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Malaysia’s UN report card

IN the midst of Perak’s political crisis and public anger over A Kugan’s death, many might fail to note a significant upcoming event on 11 Feb 2009. This is the review of Malaysia’s human rights record by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. It takes place between 2.30pm and 5.30pm Geneva time, or 9.30pm on 11 Feb to 12.30am on 12 Feb Malaysian time, and will be webcast live by the UN. In addition, the non-governmental organisation Era Consumer Malaysia will be hosting a viewing of the live webcast.

This review is part of a process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which began in 2006. All 192 members of the United Nations will have their human rights record peer-reviewed through this UPR process, the first round of which lasts from 2008 to 2011. The Feb 2009 session will be the fourth. Already 48 countries have had their human rights records scrutinised by the international community. 

Animation showing the accession of United Nations member states from 1945 to 2008,
along with changes in the world’s political borders (© Joowwww, source: Wikipedia)

Malaysia awaits its turn along with 15 other countries in this upcoming cycle. As part of the process, the Malaysian government has prepared a national report running to 114 paragraphs, articulating is position on various human rights issues and incidents.

Civil society organisations, both international and national, have also played a role by making written submissions on the positives and negatives in Malaysia’s human rights record. The various United Nations agencies have submitted a composite report on Malaysia as well. In Malaysia’s UPR session, the presentation, question-and-answer, and report writing will be coordinated by Egypt, Nicaragua and Qatar. Each coordinating group of three countries is referred to as the “troika” states.

Areas of concern   

Some areas of concern have already been highlighted by the international community, by way of advance questions placed on the website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These deal with:

  • Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers, expressed as an area of concern by Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines;
  • the position of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), a concern expressed by Australia and New Zealand. Where Suhakam is concerned, there is a risk of its “A” status being downgraded to “B” due to concerns about its independence, integrity and impartiality;  
  • the Internal Security Act, expressed by the UK;
  • women’s rights, expressed by Brazil, Chile, Norway, Switzerland, Uganda and Zambia;
  • women’s sexual rights, expressed by Brazil; and
  • Malaysia’s ratification of international human rights instruments, expressed by Canada.

On this last point, of the key international human rights instruments, Malaysia has ratified only two:

  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989; and
  • the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), adopted in 1979. 

However in ratifying these, Malaysia recorded significant reservations. These have, arguably, prevented Malaysians from enjoying the full benefit of these two international human rights instruments. 

Malaysia has also recently signed, but has yet to ratify, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted in 2006).

Significantly, Malaysia has yet to sign:

  • the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), adopted in 1965;
  • the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and
  • the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). 

(© Optical Illusion / Flickr)

These are fuller and more developed expressions of basic international human rights norms as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 60th anniversary of which we commemorated on 10 Dec 2008. The ICCPR and ICESCR were both adopted as far back as 1966, and yet the official position of the Malaysian government is that they are still studying it.

We must be very slow readers.

Comparisons with Myanmar

It has been said that where ratification of international human rights instruments are concerned, Malaysia is on par with Myanmar, which has also only ratified CRC and Cedaw. Malaysia has also not ratified other important international human rights instruments, such as:

  • the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
  • the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and
  • the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. 

When one reflects on these yet-to-be-ratified-by-Malaysia instruments, one cannot help but wonder whether A Kugan would still be alive today if Malaysia had adopted and strictly enforced the Convention against Torture. Some might think Kugan’s death is an aberration, but think about the 93 people who have died in police custody between 2003 and 2008. Or the 1,535 people who died in the custody of various law enforcement agencies, prisons, drug rehabilitation centres, immigration detention centres, and so on, between 2003 and 2007.

Demonstrators protesting against the mistreatment and subsequent death of A Kugan; 28 Jan 2009

One only has to think of the sad sight of Rela raids on foreign workers, who help build and contribute to our economy and way of life. Would we be treating them better if we adopted and enforced the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers?

Still looking into it

Even the most recent international human rights instrument signed by Malaysia, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is of dubious benefit to Malaysians. The government has not included any remedies or offences for failure to comply with the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008. The act, like Suhakam, is a paper tiger at best.      

In a nutshell, adherence to international human rights norms is not something “out there”, not too far-fetched or unreal for us Malaysians to grasp. Be it ecology, the economy, education, elections, employment or the environment (or any other category starting with the letter “e”), international human rights norms affect our lives constantly.

What is far-fetched is for the government to say to us that these things do not matter, or are not important to us. Imagine, some 40 years after such instruments were adopted by the UN General Assembly, of which Malaysia is a vocal member, we are still “looking into it”.

See also:
Reviewing Malaysia’s human rights
Human rights: what’s stopping Malaysia?

Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator. 

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