Contributed by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim
A very good evening to
Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, President of the Bar Council
Mr. Andrew Khoo, Deputy Chair, Human Rights Committee
Mr. Bertrand-Xavier Asselin, Second Secretary, Political, Economic and Public Affairs section, High Commission of Canada
Representatives of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation
Nina Shaharuddin, The Asia Foundation
Datuk Dr. Chiam Heng Keng, SUHAKAM Commissioner
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Human Rights- Unplugged. In the context of today’s topic, the term ‘unplugged’ came to us from the music industry. Musicians, so often dependent on electronic and electrical devices to create their unique sounds, literally pulled the plug and returned to their basic acoustic roots. Since the inauguration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some 60 years ago, the term ‘human rights’ has acquired an accretion of concepts and shades of meaning that its essential meaning is often lost in the clutter. Ask the man in the street today what human rights are and if he answers at all, he is likely to suggest that it is a Western concept which plays little or no role in his daily life. Yet it is trite that we are all human, and as acknowledged by the Universal Declaration, that fact alone gives us certain inalienable rights –rights that cannot be removed or trampled over by individuals, groups or governments. Human rights unplugged, is in essence the fundamental principles we need to live by as a civil and civilised society - to treat each other as human beings should; with dignity, with due regard to our status as equals , having the same rights and vulnerabilities as everyone around us. It is a state where the rule of law acts to protect people from abuse and oppression.
However, the reality is that the term ‘Human Rights’ draws mixed responses from Malaysians. While some are enthusiastic and supportive of the principles and ideals encapsulated by the term, there are many who regard this subject as tiresome and disconcerting. In today’s world, there are many who see the promotion of human rights as a threat to order and security and inconsistent with stability and public order. Others see it as detracting from the more pressing economic issues which, they argue, should take precedence. Some have argued that because we have different cultural values, the concept needs to be modified and that it is necessary for us to be very selective of the kinds of human rights we can have. But let us be clear. Human rights does not challenge social stability and development. On the contrary, it promotes these ideals by recognising the value and importance of each and every individual in society. What human rights does challenge, by definition, is authoritarianism. Human rights arose from the heat of the ovens of Dachau and the rigours of the concentrations camps in Eastern Europe. It arose in response to the forced labour on the Death Railway and the summary executions of those who were an inconvenience to military rule during the World War II. Even today, those who are critical of human rights and are instead proponents of cultural relativism or what some describe as ‘Asian Values’ are actually those who want to continue to propagate authoritarian rule in their countries. They would regard the propagation of human rights as a new Imperialism brought about because the West wants to continue to conquer the world. They are all wrong.
2. On this 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, I am proud to stand here to remind you that we must continue our effort to defend and promote human rights in our society and entrench it in the system of government. The future of democracy as a system of government depends very much on the ability of people to support human rights and the rule of law. This recognition of the principle of equality of all mankind and the recognition of the need to preserve the dignity of the individual are central to mankind’s peaceful existence. Human rights are not and have never been a luxury wish list; they are not about promoting the rights of the individual without regard to the rights of the community. They are not about promoting selfish individualism as some would have us believe. They are about treating people with respect, with due regard to the due process of the law. If we have no capacity to respect the dignity and the rights of one individual, then be assured that we will also have no capacity to respect the dignity and the rights of many. 60 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly called upon all member countries to publicize the Declaration of Human Rights and cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions. It was a recognition that change had to start not from the top but from the bottom. Human rights were not rights held by adults or those in authority, but rights that even children had. But having rights and realising one has rights are two different things. The call by the United Nations was to not to address the former but the latter. Sadly, in our country we have not done so. We have not done enough to make our people understand the importance of human rights for our own wellbeing.
