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Malaysia’s UN fan club

Malaysia map superimposed on the United Nations logo

Updated at 7.50pm, 21 July 2009

MALAYSIA has announced publicly that “respect for human rights has long been established given the country’s character as a melting pot of various cultures, religions and ethnicities.” This announcement was made at none other than Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) in February 2009.

The post-March 2008 electorate can be forgiven for being skeptical, or even shocked, at this statement. The number of police crackdowns on public demonstrations, controversies regarding religious conversions, and Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act arrests over the past year might come to mind.

What is even more shocking is that the majority of the governments reviewing Malaysia at this UPR session not only glossed over these contentious areas, but instead had only praises and congratulations for Malaysia. The UPR process is actually meant to be an opportunity for governments to hold their peers accountable for their human rights track records. However, what is clear is that Malaysia is using the UPR process — and using it very ingeniously — to excuse and justify human rights violations at home and abroad.

Perhaps a little background is in order. The HRC is a body within the UN made up of 47 states elected through the General Assembly. Each membership lasts for three years, and in any given year, there will be a certain number of states whose memberships expire, and a balance of states whose memberships commence.

The HRC was created by the General Assembly in 2006 to replace the Commission for Human Rights, which many had accused of being ineffective and overly politicised. Of the new mechanisms introduced by the HRC to address human rights issues among UN member countries was the UPR process, which is basically a peer-to-peer review.

Back-scratching and mutual adoration

Malaysia’s presentation at the UPR in February received responses from 60 delegates. Statements by an additional 23 delegates could not be delivered due to time constraints. But political blood is often thicker than water. Of the 60 delegates that responded, more than 40 had nothing but praises for Malaysia. Among Malaysia’s endorsees were:

Sudan: “[Malaysia’s] experience demonstrates that economic development decisively helps in preserving national unity and stability”;

China: “welcomed … economic growth and … ethnic harmony”;

Myanmar: “Malaysia enjoys political stability with good governance”; and

Iran: “[Malaysia should] undertake more effective measures to further improve the implementation of Shari’ah law in the country.”

These are countries constantly criticised for their own human rights violations. This is something that should not escape our scrutiny, because, of course, backs get scratched in return: Malaysia was part of the HRC up to June this year, and was itself a reviewing country.

In Pakistan’s May 2008 UPR review, Malaysia said, “We are impressed with Pakistan’s concrete legal and administrative measures to improve human rights in many fields.” This is despite the sacking of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and 60 other judges by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

Iftikhar Chaudhry (right) swearing in Pakistani President
Pervez Musharraf (Source: Wiki commons)
And by the rule of reciprocity, Pakistan’s review of Malaysia in February 2009 was that “Malaysia has been able to transform its ethnic diversity into strength; that fundamental liberties are guaranteed by the [constitution]; and that [Suhakam] has been entrusted with wide powers.”

This is what led the non-governmental organisation UN Watch to dub the HRC a “mutual praise society“. The organisation observed that “bloc affiliations played an important role in determining how countries reviewed each other”.

“For example,” it said, “as a rule, members of the 57-strong Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) strongly praised each other’s records.”

Dodging accountability

UN Watch found in its survey that among 55 countries surveyed, including all 47 member countries of the HRC, only 19 countries used the process as an opportunity to hold peers accountable for human rights abuses. Of the 19, only Canada is classified as “very constructive”, challenging countries on specific human rights violations.

Malaysia is classified as “very detrimental”, along with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, because it used the review sessions to cover up violations perpetrated by the countries under review, and even praised them. Malaysians can take heart, though: at least we are not classified as “destructive”, a category that includes North Korea, China, Pakistan and Syria. These countries actively encourage and legitimise policies and practices that violate human rights.

Granted, one major criticism that OIC countries would have against UN Watch is that it is funded by the American Jewish Committee, an organisation “supporting Israel’s quest for peace and security”. All UN Watch’s criticisms are therefore likely to be dismissed as Jewish propaganda.

But even after recognising this potential bias, it is still pertinent to pay attention to UN Watch’s criteria and research findings. For example, here are the reviews of Malaysia from countries listed as “constructive” by UN Watch:

The Netherlands recommends that “the Police Act be reformed in such a way that the requirement of a police permit for public assemblies of three or more persons does not violate the right to peaceful assembly.”

The UK recommends that Malaysia “consider an alternative to indefinite preventive detention [as allowed for under the ISA] such as criminal prosecutions.”

Canada recommends several things, including repealing the ISA, reviewing the Police Act, reviewing and amending laws such as the Sedition Act to enable “citizens to exercise fully the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and freedom of information”, and strengthening “efforts to combat violence against women.”

