Opinion

So, why is Malaysia on the Human Rights Council again?

Azrul Mohd Khalib

Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at azferul@gmail.com.

FEB 23 — In May 2010, Malaysia was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) through a secret ballot which provided a three-year mandate from June 19, 2010 to June 18, 2013. 

A Foreign Ministry statement (May 14, 2010) on that occasion highlighted the fact that Malaysia garnered 179 votes out of the 188 countries that voted. The ministry went on to say that “the high number of votes obtained reflects the confidence of the international community in Malaysia’s ability to play a positive and constructive role in the work of the HRC.”

“It is an acknowledgement of our contribution towards enriching the quality of dialogue, co-operation and action aimed at advancing the promotion and protection of human rights globally.” The statement trumpeted that the re-election signified the international community’s recognition and appreciation of Malaysia’s commitment to respecting and upholding the inalienable and invisible nature of all human rights at the international and domestic levels.

Hmmm…

Malaysia’s foreign policy when it comes to human rights is a bizarre one. These days, it appears to begin with the Palestinian cause and ends with whatever the OIC countries decide on. On off days, it appears to act as an extension of Tourism Malaysia’s promotional campaigns.

Let’s face it. We are no longer the maverick country which punches above the belt, championing causes and leading the charge on issues which in the past have gained the respect of other nations. We have become merely followers and many of the positions bequeathed to Malaysia are as a result of legacies of respect towards past administrations. Malaysian foreign policy seems to be adrift with nobody at the helm, especially on the issue of human rights. I am tempted to ask the minister of foreign affairs: Captain, art thou sleeping down below?

Most recently, many were shocked by the recent hasty deportation of Hamza Kashgari back to Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Home Affairs has repeatedly maintained that Malaysia should neither be a transit point nor a refuge for criminals. I am sure that everyone can agree on this point. 

However, in the case of Hamza Kashgari, this was not a situation of a person known to be linked or responsible for terrorism activities, of being a war criminal or accused of trafficking drugs, humans or weapons. This was a person who had expressed his views through Twitter and faced allegations of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. His alleged crime? For being honest and writing down his personal thoughts. This was a person who had indicated that he feared for his life in his home country and had intended to seek asylum in New Zealand. 

What has been appalling has been the systematic way in which Hamza was allegedly kept at arm’s length by the Malaysian government from seeking asylum which is his right under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” He wasn’t even seeking asylum in Malaysia but in another country. Yet, the government saw fit to deprive him of access to both legal assistance and to the UN refugee agency, and later seemingly played a shell game in an effort to avoid a court order which it saw coming.  

I think we can all agree that it was embarrassing to later find out that there was no Interpol red flag notice for Hamza’s arrest despite claims to the contrary by Malaysian law enforcement officials. This claim had been immediately refuted by Interpol. There are also no long-standing treaties or agreements which govern extradition between Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. What is very clear is that Malaysia violated international law concerning “non-refoulement” which forbids the expulsion of an asylum seeker back into a situation where the person might be again subjected to persecution resulting in their lives or freedoms being threatened.

This recent incident justifies on-going concerns of Malaysia’s human rights record despite apparent attempts of reform. The spirit is willing yet clearly the different parts of the body are not. No wonder the Australian courts had expressed concern and had prevented the implementation of the Malaysia Solution. 

The dialogue on human rights in this country has been strange and very often contradictory. It’s not for nothing that we have been accused of being “champions of double talk.” Consider the fact that time and again, our policymakers have repeated the line that human rights is solely a Western device not suited for Asian communities. A number of religious figures have even stated that human rights is not compatible with Islam, never mind that the Quran is in fact, when read and interpreted properly, chock-a- block full with the spirit and principles of human rights and justice. The Malaysian government has also argued that international standards of human rights are not applicable to Malaysia because of the over-emphasis on the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of the community.

So why then are we on the Human Rights Council? Why did we make those pledges during the campaigning and lobbying to be elected for a seat (yes, Malaysia did work hard and made several pledges to be on this august group). Malaysia stated clearly as one of its pledges that it would “engage constructively in the evolving modalities of work of the HRC to make it a strong, fair, effective, efficient and credible vehicle for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.” If Malaysia doesn’t believe in human rights as it is understood by the international community, why then continue to be a member of the HRC?

I am bound to ask whether we are simply “syiok sendiri”? Being on the council comes with serious responsibilities and obligations. It’s not just about basking in the prestige of the position and having bragging rights. Over the past decade or so, the so-called champions of human rights on the global stage have been less than inspiring examples and role models. This is a chance for Malaysia to shine as an example for other nations. 

Yet, instead of seizing the day and showing the international community how respect for human rights in Malaysia can be further strengthened, we have decided along a course which has resulted in the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act being deemed as being more restrictive (even absurd) than the conditions permissible under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Police Act; Seksualiti Merdeka 2011 being banned and determined to be a threat to public safety in a display of hate speech and discrimination against marginalised sexual minorities who now live in fear of institutionalised persecution; and now the recent case of Hamza Kashgari.

There have been a number of positive developments in this area of late, including the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance, and amendments to the Police Act and to the Printing Presses and Publications Act. However, these have been overshadowed by the abovementioned own goals which appear to be designed to showcase the appearance of progress rather than actually create enduring change.

Maybe it is time to re-examine why we are on the Human Rights Council. If we believe that the international standards of human rights are not compatible and if we are unable to carry out the mandate entrusted to us by the 179 countries which voted for us, perhaps we should step down.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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