3. An academic told me of a survey done here 2 years ago. Apparently, the survey showed that, on the issue of civil liberties and human rights, those born after 1969 are less interested in these matters than those born before that. This, if true, is indeed worrying as it suggests that young people seem to care less about these issues, and they constitute the larger segment of our population. We need to reverse the trend. We need to inject new belief and enthusiasm in these noble values. We need to get our young people to recognise the rights they have. It is easy to lose or give up what one does not know one possesses. Malaysia’s diverse races and especially those from different economic class seem to have little appetite for common values. We focus more on our differences than on our similarities. For a country segmented by ethnicity and religion and having self doubt about its identity and heritage, a common bond is needed. For a community that is largely distrusting of its intellectual traditions, human rights, in its unplugged form, can be a refreshing subject of study. It brings into sharp focus that which is common to all of us as human beings. The small hope we have to bring back unity and togetherness is the acceptance of the intrinsic goodness in a common and shared human rights principle, expressed in a democratic manner and embedded in the rule of law. How else can we invigorate our young Malaysians with idealism and purpose if they do not believe that all are entitled to justice, that all are equal and that all abhor suppression and authoritarian rule?
Consider Africa. The sick countries in that continent that are now undergoing economic and social and political turmoil are those that have shunned democracy, rule of law and human rights. Look at Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia and you know they are going under. But what about the positive reversals in the fortune of countries that have adopted more progressive policies? Liberia, and Rwanda were torn apart by ethnic strife and outdated economic policies. By adopting democratic values, the rule of law and acknowledging the human rights of all their peoples, they are well on the path of recovery. Peace has been restored and economic recovery has begun. Botswana is the pride of the continent practising full fledged democratic reforms. See how well they have done. Amatrya Sen has been saying it for the last 10 years and it is now globally acknowledged as true - development is assured only where freedom is found. A strong human rights foundation is essential for our political stability and continued economic prosperity.
4. Having inalienable rights is one thing. Knowing one has them is something else. Human rights will be meaningless to the public unless they are made aware as to what it means to them. In 1994 the group of NGO’s that endorsed the Malaysian Charter on Human Rights agreed on a common expression of human rights in the Malaysian context. It is now more than 14 years since, and I believe it is time that the NGO’s launch a massive public campaign to create public awareness on human rights. I would like to suggest that the NGO’s and other likeminded organizations get together with SUHAKAM to decide on the public service campaign to tell more Malaysians about their very first human right: the right to know what one’s human rights are. The campaign could ensure that every Malaysian understands what ‘draconian’ means when they hear the term ‘draconian ISA’, what is abhorrent about detention without trial, why an independent judiciary is necessary to protect the rule of law, why the right to peaceful assembly must be protected, and so on. These issues are in our newspapers and on the Internet almost daily. But how many Malaysians look upon these issues as impinging on their rights? The campaign should cover a period of say 3 years on wide ranging issues of human rights. At the very least this will be as useful as the no smoking campaign. There must be widespread support for human rights if we want to see changes in our laws and public policy
This is why more public support for human rights is imperative and why leadership in state governments and at the Federal level should also support this initiative. But the failure of political leadership must not become the failure of human rights. Remember, that governments should be afraid of their people and not people of their governments. Organisations such as the Bar Council, NGOs and other civil rights groups should pick up the reins of leadership if the governments fail their people.
To sum up then, the Malaysian report card on human rights is at least similar to what a teacher once said of me at school: ‘can do better’. Malaysia is a democracy, whether or not it is lost. And human rights are entirely compatible with Islam. But focus is best placed now on what power and authority we have as ordinary citizens, men and women, young and old, pengkid or non-pengkid, yoga lovers or non-yoga lovers. Malaysians must make the change they want. We should hold ourselves more accountable and not look to hold others as solely or even principally responsible. We must ourselves manage to officially lift at least the Emergency that has been in place since 1964! As a member of the United Nation Human Rights Council, Malaysia should play a leading role in upholding human rights. I agree with the message of the campaign to celebrate 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I am sure you do too - ‘Justice and dignity for all’.