True, these are so-called Western, secular democracies. Two of them, the UK and the Netherlands, are technically Malaysia’s former colonisers. And of the two, Malaysia has inherited its legal and administrative system quite comprehensively from the UK. However, their recommendations are no different from those of many civil society groups and political parties in Malaysia. Even Israel, the target of attacks by numerous Muslim Malaysians, recommends that Malaysia repeal the ISA, abolish the death penalty, and end torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, among other things.

What dreams may come

But here is Malaysia’s masterstroke: we have chosen to stall or ignore virtually every single critical recommendation made at the UPR. In fact, Malaysia is downright defending laws like the ISA and is thumbing its nose at all calls for the ISA to be repealed or amended.

And here’s the rub: Malaysia is not seeking re-election for the 2009-2012 term, as confirmed by former Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim in 2008, but is seeking re-election for the 2010-2013 term. Although The Nut Graph tried to contact the Foreign Ministry to request a clarification, no response has been forthcoming.

By opting not to be re-elected this year, Malaysia has actually helped to usher Saudi Arabia into the HRC for the 2009-2012 term. This is a consequence of both the HRC’s staggered membership system, and of Malaysia and Saudi Arabia both being in the same regional bloc.

Back-scratcher (Pic by plsat /
Needless to say, Saudi Arabia has not been internationally respected for its human rights track record. But when Malaysia goes up for its next UPR session in 2012, Saudi Arabia will be one of the countries assessing Malaysia’s human rights situation.

Whether this is by accident or design, the outcome is a foregone conclusion: back-scratching and mutual adoration will define UPR sessions from now on. And we in Malaysia will continue to scratch our heads when the international community holds Malaysia up as a “model Muslim democracy”.

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8 Responses to “Malaysia’s UN fan club”

  1. jew says:

    Malaysia should follow Israel’s advice on repealing the ISA, abolishing the death penalty, and ending torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, and supporting the legitimisation of State of Israel. I think the TNG has forgotten about Palestine …

    Editor’s note: To read more of our exclusive interviews with several activists during the Gaza crisis in January 2009, please go to:

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  2. Andrew I says:

    You don’t want to offend anyone whilst you’re on a paid holiday with them, do you?

  3. kahseng says:

    Too many young idealists look up to the UN as the solve-all for international problems.

    The fact is UN is a pretender for leadership on liberty. UN is a compromise with evil regimes, a sad choice among a lack of choices. UN is unaccountable to anyone, gives power to irresponsible, authoritarian regimes, and is a coward when it comes to oppression.

    The press is often an accomplice in creating too much credibility for the UN. Good that this piece sees reality. Only people sensitized to oppression can see the UN hypocrisy.

  4. Eric says:

    “True, these are so-called Western, secular democracies — and one of them is Malaysia’s former coloniser. ”

    Shanon, with all due respect. Your piece should read “two of them are” (UK and Netherlands). Take a drive to Melaka’s Stadthuys to convince yourself.

    Editor’s note: Eric, thank you for pointing this out. You are technically correct in that the Netherlands was also a colonial power in these parts. But Malaysia inherited its current legal and administrative system from the British, not the Dutch. The legal and political continuities are more entrenched between Malaysia and the UK, compared to Malaysia and the Netherlands. Your comment, though, points out the need for clear expression for the benefit of all readers, and we will clarify this in the story accordingly.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  5. Harisa says:

    Thanks so much for this article. While on the one hand I find it absolutely mind-boggling, on the other hand I’m not surprised at all, and I find this exemplifies UN’s overall ineffectiveness.

  6. Sumat says:

    United Nations of Cowards.

  7. OrangRojak says:

    People have funny ideas about what the UN is. In countries where the newspapers are more or less free to print what they want, a front page that says “UN considers us crap!” would cause widespread concern and intensify efforts to improve. The UN can’t really help Malaysians in their efforts to bring about a better Malaysia, because most Malaysians will never hear or read of anything but praise from the UN. That’s not the UN’s fault.

    The UN is like an advocacy organisation. It can help, but only if you want it to. If you put your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la-la, then it’s just a reason for your leaders to spend public money on jolly holidays.

  8. Noel Dass says:

    It’s true that the UN is a bloated bureaucracy and it shows from time to time. However, the key thing to note is that the UN is only as effective as its member states want it to be. So the organisation cannot shoulder all the blame for its seeming ineffectiveness. That said, the work done via its specialised agencies such as UNHCR, UNDP, UNFPA, Unifem, Unicef etc. are invaluable to the lives of millions.

    As for the UPR process, having participated in it as part of the NGO team here, I have to say that whilst the outcome was rather disappointing, there is nonetheless value in the process. Someone has to engage with these institutionalised processes in order for some change to occur. That’s part of activism.

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