Putrajaya suffers from human rights allergy

It is that time of the year again, when various human rights annual reports are launched all over the world. Malaysia, too, will be scrutinised on its human rights report cards. Last week, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) launched its annual report 2014. The report highlighted Putrajaya’s inconsistency in dealing with the rise of racial and religious hate speech and with dissenting opinions. Similarly in the just-released 2014 human rights report by the US State Department, it has underscored Putrajaya’s restrictions on freedom of speech and expression as among the worrying trends in the country.

Suaram recorded a total of 14 cases of deaths in police custody in 2014 alone. Up to June this year, it recorded nine such cases. Looking at the numbers, one can only predict there does not appear to be any sign of decreasing. Last Friday, the Faculty of Law in the University of Malaya (UM) hosted a human rights event. A joint campaign for Malaysia’s accession to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) by the Human Rights Council of Malaysia (Suhakam), Amnesty International Malaysia (AIM), Bar Council Malaysia, Suaram and Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) was launched. What is laudable is that, for the very first time, various stakeholders from diverse backgrounds partnered up under this collective effort for a common goal.

More than 150 countries have ratified the CAT so far. In Southeast Asia, for example, Malaysia is among the four countries together with Singapore, Myanmar and Brunei that have not ratified the convention. Our own national human rights institution, Suhakam has been calling for the government to ratify the CAT, too, as well as review and abolish the related laws. However, after a series of roundtables and two comprehensive reports on deaths in police custody and the right to health in prison, the authorities have stayed mum on its recommendations. After so many years of establishment, Suhakam’s recommendations in its annual reports have never been debated in the Parliament. Now, the question remains, why is Malaysia so reluctant to openly discuss human rights and to adhere to international human rights standards as set under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?

Over the decades, we have been receiving the same excuses that the UDHR is not legally binding. Hence, it is not an obligation to adhere to it. Then, we also have this argument on Asian values, that why should we follow the universal human rights as set out by the Western countries. Similar argument goes to the compatibility of religious rights and human rights? Which comes first? These are in my opinion, arguments that will not be resolved. What Putrajaya should do instead is to protect the rights of every single citizen, as simple as that. At one point, we got away with the Internal Security Act (ISA), and then we introduced Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota). Next, we were shocked with the Special Branch report that revealed some 80% of law enforcement and security officers at Malaysian borders are corrupt. I ask again, why is Putrajaya so allergic to human rights?

Many years ago, at a United Nations Human Rights Council discussion, which I had the opportunity to attend, I asked a gentleman who works with the Malaysian mission in Geneva on why is Malaysia reluctant to ratify international treaties? According to him, Malaysia does not want to ratify these conventions for the sake of ratifying it just to look good on record. He highlighted that it is important for a country to be fully ready before ratifying the remaining conventions. Well, such an explanation might be fair enough from the government’s point of view, however the puzzle remains. So I asked, when will we be ready then?

This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on June 29, 2015.

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