5. Human rights were borne of our mutual vulnerability and the capacity human beings have to inflict murders and gruesome atrocities on one another. There are many well documented cases. From 1914 to the end of World War II, 75 million people perished. Then there are the genocides inflicted by the likes of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and the Serbs in Bosnia. In Rwanda, the devastation wreaked by people armed with nothing more than machetes, sticks and rocks led to rivers and lakes choked with bodies. Recognition of human rights is the last and only barrier to the breakdown of law and social order in such cases. Knowing one’s human rights means acknowledging the equal rights of another human being. When all else fails, conscience remains. Human rights can remind people of these atrocities committed in the name of the nation or race or of God. Only human rights can serve as an antidote to the cruelty we are capable of by reminding us of the importance of respect for individuals and by bringing compassion and dignity to human relationships.
An essential element to unify a divided South Africa at the end of the apartheid era was the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spearheaded by Bishop Desmond Tutu. Quite apart from bringing closure to many unsolved deaths and disappearances, the Commission’s greatest success was in laying a foundation of mutual respect and dignity between the former the White South Afrikaaner and the newly-independent black South African. In essence it ensured that the new Republic of South Africa was founded on a platform of human rights.
6. The truth is that governments in this part of the world are wary of human rights although I must salute the progress made in Indonesia. This is unfortunate. We need to further highlight the many aspects and explain the rudiments of human rights to our governments as well as the public. No doubt the issues of the economy are important, the issues of stability and peace are important. But we can have all that and still be human rights friendly. If anything, human rights -if entrenched- will assist in resolving those issues. There is, of course, a lot more awareness on issues such as the ISA in this country because the Opposition political parties have taken this issue as part of their campaign. But there are broader issues of human rights that we need to focus on as well. The issues of freedom of expression, and the dangerous trend of book banning and issuance of fatwas by JAKIM are matters of concern. The attitude of the police to peaceful gatherings of citizens is not a good omen for democracy. These basic rights should be recognized and accepted. In fact we can improve human right significantly if we can have a ‘Police Commission’ that provides an oversight role of our police force. I have in mind the commission proposed by Tun Mohd Dzaiddin. This Commission was supposed to receive and investigate complaints of police misconduct and to prevent, detect and investigate the complaint and serious misconduct. It also would improve police integrity and increase public confidence in the force. If the government is willing to set up such a Commission , then the police would become more professional enforcers of the law with the starting point of treating every citizen equally and dealing with the public with due regard to their basic rights. Subsequently the force will become more even-handed in its approach and will be more willing to apply the law sensibly and within the norms of human rights found in modern democracies. Human rights will be very much improved if we have a police force that has confidence of the people.
7. Political parties in the country both from the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat must be more equivocal and explicit with regard to their position on human rights issues. Where so-called Islamic related issues are concerned you will see that they are less likely to respond with clarity and firmness. When the Yoga fatwa was announced, it was the Malay Rulers who had to explain that National Fatwa Council had no legal authority to affect the rulings. His Highness Raja Nazrin expressed his disappointment that the Malay Rulers were not first consulted. The Federal Constitution and our history are clear. The Malay Ruler is the head of Islam in his state. Such a statement was not forthcoming from any of the political parties. Even on the fatwa relating to the tom boy issue or pengkid, there was silence from many quarters, an ominous sign. The Human Rights Awareness campaign that I have suggested will show the true commitment and position of the political parties on the various issues relating to human rights. It is necessary for the public to gauge where the parties they support stand on some of the more pressing issues. There is a need for clarity as to the various measures they need to undertake if the country is to adopt these human rights principles. We need to know how these political parties hope to resolve some of the internal conflicts between themselves. Will they or won’t they subscribe to the Malaysian Charter on Human Rights?
