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Reviewing M’sia’s human rights

PETALING JAYA, 10 Feb 2009: A significant moment in Malaysia’s human rights journey will take place tomorrow, but may be unfortunately eclipsed by the ongoing political turmoil in Perak.

For the first time, Malaysia’s human rights record will undergo peer review at the United Nations in Geneva through a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

More importantly, the views of non-governmental organisations will be presented at this forum through the stakeholders’ summary report. Based on this, Malaysia can be quizzed on issues raised by the NGOs.

Honey Tan
“The UPR allows NGOs to present their version to the world on what’s actually happening in the country. We document realities that may not be politically palatable,” said Honey Tan of Pusat Kesedaran Komunity Selangor (Empower), one of the NGOs involved in the review. She is attending the session in Geneva.

Malaysia, through the Foreign Ministry, will present its track record and face questions posed by other UN member countries. Already, advanced questions have been submitted by a number of states. When the review session is over, a troika of countries will write a draft report on how Malaysia fared, and submit it to the ministry.

To aid member countries in the review, three reports on Malaysia have been prepared. Besides the NGOs summary, there is also the national report by the government, and a UN-compiled report. All reports are available at the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The national report depicts a rather rosy picture of Malaysia’s human rights record. It lists down Malaysia’s “achievements” in having enacted various types of human rights laws.

On the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA), it regurgitates the legal provisions contained in the Act, such as detention reviews by the Advisory Board and detainees’ rights to file writs of habeas corpus, but is short on explaining the success of implementation.

The UN summary report notes various human rights problems not raised in the national report. These include the dual civil-syariah legal systems, use of the ISA, book banning, cases of Indonesian maid abuse, child trafficking, lack of recognition of migrants’ and refugee rights, and use of the People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) against these groups. The UN report also considered the arrests of the five Hindraf leaders a human rights issue.

Federal Reserve Unit presence at the Hindraf rally in November 2007 (© Samsul Said / Flickr)

The NGOs summary report looks at how Malaysia has not yet signed several key international treaties that govern racial discrimination, civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.

It also touches on the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam)’s lack of independence and warns of a downgrade by international standards. It notes the trend by civil courts to cede jurisdiction to the syariah court in matters of family law where one spouse has converted to Islam.

Other areas include rights for persons living with HIV/AIDS, sexuality rights, and the rights of non-citizens (migrants and refugees) to healthcare, legal redress, housing and education.

A fuller UPR report written by the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs (Comango), comprising 56 groups, formed part of the basis for the summary report.

Waste of time?

Not all NGOs are terribly excited at this opportunity. Colin Nicholas, coordinator for the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, feels that the UPR will not apply enough pressure on the Malaysian government to act on the NGOs’ views.

“While it’s good that NGO views are brought up at such a high international level, there won’t be much local effect because the people who make decisions and enforce policies at ground level have no representation in the UN. Most people are not aware of the weight a UN review carries.

“In the end, the ones fielding questions on Malaysia are a select group of Foreign Ministry officials who are tasked with protecting Malaysia’s image. It’s a public relations exercise for them,” Nicholas tells The Nut Graph.

Lawyer Andrew Khoo still feels the review will be worth it for the fact that the government will be forced to respond in an international arena.

Andrew Khoo
“NGOs hope the government will heed the demands made of Malaysia and set targets to achieve before the next UPR in four years’ time. It would be sad if the government merely wants to survive this review session and go back to status quo after that,” says Khoo, who is a co-deputy chair of the Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee.

For all the effort put into the review session, one concern is that Malaysians themselves will largely remain ignorant of the matter.

Tan laments the government’s lack of effort in public education about the UPR reports. She says the government could have at least translated the reports into all the Malaysian languages, including tribal languages.

“All the reports are in English on the internet, and there is no effort to get the person on the street to understand human rights issues,” she says.

Malaysia’s UPR session can be watched live through a webcast on the UN Human Rights Council website.

See also: Malaysia’s UN report card

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4 Responses to “Reviewing M’sia’s human rights”

  1. Lainie says:

    … Looks like international-level homework in public relations. While I’ll keep track of what happens here, I won’t exactly be waving a little flag of hope.

  2. Lainie says:

    And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t seem to find any issues raised regarding sexual minority rights in the advanced questions.

    … yippee. Is this where I am supposed to start waving my flag of hope?

  3. Justitia says:

    One of Sweden’s advance questions:

    “The Penal Code of Malaysia criminalises consensual sexual activity among persons of the same sex. These acts are punishable with imprisonment and whipping. Indecent behaviour which includes cross-dressing is also regarded as an offence under the Minor Offences Act. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender (LGBT) persons are routinely harassed and persecuted according to a study. What policy measures are the Government of Malaysia considering in order to promote tolerance and non-discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation or identity, in line with the Yogyakarta principles?”

  4. Lainie says:

    Ah wait, Sweden asks those questions. Goodie.

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