By Rama Ramanathan
On 21st March the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Suhakam, issued a press statement which said:
“Of the 232 recommendations received from UN Member States during the review held on 24 October 2013, Malaysia has accepted 150 recommendations, 113 of which are accepted in full, 22 accepted in principle and 15 accepted partially. Malaysia did not support 83 recommendations which call for immediate changes to existing laws, regulations and policies or matters which it is not prepared to consider or commit to implement at this juncture.”
A day earlier, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website said:
“Jordan had accepted 126 recommendations and noted the remaining 47; . . . Malaysia had received 232 recommendations, including 150 that received support while the rest had been noted; and that the Central African Republic had accepted 177 and noted one.”
When was the last time you heard or read the word ‘recommendation’? What do you think are the features of recommendations? Consider these questions: Why would you seek or offer recommendations? Does ‘recommendation’ imply a call to change something? Does a sentence beginning with “continue” constitute a recommendation?
Take a moment to answer those questions before you continue reading.
This is how an online Oxford dictionary defines recommendation:
“A suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body.”
Notice it doesn’t say anything about change. After my medical check-up I may ask my Doctor whether the results indicate a need for me to change my eating or exercise habits. My doctor may say “I recommend you continue doing everything you are doing just the way you are doing it now.” That’s a suggestion from an authoritative person. That’s a recommendation: a recommendation to continue as-is.
Recommendations to continue current practices are the best possible outcome of any independent examination of a business. It’s the outcome every manager wants. It’s a great compliment. It’s confirmation by an authoritative person that I’m doing the right things and I have no need to change anything.
If a recommendation is in truth a compliment, should we give credit for ‘accepting’ or ‘supporting’ such a recommendation? That’s the first problem I have with the UPR accounting process: it doesn’t differentiate between compliments and calls to action.
The second problem I have with the UPR accounting process is the language used to describe the responses to the recommendations. Why did Suhakam say “accepted 150 recommendations” and then add that the acceptance fell into 3 levels: fully, in-principle, and partially? Why did the UN say Jordan and the Central African Republic “accepted” recommendations whereas Malaysia “supported” recommendations?
The third problem I have with the UPR process is that the UN does not have a mechanism to call a lie a lie. For instance, the Malaysian government conditionally accepted or rejected some recommendations because we have an EAIC (Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission). Yet, every Malaysian knows the EAIC is comatose. Similarly, the Malaysian government said our police are being trained in human rights by Suhakam – though most Malaysians believe the training is totally ineffective. And Suhakam has been trying for years to get the Malaysian government to listen to it.
The UPR is a standard process designed to identify gaps in human rights compliance and to recommend changes. But it depends upon diplomats, persons who practice the art of diplomacy, which Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) defined in his The Devil’s Dictionary:
“The patriotic art of lying for one's country.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big supporter of the UPR process. The UPR process enables us to measure the enjoyment of human rights in our nation against global norms.
I like that the UPR process requires not only the government of the state under review, but also invites NGO’s and others, including UN agencies (“Special Procedures”) and non-national groups (e.g. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) to submit reports.
The government, with its almost unlimited resources will paint a rosy picture on a large canvas. The others will paint small bleak pictures targeted to get the attention of other nations’ diplomats – who will offer recommendations during the UPR process. (Whether these diplomats are “authoritative” is a matter I will leave for another time.)
The UPR gives citizens a platform to raise and debate human rights issues. It gives civil society the opportunity to draw attention to gross violations of human rights, and to campaign for change. But we must understand the process in order to benefit from it.
So, what does it mean when the UN says Malaysia “supports” 150 recommendations?
I used “first word analysis” to study the recommendations. I separated all the recommendations which are really compliments and called them weak recommendations, the acceptance or support of which matters little.
I won’t try your patience by going into the details of my analysis. Let me just say that I fragmented some compound recommendations, so according to me there are 249 recommendations. According to my methodology, only about 50 % of the recommendations are ‘strong.’
I found the recommendations could be grouped into 9 major categories. The following list shows the 3 categories which drew the most number of recommendations. This is how to read the list: Category (total number of recommendations, number of strong recommendations, number of “fully accepted” recommendations). Comment.
(1) International agreements (80, 51, 2). The world overwhelmingly told us, through 80 recommendations, to ratify the UN’s core human rights instruments. 51 of those recommendations were in stark, non-diplomatic language such that they could be classified as “do it now.” Our government fully accepted 2 recommendations.
(2) Special groups (70, 31, 11). We accepted 11 recommendations, spread across (1) birth registration, (2) gender training, (3) migrant workers, (4) trafficking in persons and (5) women’s rights. This is the only category in which our government seems to recognize a need for urgent actions – though what the actions will be remains to be seen.
(3) Police, courts and punishment (31, 23, 1). The world, which watches how our government attacks peaceful protesters, which observes how our government detains people without trial, which grieves over those who die in custody, told us in stark language that we have an out of control police force. Our government disagrees.
What the world told us can be seen in my UPR Map. Each blue tip shows the number of recommendations (compliments + calls to action) in that category. Each red tip shows the number of calls to action (strong recommendations). The green callouts are necessary because our government accepted so few recommendations, they are too small to be seen as points on the map.
We were hoping for a large coconut. Our government said we were being given a mid-size coconut (150/232 = 65 %). I say we got a peanut since by my reckoning there are only 121 strong recommendations, and of these we accepted only 15 (12 %).