migrant workers and refugees.
Malaysia is signatory to only three of them, while Indonesia has signed eight.
Khoo stressed that every recommendation was important, and not just the sectors which got the most attention.
“Malaysia can’t take for granted that it is doing well in certain areas and can ignore other aspects of human rights. The overall message is that it must push forward in all areas,” he cautioned.
Bringing human rights home
Does the country’s image on the world stage matter to ordinary Malaysians?
Of late, some local Muslim groups have spoken out against the UPR process, claiming it was part of a “Western, liberal” agenda to undermine Islamic values.
They zeroed in on recommendations touching on freedom of sexual orientation and freedom of religion as examples of this “Western, liberal agenda”.
Yet, Denison pointed out that these were not the main recommendations made to Malaysia.
Missing from the argument were the recommendations from other Muslim countries urging Malaysia to protect freedom of expression and assembly, migrants' welfare and indigenous rights, as well as to end gender discrimination and human trafficking.
In an article published by The Malaysian Insider, Rama Ramanathan wrote that 35 Muslim countries including Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey had sent 77 recommendations to Malaysia.
Denison pointed out that the whole idea of a global human rights standard has the full support of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has its own independent and permanent human rights commission.
“The OIC is the second largest intergovernmental organisation... If the OIC takes a strong position on human rights, why is there a portrayal (in Malaysia) that human rights is a western agenda?” asked Denison.
This human rights standard has been the basis for the OIC to campaign for European countries to protect the rights of Muslim minorities there and to end discrimination against them.
“So if the OIC uses the framework of human rights to press for the protection of Muslims, Muslims in Malaysia cannot turn around and say human rights is a ‘Western agenda’,” added Denison.
The whole concept of a universal standard for human rights is to protect the individual from oppression, he said, whether it comes from individuals or governments.
It is the foundation upon which modern societies for the past 67 years have been built on. Even societies slacking in human rights have recognised its importance and try to adopt the standard.
Such a standard has largely kept peace and harmony between different peoples and religions, especially in a diverse society such as Malaysia, protecting Muslims and non-Muslims.
Herein lies the importance of universal human rights to ordinary Malaysians. - November 17, 2013.