On 27th December 2013, the Malaysian Bar issued a statement in support of the call by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (“SUHAKAM”), and its Chairman, Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, for Malaysia to look seriously into accelerating the pace of ratification of the six remaining core United Nations instruments on human rights. I wish to reply to some of the issues mentioned in the statement. Relevant Malaysian Bar’s points in italics, my comments in plain font.
The recent Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) of Malaysia by the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2013 has brought into sharp focus the glaring disparity between Malaysia’s international ambitions on the one hand, and the domestic realities on the other.
We must acknowledge some very good reasons for this disparity. Recent research from Scandinavia has found a number of anomalies in the Human Rights movement around the world. For example, in those countries that have signed the agreement to ban torture, it is somewhat MORE likely that one may be tortured. Or, conversely, the reality of Human Rights “on the ground” in some countries which have not signed relevant accords is that human rights are nevertheless stronger, than in those which have signed.
If we consider the “wild variable” of the real definition of “national sovereignty” (“wild” because this definition may differ between certain each state and international bodies such as the United Nations), we find that Human Rights accords most likely to succeed are those which LEAST touch upon issues of sovereignty, however they may be defined. In the cases where real signatories nevertheless do not carry out Human Rights with domestic legislation (a phenomenon known as “social camouflage”, such as calling communist dictatorships “democratic republics”), we are actually more likely to find more autocratic and undemocratic governance.
This issue of sincerity must be one of Malaysia’s contributions to the on-going debate. The macro-level of Human Rights must include the concept that differing ethnic and religious communities must have the right to feel their most cherished beliefs need not be compromised for the sake of outsiders’ definitions of those rights.
Malaysia’s term as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council has ended on 31 December 2013. As an outgoing member, Malaysia had sometimes been said to have failed in the last four-and-a-half years to show much progress her commitment to the international system of human rights norms and standards.
The above allegation is only valid in terms of a concept of national sovereignty that does not factor cultural or religious norms sufficiently into its definition. In other words, it is an allegation that stands up only from the secular nation-state point-of-view.
It is also irresponsible to allege that countries, especially fellow member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (“OIC”), were either forced to accede to the international instruments or did not know better, but provide no evidence to support these fantastical observations. After all, 54 out of the 56 OIC member states that are also United Nations member states have ratified or acceded to more international human rights instruments than Malaysia. Such comments are thus not just patronising and condescending, but additionally have the potential to damage Malaysia’s relations with these countries. This also serves to highlight that the practice of Islam is not a hindrance for the OIC member states, and should not be used as an excuse by Malaysia to delay our ratification of the international instruments. It should be noted that although Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation, it is nevertheless not the supreme law of the Federation. Article 4 provides that the Constitution itself is the supreme law of the Federation.
These are the dangers of the “ad hominem” tactic, in which, and not discussing real issues, people attack each other’s character or personalities, or, more dangerous still, the validity of their religious or spiritual commitments. By virtue of Articles 3(1) and 37(1) Fourth Schedule of the Federal Constitution, as well as Section 4(4) of the SUHAKAM Act 1999 (Act 597), there is therefore ample room for debate about agreements and implementations of Human Rights principles.
If there are genuine concerns about these international instruments, they should be intelligently and coherently articulated, and particularly in the Malaysian context, taking into consideration the special place of Islam given by Articles 3(1) and 37(1) Fourth Schedule of the Federal Constitution. Proper discussion of the ratification of these international human rights instruments is not advanced by vilification or other “ad hominem” attacks on the character or intelligence of people and groups in support or criticism of them. Malaysia proposes careful differentiation of de facto violations of national sovereignty through ideological conflict, from violations of political commitments or border placement. And even border placement must sometimes be adjudicated according to the changing norms of our over-crowded world.
Malaysia has to convince members of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2014, when the final adoption of the UPR recommendations takes place in Geneva, that we are a mature and responsible member of the international community, capable of being entrusted with decision-making as well as responsible and timely criticism at the United Nations’ most important body. Secularism is an ideology like any other, and can propagandize like any other. The United Nations, as an overwhelmingly secular body, must learn to step into other shoes to accommodate the majority of humankind who follow religious cultures and a basis of spiritual principles for their Human Rights.
AZRIL MOHD AMIN is the Chairman of MuslimUPRo, the coalition of Muslim Non-Governmental Organizations in the Universal Periodic Review.