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Our rights records come under scrutiny

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The recent election of Malaysia to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) puts the authorities at the centre of a number of attention-grabbing events. Among them are the disruption of the Article 11 forum in Penang on May 14, and last Sunday's violent breakup of demonstrators by the police.

Sharon Kam, The SUN daily (

The recent election of Malaysia to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) puts the authorities at the centre of a number of attention-grabbing events. Among them are the disruption of the Article 11 forum in Penang on May 14, and last Sunday's violent breakup of demonstrators by the police.

In the Penang incident, a legitimate forum was ended abruptly when 500 demonstrators heckled the gathering. While the government has condemned the protesters, it has also supported the police's advice to forum organisers to cut short their event.

This runs contrary to the government's pledge to uphold human rights, say rights proponents.

"If the trend of succumbing to mob rule continues, then Malaysia's election to the UNHRC can only be seen as another public relations exercise between the international community and the ruling party," says Angeline Loh, an exco member of Aliran which co-organised the forum.

Demonstrations may be a fundamental right to expression and to assembly, but if demonstrators become violent and unruly, the police must act to ensure the peace is not disturbed. In this way, the police respect citizen's right to freedom of assembly while maintaining law and order, says Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng.

"The police should have prevented the demonstrators from disrupting the forum to protect the participants' rights to freedom of expression and of assembly," he argues.

Yap says by advising an early end to the forum, police instead abrogated their duties to maintain law and order and to uphold citizens' rights.

In the case of the Federal Reserve Unit's use of force and arrest of 20 people to disperse Sunday's peaceful demonstration against the fuel and electricity tariff increases, the police's action is seen to be a case of double standards. The pictures on the Internet of injured demonstrators bleeding and bruised are enough to make any observer accuse the police of violating citizens' human rights.

Already rights groups have lodged complaints with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) while a regional human rights group has questioned whether Malaysia is fit to be a UNHRC member.

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) executive director Anselmo Lee condemned the police action, saying it was unfortunate Sunday’s incident follows rights after Malaysia’s appointment into the UNHRC for three years.

“FORUM-ASIA urges Malaysia to implement the pledges it has made through concrete actions. Although the pledges (under the UNCHR; see accompanying story) may not be legal instruments, they have moral authority and governments are responsible in giving them effect,” he said in a press release.

Human rights advocates point out that these incidents make a mockery of Malaysia's election into the UNHRC.
"It just reflects how big the gap is between our government's rhetoric of human rights in the international forum and the reality back home," says Yap.

However, Malaysia's election into the UNHRC may not be such an irony if we consider several facts about the May 9 election in New York that determined who the 47 inaugural council members would be to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.

While Malaysia should be congratulated for being elected, Loh says it was already a member for four terms, including the 2005-2007 term of the former commission which fell into disrepute for being politicised, ineffective and inefficient.

In fact, one of the main problems which plagued the former commission was that states with serious human rights violations were members. The purpose of replacing the commission with the council was to ensure member states did not undermine the council's work.

The UN General Assembly had called on member states to consider candidates' contributions towards protecting and promoting human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments to human rights when electing UNHRC members.

However, Yap explains, such considerations were limited by the UN's voting system which is based on regional blocs.

There were 18 countries vying for 13 seats in the council for the Asian regional bloc. "The human rights track record from this region is not satisfactory. There were not many options actually to the present result (of who got elected)," says Yap.

Further more, in the UN where member states are decision makers, states make decisions according to national interests rather than international human rights principles.

"Hence, it is not surprising that some Asian countries that have unsatisfactory track records in human rights and made little concrete and specific commitments to human rights in their pledges, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia, were elected into the council. It surprised me that Thailand was not elected into the council," Yap says.

Rights advocates also point out that Malaysia is among those that have ratified the least number of human rights treaties and conventions. It has yet to ratify the two basic international human rights bills ? the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Malaysia has ratified only the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

"We are unfortunately in the same league as Myanmar, Pakistan and Singapore when neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have ratified most of the important international human rights laws such as the ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Aliran's Loh says the immediate steps Malaysia should take are to find ways to increase respect for, and prevent abuse of, human rights, especially in prisons, police lock-ups, and immigration detention centres as well as violence against women, and gender, racial, religious, and economic discrimination.