MALAYSIA should prove its commitment to the global fight for human rights by acceding to several key international conventions, local advocates said as critics rain fire on the Najib administration for assuming the mantle of Rohingya defender despite ASEAN’s non-interference policy.
Hasmy Agam, former chairman of the national Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), said Malaysia’s failure to accede to core United Nations rights instruments like the conventions on refugees and migrant workers’ rights, puts it in a bad light, especially as these treaties have been in force for decades.
“Malaysia’s continued non-accession reflects its lack of seriousness and lack of political will to live up to its international obligations as a member state of the United Nations,” he told a forum co-hosted by Suhakam and several UN agencies held in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur capital on Thursday.
He pointed out that the majority of UN member states have acceded to most, if not all, these rights conventions, which again reflects poorly on Malaysia.
“We must move forward, not stand still or retreat. For many of us concerned with human rights issues, the time of waiting to accede these treaties is well overdue,” he said.
“The long period of study, evaluation and preparation for final accession to the remaining conventions, should be over and we should now take expeditious steps to join the majority of the international community in finally accepting these human rights treaties.”
Hasmy was one of three panelists at the forum. The others were Andrew Khoo co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s human rights committee, and Daniel Lo Soo Jeng of the Prime Minister’s Department.
The Malaysian government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently battling criticism for embarking on a public campaign to protest Burma’s handling of violence and allegations of state abuses against the Muslim Rohingya. The community residing in Burma’s restive Rakhine state is said to be the world’s most persecuted group, with no country offering them formal recognition as citizens.
Najib last Sunday led a rally in Kuala Lumpur to protest the persecution, telling his Burmese counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi that “enough is enough”, and labelling the alleged purge of the Rohingya people from Burma as “genocide”.
The remark triggered a firestorm of protests in Burma. Buddhist monks staged a rally against Najib, while local Burmese observers and Muslim groups told the Malaysian leader to stay out of their affairs.
Some also accused Najib of using the Rohingya crisis to win the support of his country’s Muslim Malays and sway attention from his own troubles, particularly that surrounding the multibillion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
Malaysia has long been the preferred destination for Rohingya refugees feeling violence back home. Official data show that at least 56,000 Rohingya refugees now reside in Malaysia, with thousands more undocumented.
Malaysia subscribes to the philosophies, concepts and norms provided for by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it has yet to accede to treaties including the Convention Against Torture And Other Cruel, Inhumane Or Degrading Treatment Or Punishment (CAT), International Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
It has also never signed the 1951 UN’s Refugee Convention, which means it is not obliged to provide any social service, such as healthcare, education or employment, to all refugees including the Rohingya.
Hasmy said this has to change if Malaysia were to play a more proactive role in protecting human rights.
He admitted that this may not go down well with many of his peers, but said one pragmatic approach is for Malaysia to accede to the more problematic treaties with reservations or inhibitions. A reservation means the signatory accepts the treaty by way of ratification but at the same time declares under which conditions they consider themselves to be bound by it.
Hasmy agreed that the preferred approach would be to ratify and accede to the treaties without reservations but noted that a number of countries, including developed ones, have entered reservations upon ratifying or acceding to these treaties.
“In my view, acceding to these human rights treaties with a few reservations is far better than not acceding to them or delaying the process of acceding indefinitely.”
According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative to Malaysia Richard Towle although Malaysia has taken a very public position towards the Rohingya, the government has not done much to protect the Rohingya migrants living in its own backyard.
“That responsibility falls onto the shoulders of the UNHCR to look after them. There’s not much engagement from the Malaysian government on the protection of the Rohingya or a wider group of refugees,” he told the forum.
Towle also said the Malaysian government is in constant contact with the UNHCR in Malaysia but that more can be done.
In a question-and-answer session at the forum, panelists were asked if Najib’s approach of joining the rally had been appropriate or whether it was a political move on the prime minister’s part.
Lo, who spoke on behalf of the Malaysian government, said the country’s position on the matter has always been consistent.
“The approach that the government has taken all along is that the violation against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State is problematic and cannot continue… as to if it’s political… I think those will just continue and there will be politicisation of issues,” he said.
“I come from the position that we are advocating a foreign move on human rights as a way towards social norms in our country. If that’s really our goal, we need to take stock of and be real of our political situation and address that as we strategise and move forward.”
Khoo chimed in saying he welcomed the move because it now opens the doors to having ASEAN countries comment on what is happening in their neighbouring countries.
“If you know your neighbour is beating his wife, you can hear the screams every night, do you say its got nothing to do with me. It’s my neighbour, it’s his house he can do whatever he wants? Of course not… Why is it then we cannot tell our neighbour (country) to stop mistreating their people?”
He, however, insisted this comes with a caveat. He pointed out that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
“If Malaysia is going out on this new track of speaking about things that are happening within the boundary of the ASEAN State, then it must be equally prepared for those other countries to comment on what is happening here… so you open the door, it’s a two-way door… Don’t suddenly say oh no you cannot say that because that’s interference.”
The ongoing conflict in Burma sparked by the October attacks on three border posts is said to have killed nearly 90 Rohingya and displaced about 30,000, many of whom have fled to Bangladesh. It is said to be the most serious bloodshed in Rakhine state since 2012, when communal clashes killed hundreds.