8. Another step the government can take to advance the cause of human rights and the administration of justice would be to make the position of the Attorney-General as a Member of Cabinet. This is necessary because the AG is the principal legal advisor to the Government. No changes to the laws and international Conventions can take effect without his agreement. And yet the public is shielded from engaging with this principal legal advisor. There is no or very little engagement the public has with the office of the AG .But if he is made answerable to Parliament, if we can get him to participate in parliamentary debates at least we can have some idea as to why certain positions are taken whether on the administration of justice, or in the ratification or otherwise of international conventions. It is difficult to implement changes to the justice system if the AG is not in agreement. At the moment, the AG’s position is one where he has the power and authority on laws in the country. To all intents and purposes he is the de facto Law Minister. But because he is also a civil servant he is shielded or insulated from parliamentary or public debates. He does not have to engage the parliamentarians on policy debates. Since Malaysia has adopted the Westminster system of Government, we should also adopt the position the United Kingdom takes with its Attorney General. As a member of Cabinet, the Attorney General in the United Kingdom is exposed to questions in Parliament and is required to explain relevant issues under his charge to the public. At the moment, in Malaysia, the Attorney General’s officers provide written answers to parliamentary questions and the Ministers read them. The Ministers would not be in a position to justify decisions made by the Attorney General nor should they be required to. After all, they are the Attorney General’s decisions made under a Constitutional mandate. The Attorney General should at least have the opportunity to justify decisions made by the Government based on his advice where legal and human rights issues are involved or where exercises of his discretion are called into question. It is time the public is more familiar with the thinking and ideas of our Attorney General so that we can understand better the rational and reasons behind his actions and advice. Making him a Member of Cabinet will also add more prestige to his office and advance the cause of justice.
9. Malaysia has to improve its stature in the family of nations in the field of human rights. As it is now, we rank very poorly. In the 2008 worldwide press freedom ranking index by Reporters Without Borders, Malaysia ranks 132 out of 173 countries. In 2007 it was placed 124 and in 2006, Malaysia ranked 92. Also, Malaysia’s score in the Corruptions Perceptions Index has dropped, with its ranking 47th out of 180 countries in 2008 compared to 43rd out of 179 last year. Further, on the subject of refugees, for example, we have refused to recognize the UN Convention on Refugees 1951, even though there are some 27,000 refugees in the country. Malaysia has failed to enact any legislation on the protection of refugees. They are treated as illegal immigrants by the authorities and subjected to harsh conditions in detention and during deportation. The reasons given for not ratifying this convention are not convincing; such as that refugees can ‘disturb’ our delicate multi-racial demographic, that we don’t have funds to house them, and because we practice the principle of non-intervention. Malaysia also has not signed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in Dec 1990. It also did not sign the International Convention on Social and Cultural Rights 1966. Even on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women 1979, Malaysia’s agreement is subject to many qualifications and reservations. The acceptance was on the basis that it would not conflict with Islamic Shariah and the Federal Constitution. It would have been better for the government to say that they will bring national legislation in to conform to the objectives contained in the convention. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the UN in 2006 was also not signed by Malaysia. So, we have been very slow in responding to International developments in the field of human rights. The only way that the Government will change its views is if the people of this country tell them that they want human rights to be part and parcel of public policy.
10. The actor Samuel L Jackson is now 60 years of age – the same age as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a recent interview he recalled growing up in Chattanooga Tennessee in the 50s and 60s. He remembers having to attend an all-black school, of not being allowed into certain all-white restaurants, of having to sit at the back of the bus behind the white folk and of crossing the street to walk on opposite side if there where white people approaching. But he also remembered Dr Martin Luther King Jr and his dream, he remembers Rosa Parks and her bus ride, he remembers the civil rights movement and the march on Alabama, he remembers the NAACP and the Supreme Court decision in Board of Education v Brown. And he today celebrates Barack Hussein Obama being President-Elect of the United States of America. Human rights became real and meaningful to Samuel L Jackson and his fellow Americans in one generation. How long will it take us?
