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Monday, 9 December 2013

The way forward for Malaysia on Human Rights Concerns

By Rama Ramanathan

On the eve of the 65th anniversary of the United Nations which was created in 1948 as part of a global effort to avoid war, promote the enjoyment of human rights globally and establish peace, we heard from many moderate voices and felt some optimism about a way forward for Malaysia.
At the Proham- GMM Discussion held on Dec 9, 2013, we needed to be told the obvious. An ambassador from a foreign mission to Malaysia told us: our meeting demonstrated the value of the United Nations Periodic Review (UPR).

Concern about the UPR [report card] caused Proham, an NGO formed by former Malaysian Human Rights Commissioners and Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), to organize the discussion we were at.
Concern about the UPR made Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, GMM CEO to suggest, host and moderate the meeting. Concern about the UPR caused 5 distinguished persons to give prepared talks at the meeting, which was attended by representatives of numerous Malaysian NGO’s.

Lin, Shad & Raihanah
Datuk Saifuddin revealed Malaysia’s best kept secret: A Malaysian woman is one of the first 18 Human Rights Commissioners in the Independent, Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) formed in June 2011!
Associate Professor Dr Raihanah Abdullah, a specialist in Islamic Law, is the Director of the UM Centre for Civilizational Dialogue.

Professor Raihanah: Human Rights and the OIC. Professor Dr Raihanah pointed out the OIC’s keen awareness of the negative view “the West” has of Islam with respect to Human Rights. She spoke of the importance the OIC places on Human Rights, the current focus being: human rights failures in Israel, Syria, Mali and Myanmar; women and children; Islamophobia.
Professor Shad Faruqi: Human Rights and ignorance of Islam. Professor Faruqi of UITM, probably Malaysia’s best known constitutional expert, said that he himself was 35 years old when he became aware of what he considers the greatest human rights speech ever made. He revealed the second secret: the speech was made by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Professor Faruqi was referring to the Prophet’s farewell speech made about 1435 years ago in Arafat. He pointed out the deep concerns expressed there and laid out as principles of conduct: equality of all mankind, regardless of race or colour; the right of every foetus, and mother; a profound disavowal of monopoly; the right of refuge and asylum – and a host of other principles.
Professor Faruqi added that while Islam places a high value on human rights, Islam places a similarly high value on human obligations. He cautioned us not to forget that any discussion of human rights within an Islamic framework must also include discussion of sin and sacrilege. He proposed that education in Islamic aspects of human rights is important for moving forward.

Dr Lin Min Kiang: Ratification of Human Rights Treaties. Dr Lin, until recently the UN Coordination Specialist in Malaysia, spoke about Malaysia’s status in ratifying core human rights conventions. Dr Lin pointed out the third secret: in this round of the UPR, only China received more recommendations than Malaysia.
Dr Lin also noted that if we take the number of core conventions signed by any nation as an indicator of Human Rights within the nation, we fall in the bottom five percent worldwide in every grouping – whether NAM (Non Aligned Movements), OIC, the Commonwealth or the UN.

Tan Sri Michael Yeoh: Protect, respect, remedy. Tan Sri Michael, CEO of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) and Vice Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, said Malaysia has done well in Asean: “we have punched above our weight;” but, not in the area of human rights.
Tan Sri Michael suggested we need to challenge or redefine Asean’s policy of non-interference and the requirement to reach consensus before doing anything. He proposed that we could put this on the agenda in 2015 when we will again chair Asean. He stressed the importance of applying 3 key words to every aspect of human rights: Protect. Respect. Remedy.

Denison, Saifuddin & Michael
Datuk Denison Jayasooria: Actionable Agenda. Datuk Denison, Proham Secretary General, was upbeat about the future of human rights in Malaysia. He is encouraged by the keen interest shown by GMMF, and by the fact that the UPR report leads to a simple, actionable agenda.  He proposed 5 key elements in the agenda:
·         Ratify the Core Human Rights Treaties.

·         Strengthen Suhakam legislation and processes, including debate of Suhakam’s Annual Report and appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights.

·         Develop a Human Rights Action Plan.

·         Establish a permanent, ongoing dialogue between government and civil society in Malaysia: government and NGO’s should meet frequently in Malaysia, not every 5 years in Geneva.

·         Improve human rights education of (a) politicians, (2) civil servants and (3) enforcement officers.

There are still many unasked and unanswered questions, the most obvious being: Who will take the lead on the government side? How will current issues, e.g. those pertaining to land acquisition in Sabah and Sarawk, be resolved? Developing the answers, appointing people to and empowering them to accomplish the goals will take time. This is just the beginnings of dialogue, with some Key Opinion Leaders at the table.
At the end of the meeting, it was clear that if moderates don’t speak up, if moderates don’t act, if moderates don’t act in concert, the field will be left to extremists. And that is not what the vast majority of Malaysians want.

Is this a sign that a Malaysian movement of moderates has awakened?
Tan Sri Razali Ismail, a (now retired) senior Malaysian diplomat who negotiated Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2002, and is now Chairman of GMMF, offered a brief comment. He said “we cannot continue as we are, it’s getting embarrassing.”

Tan Sri Razali said we have to accept that we’re different – we’re multi-ethnic, multi-religious, etc. – therefore our path will have to be different. But, that doesn’t mean we must sit still; no, we must progress. We don’t have to do everything immediately, but we must do something. We must agree what we have to do, and who has to do it. Then we have to do it, and we have to hold people accountable.
There is hope. The message is getting through. We must keep up the momentum! Happy Human Rights Day!

Rama is a Proham volunteer and blogger



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