Malaysia in the UN Human Rights Council
On 9 May 2006, Malaysia was among 47 nations elected by the United Nations General Assembly to the new UN Human Rights Council. The country's human rights performance has indeed improved in the recent years. The press has become bolder in criticising government policies and officials, exposing government corruption, and covering the contentious debate at the Dewan Rakyat.
The human rights groups, however, have opposed to Malaysia being selected in the council. They say that the government has failed "to ink a raft of international human rights treaties" (malaysiakini.com, 2006-5-10). To date, Malaysia has ratified two out of the twelve international human rights treaties of the United Nations. There are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ratified in 4 Aug 1995) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (19 March 1995). Yet, problems remain. Some of the issues identified by the human rights groups are:
- The increased constraints on the ability of Muslims to change their religion
- Ethnic discrimination in terms of economy (e.g. preferential programs designed to boost economic position of bumiputras, Orang Asli continue to be the poorest group, OA land ownership, etc.)
- Gender discrimination (e.g. Muslim women in particular)
- Denial of fair public trial (e.g. Moorthy's case, Ayah Pin followers, etc.)
- Disregard of public justice at the judicial level in religious freedom (e.g. apostasy cases).
Government's rationale on being selected to sit in the council (malaysiakini.com, 2006-5-10) was reported to be the following:
- It stressed its role in "promotion of a free media, including in cyberspace, as well as the encouragement of vibrant and active civil society;"
- It stated its respect for human rights was "clearly manifested in the fact that free, fair and peaceful general elections have been held consistently without fail since independence;"
- It cited its role in establishing the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, or Suhakam.
- It affirmed that it has sought to fulfil its responsibilities with regard to economic, social and cultural rights.
- It added that it was fully aware that good governance, integrity in the public sector and transparency in the government's activities are essential to achieve the goals of full enjoyment of human rights, (e.g. the National Integrity Plan, launched two years ago, among others to combat and reduce corruption and abuse of power).
At the same time, the Government has pledged:
- to engage constructively in evolving modalities of work of the Human Rights Council with the aim of making it a strong, fair, effective, efficient and credible vehicle for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide:
- to support the work of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights;
- to continue to participate actively in the norm-setting work of the Human Rights Council;
- to work towards fostering a spirit of cooperation in the Human Rights Council, free from acrimony and politicization, based on the principles of mutual respect and dialogue;
- To promote greater coherence between the work of the Human Rights Council with other UN agencies and actors in achieving internationally agreed targets and goals;
- To actively support international action to advance the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children and the disabled.
Like it or not, Malaysia has since come under both local and international scrutiny for its commitment:
- The Amnesty International recently urges Malaysia to ratify U.N. conventions on torture and civil rights, scrap restrictive laws (e.g. ISA) and protect migrants and refugees, before it can sit in judgment on other countries. "Malaysia has very little moral authority to go out and speak about human rights when there are all these laws they have not signed up to," said Josef Roy Benedict, an Amnesty official (Reuters, 2006-5-24).
- The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders wrote an open letter to our PM to express its concern regarding the disruption of the "Federal Constitution - Protection for All Public Forum" in Penang. It called upon the Malaysia authorities to "comply with international human rights standards and international instruments signed or ratified by Malaysia, all the more that Malaysia was elected on May 9, 2006 as a member of the new United Nations Human Rights Council" (Paris - Geneva, 2006-5-22)
- In response to the police violently breaking up a peaceful demonstration against the fuel and electricity tariff hikes at KLCC, the executive director of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Anselmo Lee, had this to say: "We would like to remind Malaysia that with this mandate, it is responsible for improving its domestic human rights record under the universal periodic review, while ensuring the effectiveness of the council" (malaysiakini.com, 2006-5-30).
- At the inaugural United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in Geneva in June, Malaysia reaffirmed its commitment to upholding human rights on the domestic and international fronts. It was, however, criticized by the human rights activists (malaysiakini.com, 2006-6-22):
o Parti Sosialis Malaysia secretary-general S Arutchelvan said that “Malaysia in being part of the HRC does not add value to human rights condition in the country… The government should start ratifying international conventions to show their dedication in upholding human rights.”
o On a similar note, Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng said, “If they are sincere, they should ratify the International Bill on Human rights which includes the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
As a Member State of the United Nations, the Malaysia Government has pledged itself "to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms." As a newly elected Member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Malaysia has committed "to support the work of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights." This means the Government has agreed to respect and honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as reaffirmed by the resolution of the UNHRC. Article 18 of the UDHR expresses that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in puplic or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
Posted July 7, 2006