I think it is now time for me to express my appreciation and thanks to the following groups or individual who have done much to defend and promote human rights:
• SUHAKAM - The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) was established by Parliament under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, Act 597, in accordance with the Paris Principles. SUHAKAM is assigned 'to promote awareness of and provide education in relation to human rights'. It has raised concerns with how the Sedition Act is being used to curb freedom of speech. It has also questioned the delay in disposal of court cases. Suhakam of course has to make some changes to its make up, and the people they appoint as Commissioners so that they can keep their status. They are now being watched by the UN
• The Human Rights Committee of the Bar Council – The Human Rights Committee was founded in the 1970’s. The Committee has organized its 'Festival of Rights' in conjunction with the International Human Rights Day, and even had its chairperson Edmund Bon arrested for allegedly preventing local authorities from performing their duty in removing banners outside the lawyers' headquarters. We must also applaud them for organizing the 2008 Human Rights Debate which preceded this dinner. Through this debate, they hope to bridge ethnic, linguistic and cultural gaps in order to foster respect and understanding on rights-related issues in the country.
• SUARAM – It grew out of a single-issue focus on the ISA after Operasi Lalang in 1987 into a broader national human rights organization. Later of course, SUARAM evolved to fight for other areas of human rights including civil, political, economic, social and cultural. They are guided by the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. Their vision statement is “To work for a society that is peaceful, free, equal, just and sustainable by a process of empowering people and building a mass movement to uphold human rights”. SUARAM has over the years, been pushing and testing boundaries which constrict us, for the advancement of human rights in Malaysia. They have campaigned for police accountability through their handling of cases regarding abuses of power. Of course, they campaign against laws that allow detention without trial. They have also held a "Know Your Rights Workshop," during which participants discussed human rights principles and concepts, human rights laws, how to make human rights complaints, and human rights and gender.
• HAKAM - It is the National Human Rights Society, and is considered to be one of the most vocal human rights NGOs in Malaysia. It was formed in the early 90’s and has a proven track record in the field of human rights advocacy. The organisation has been at the forefront of efforts aimed at promoting and ensuring adherence to constitutional values and the protection of fundamental liberties for all communities. In the last few years, it has been particularly active in civil society initiatives aimed at creating awareness of the complexities of race relations and Islamization trends in Malaysia, and the impact of these trends on the rule of law and human rights. In this regard, HAKAM was a founding member of ‘Article 11’ and played a key role in the initiative aimed at establishing a statutory Interfaith Commission of Malaysia.
• Irene Fernandez – she fought for 13 years to clear her name when she was arrested and charged with 'maliciously publishing false news' when in 1995 she published a report on the living conditions of the migrant workers entitled "Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres". Finally, on 24 November this year she was acquitted when Judge Mohamad Apandi Ali gave his decision and set aside her 2003 conviction and reversed the conviction and sentencing. Irene is also the director and co-founder of Tenaganita, which has taken up as its cause to highlight and protect the rights of women and migrants in Malaysia. Tenaganita has been working on issues concerning domestic workers for over ten years now and is at the forefront of a campaign for a special legislation that will protect basic labour and gender rights and give recognition to domestic work as work.
• Sisters in Islam - Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a group of Muslim women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam. It was formed in 1988 and registered as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in 1993. They have been very vocal about various rights issues in the country some of which involve them such as the Home Ministry’s banning of the book "Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism" which was published by Sisters in Islam. SIS also condemned the forced eviction of Kampung Berembang villagers and the destruction of the village surau and strongly opposes the use of ISA under any circumstances.
11. Finally my thanks to the Organising Committee. You have been tireless in your effort to promote human rights, in the face of all kinds of lethargy and cynicism. Just remember what Irene Fernandez told the press, when she won her legal battle, that she will not be cowed, she will not give up. Her tenacity and resoluteness are for all of us to admire and emulate. Good night.
Datuk Zaid Ibrahim