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Malaysia maintains “public morality” in the ASEAN human rights declaration; SEA Women to appeal again to foreign ministers.
Malaysia continues to resist the calls of women to remove “public morality”” from the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), as it is being drafted by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
During the dialogue with CSOs, Dato’ Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Malaysia’s AICHR representative insisted that public morality has been a part of his country’s court decisions. One of these cases involved a politician who became a member of the Malaysian Bar Council, which must be an independent. “For that reason the highest court of the land said a full time politician will be offending public morality,” he said.
In their recent position paper on the AHRD, the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN (Women’s Caucus) asserted that public morality “has not been defined in international human rights standards. As such, its interpretation in daily life has been largely based on the dominant political, cultural and religious regimes. It has been quite subjective and discriminatory, particularly women and girls and other minorities such as LGBTs.”
It further explained that “’Public morality’ through concepts of chastity, virginity and the like deflects crimes against person such as rape and other sexual abuses into crimes against honour including in conflict and post-conflict situations. Conversely, ‘public morality’ has also been used to criminalize prostitution/sex work and what may be interpreted as transgressive gender identities and behaviour.”
Abdullah also made a distinction between “public morality” and “private morality.” “We are not talking about people walking naked. Just because the word has been misinterpreted does not mean to say that we should omit the word.” he added.
“Though Dato’ Shafee was open to dialogue, we are disappointed that he still wants to retain ‘public morality’ in the Declaration. He claims ‘public morality’ is well defined. In any case, this is not defined in the rest of ASEAN,” Ren Chung of Malaysia’s Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) asserted.
It is said that Malaysia is supported by Brunei, Vietnam and Singapore. Thailand’s AICHR representative Sriprapha Petcharamesree remarked, “I have been supporting the deletion of public morality. It does not have a definition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “
But in the paper submitted by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development (APWLD), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women Yakin Erturk said, “’Public morality’ clauses in legislation generally serves to undermine women’s rights. I think the nuance between the AHRD and the UDHR is an important one, the former has a more authoritarian and coercive tone. If the UDHR was drafted today I am sure it would have reflected the same tone. Unfortunately both national security and public morality have become prioritized over human rights.”
Women’s groups are set to once more appeal to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and other foreign ministers of ASEAN. The foreign ministers are the superiors of AICHR. Following AICHR’s submission of the first draft of the AHRD in July 2012, the foreign ministers recommended that more consultations with civil society be organized.
“We will appeal to the foreign ministers to make sure that the AHRD is reflective of our realities and add value to existing international human rights standards. The UDHR was written more that half a century ago. We need to move on and learn the lessons from its gaps which have resulted to countless incidence of violence and discrimination, some of it endured in silence, outside public scrutiny,” Nina Somera of the Women’s Caucus Secretariat pointed out.
AICHR is currently in Manila for its 9th meeting to finalize the draft Declaration. Recently, it held a consultation with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) with a number of local and regional civil society groups in attendance including the Women’s Caucus.