Is Malaysia Baru serious about human rights?


Is Malaysia Baru serious about human rights?
By Zan Azlee

Last night, Malaysia faced the international arena as she went through it’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for human rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The Malaysian delegation was headed by the Foreign Ministry’s secretary-general Ramlan Ibrahim. He was accompanied by other stakeholders from other ministries.

First of all, let me put some context to the review. Sanctioned by the UN Human Rights Council, it reviews the human rights performance of all the UN member states. This is Malaysia’s third cycle and we are being reviewed for the period between November 2013 to March 2018.

Ramlan made it a point in his introductory speech to explain “Malaysia Baru” and how the last general election on May 9 saw a change in government for the first time in 61 years. Basically, he was saying that the government is defending a review of a period when the country was ruled by a different party. Congratulations!

Many of the review points can be said to have been addressed. In Ramlan’s speech, he mentioned many main issues that the new government had addressed such as the abolishment of the death penalty, a suspension of all action related to the Sedition Act and the autonomy of important independent government agencies.

However, the other UN member states who were part of the reviewing committee brought up many other issues that they felt Malaysia was still lagging behind. Overall, a majority of the countries around the world are consistent in what and how they feel Malaysia needs to improve in the area of human rights.

One of the main issues that was brought up was the mistreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Malaysia. Many reviewing countries were not satisfied with the Malaysian delegation’s “brush off” explanation that under our Federal Constitution, it states that “there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender”.

Another main issue that Malaysia was told to address immediately was the protection of women and children, more specifically, raising the legal marriage age to 18 years old and to recognise marital rape and criminalise domestic abuse. Several reviewing states even requested that Malaysia come up with a timeline for this to be executed.

Many also highlighted that Malaysia must work on and improve her treatment of vulnerable individuals, refugees and migrant workers. The fact that Malaysia was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention was brought up time and time again. The Malaysian delegation kept making disclaimers saying that although the country isn’t a signatory, they still engage with the UNHCR.

Although sanctioned by the UN, the UPR is not binding and whatever reviewing points made are merely suggestions for the country being reviewed. Nevertheless, they need to be paid attention to. The new government, if they want to stay true to the Malaysia Baru spirit, must acknowledge the review and take action instead of just noting it down.

Sure, we are heading in the right direction in most areas now but we are definitely not perfect and there is so much more to do. Malaysians cannot rest and be satisfied with the euphoria that change has happened. We must continue to criticise, pressure and hold the government accountable and they need to be fully aware that any change that happened was because of the people.

This is also the first time that the government, or more specifically, the Foreign Ministry, has engaged with local NGOs to address human rights issues. According to Wisma Putra, the Malaysian delegation will return from Geneva and a powwow session will be held again with NGOs and relevant stakeholders in government.

I think this is a good move. Engagement is always the right first step. But it is only the first step. Personally, I will pay close attention and follow up with the government and continue asking questions to see if anything will materialise after the UPR. If nothing comes out of it, I will definitely bring it up and I hope my fellow Malaysians will make noise too.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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