24 October is United Nations Day. How appropriate it is that on this day, the UN Human Rights Council will review Malaysia under the universal periodic review (UPR) process to gauge the progress of the obligations of Malaysia to promote, protect and fulfil the rights of all who live here.
As part of the UPR process, the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO) submitted a report to the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) in March 2013. It may be accessed on the OHCHR website.
The COMANGO report has been much maligned by non-state actors such as the Coalition of Muslim NGOs in the UPR Process (MUPRO) and the Malaysian Muslim Lawyers Association. A seminar entitled Seminar Ancaman Liberalisme was organise by Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM) and Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) to counter matters raised in our report. We have also come under attack by a state actor, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) when in the Friday sermon issued on 18 October 2013, JAKIM called for the authorities to effectively deal with us by taking action against us.
Their complaints about the COMANGO report fall into two broad categories: threatening Islam as the religion of Malaysia; and threatening the sovereignty of Malaysia. For good measure, JAKIM made unsubstantiated accusations about COMANGO being an agent of a global liberal conspiracy. These accusations are untrue.
As proof of COMANGO’s threat to the position of Islam as the religion of Malaysia, they say that we raised the issues of apostasy and same-sex marriage in our report – we did not. We support the freedom of religion, and the rights of everyone to be free from violence whether you are a woman, child, an older person, a person with disability, and regardless of your sexual orientation and gender identity. We believe in the right to work, the right to life, and the right to privacy and we champion the freedoms of expression and association. All these rights and freedoms are in our Federal Constitution – the supreme law of Malaysia.
The recommendation by COMANGO that Malaysia should ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was said to encourage apostasy. This is obviously incorrect. Otherwise, Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen and Afghanistan would not have ratified ICCPR.
When COMANGO called for Malaysia to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), it was said that it would infuse Western laws into the local justice system and force Malaysia to follow the dictates of the secular West. The fact of the matter is, Malaysia’s legal system is largely based on the English legal system – it has been so since Merdeka and even prior to it. In any event, the accusation is false since many Muslim countries have ratified CERD. They include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Yemen and Qatar.
The much-touted threat to Malaysia’s sovereignty does not take into account that Malaysia has already ratified three key human rights conventions, and many other bilateral and multi-lateral treaties, especially those related to our economic development. The issue of sovereignty would have obviously been considered then, and not thought to be a threat. This shows that the point MUPRO, JAKIM and others make about sovereignty is moot.
If any confusion were to arise from the matters raised in the COMANGO report, it is as a result of misinterpretation. Save for one e-mail from an individual, there were no efforts made to contact us for clarification or discussion. The fact that the media was chosen as the arena for raising their concerns may be an indication of their purposes.
Malaysia’s engagement in the UPR process has benefitted us. The government did make some progress in the human rights arena that we believe are a result of the UPR process. Some examples include: the withdrawal of a few of the reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); the ratification of two of the Optional Protocols to the CRC; the amendments to the Domestic Violence Act 1994; the withdrawal of the appeal in the Noorfadilla case which held that CEDAW has the force of law in Malaysia; and the formal invitation for a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Food Security.
Our engagement in the UPR process is in line with the preamble to our Rukun Negera: we are dedicated to ensuring that our human rights are promoted and protected so that we can live in a just society, with a liberal approach to our rich and diverse cultural traditions. The course has been set: let us remain true and continue as we have begun.
Honey Tan Lay Ean
Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO)