The Malaysian Bar on 10 December 2021 commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The theme of this year’s Human Rights Day is “Equality – Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights.” This year’s theme is a reflection of Article 1 of the declaration – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
Equality is also enshrined in our Federal Constitution as encapsulated in Article 8. Yet much more can and needs to be done to eliminate inequality.
Malaysia’s recent election to the UN Human Rights Council presents us with the opportunity to approach human rights at home with a fresh slate. The Malaysian Bar has previously emphasised the need for political will to carry out the necessary reforms to ensure that human rights are protected and defended, and we reiterate such calls today.
Over the past two years, the Covid pandemic has exacerbated and expanded the already existing inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by the different groups and communities in our country. We believe that societies that ensure human rights protection for everyone, irrespective of their nationality or ethnicity, are more well-equipped to surmount unforeseen crises and to build back not only better, but stronger. There are still many ways in which we can improve our track record on human rights.
In February this year, the government deported migrants back to Myanmar on navy ships supplied by the Myanmar military, just after that country had undergone a coup. At the height of the pandemic, raids were conducted to crack down on migrants to curb the spread of the virus.
Such actions were wholly unnecessary and did nothing to protect this vulnerable group during such dire circumstances. In fact, it may have exposed them to greater risk of catching Covid due to its spread in detention centres and prisons.
We had been eagerly looking forward to the establishment of an independent police complaints and misconduct commission (IPCMC) – an independent commission to receive and investigate complaints about police misconduct.
Instead, we have been offered a diluted version of the same, known as the Independent Police Conduct Commission Bill (IPCC Bill) – a bill that is devoid of any substantial or meaningful oversight mechanism since it lacks the authority and scope that the IPCMC was intended to have to promote genuine police accountability. In the meantime, cases of deaths in police custody continue to occur.
There is a need for greater respect for our constitutional freedoms as well. There have been many instances where freedom of speech and assembly have not been championed – we have seen activists, journalists, artists, and even members of Parliament being investigated by the police for alleged breaches of the law on public assemblies and public protests, undertaking investigative journalism, making fair public comments, and even creating a satirical Spotify playlist. Such actions have given rise to self-censorship and a climate of fear pervading our society.
Despite this being the third time that Malaysia has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia has so far only ratified three human rights treaties – the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and all with reservations of one form or another.
Having won a seat on the Human Rights Council for 2022–24, we must, as a nation, hold ourselves to a higher standard. The Malaysian Bar hopes that Malaysia will finally be able to ratify the other core human rights treaties during the upcoming council term, and to withdraw all remaining reservations.
Malaysia has been given an opportunity to lead by example through its election to the Human Rights Council. This serves as a timely reminder to the government that it must uphold the rule of law and respect the rights and dignity of every individual, in accordance with international norms and standards, and not merely domestic ones.
We laud the government’s assistance to Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by the recent unrest and violence. The government had pledged $100,000 (RM421,000) to the UN to provide humanitarian assistance as well as to support the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan.
However, the Malaysian Bar had recently communicated with the government on the importance of safeguarding the rights of the citizens of Afghanistan – especially the rights and safety of women and children – and including lawyers (the Afghanistan International Bar Association), and hopes that Malaysia will be able to leverage its position on the Human Rights Council to alleviate the human rights deficit and humanitarian crisis in that country.
On Human Rights Day 2021, we need to look at fresh ways to address the human rights challenges, both at home and abroad and to remedy the many violations that daily take place. The Malaysian Bar is ready to work closely with all stakeholders and the government to provide any assistance towards the realisation of this objective.
The Covid pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the gap between aspirations and reality. We must work harder as a nation to mainstream and materialise the human rights ideals that we espouse in our own country, and to encourage others to do the same on the international stage. At the core of this effort is the need to end discrimination on all grounds, and to end inequalities in all aspects of life.
On this day, let us recommit ourselves to work together to make those aspirations a reality.
AG Kalidas is president of the Malaysian Bar
This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.