Thursday, December 12, 2013

A time to understand human rights: Human Rights Day on 10 Dec

A time to understand human rights: Human Rights Day on 10 Dec
Malaysia is still rated fairly free despite fall in Human Development Index ranking.
Demonstrator holds candle during vigil for release of Raja Petra and opposition member of parliament Kok in Kuala Lumpur (© Reuters)

The existence of a Human Rights Day ironically translates into an apparent lack of human rights in the world, even with laws which are supposedly meant to protect the innocent.

In 1950, the United Nations General Assembly declared 10 December as Human Rights Day. It has been twenty years since 1993, when a mandate of High Commissioner was created for the promotion and protection of all human rights during the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna the same year.

Furthermore, Women’s Rights are now acknowledged as a fundamental human right. Discrimination and acts of violence against women are at the forefront of the human rights discourse.

Human rights cover a wide range of issues including access to basic necessities, equality, life and the right to tell the truth. In the Universal Declaration of Human the first and second article states that:
  1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood;
  2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Human Rights in Malaysia

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in a survey done under Human Development Index (HDI), Malaysia has backslidden in its ranking, from 61st place in 2011 to 64th place out of 187 countries in 2013.

Two massive rallies, dubbed Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0, held on 9 July 2011 and 28 April 2012 respectively attributed to the drop in the HDI ranking. Bersih is the Malaysian acronym for Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, and aims to promote free and fair elections in Malaysia. During Bersih 2.0, over 1600 protesters were arrested while over 500 protesters were similarly detained for Bersih 3.0. Riot police also used tear gas and water cannons on protesters at both rallies.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), a human rights organisation in Malaysia, is still actively pursuing the case of the Defence Ministry’s controversial Scorpene submarine purchase through the French court. The world still mourns the death of a central figure in the Scorpene deal - Altantuya Shaariibuugin, who was blown up with C4 explosives in 2006 and her immigration records erased.

Another blatant violation of human rights in Malaysia is the rape of indigenous Penan women in Sarawak. Workers of a large timber conglomerate had been constantly harassing the local women, but there has no action taken against them, even though the incidents were broadly publicised.

Do laws protect or are they used to prosecute and silence the victims?

In Malaysia, the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for detention without trial was replaced with the Security Offences (Special Measures) 2012 Act (SOSMA). SOSMA and the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) which replaces Section 27 of the Police Act have been criticised as being even more draconian and restrictive.

The officially endorsed policy of preferential treatment towards the majority practised in Malaysia is another instance of human rights violation, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any attempts to question or discuss the matter will be dealt with by the Sedition Act or the Printing Presses and Publication Act.

Even Christians in the country are not spared. A recent ban on the use of the Arabic word ‘Allah’ by Christians created international headlines and much negative publicity.

Ops Lallang, an operation carried out in 1987 saw a total of 106 people arrested under the ISA. Forty people were detained without trial for two years and sent to the Kamunting Detention Centre. These people included political figures, social activists and individuals. Two daily newspapers, The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh had their publishing licences revoked for a period of time.

Custodial deaths and the licence to kill

According to SUARAM, there have been 12 custodial deaths alone this year. Two other high-profile deaths were Teoh Beng Hock and Gunasegaran who died the same day – 16 July 2009.

When Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said, “I think the best way is not to compromise with them, don’t give anymore warnings to them, [if] we have evidence, we [will] shoot first”, it created a furore among right-thinking Malaysians.

With such a statement, Ahmad Zahid has displayed a lack of understanding about the rule of law.

Your right is just as much my right

Just a few days ago, an UMNO division head asked for the 1Malaysia slogan to be changed to 1Melayu during the party’s General Assembly. Such blatantly racist statements are nothing new in Malaysia. Even former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has claimed the minorities face systematic marginalization in Malaysia.

It is bizarre how a human can treat another human with so much contempt, and this plainly justifies the existence of something like Human Rights Day. Laws are written by men, but some men manipulate the law to favour the rich and influential. Can we then blame the 47% who voted the present government into power?

While most would frown upon giving out election goodies and rightfully view it as a form of vote-buying, the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying ‘you help me, I help you’ during a state election campaign in Sarawak in 2011.

It comes as no surprise at all that immediately after the General Election and heavy spending, the prices of all essential goods shot up, due to a hike in petrol prices, the removal of the sugar subsidy and a rise in electricity tariffs. To add insult to injury, an impending Goods and Service Tax of 6% will be imposed from April 2015.

Inflation affects the livelihood and affordability of the average wage earner. Although a moderate inflation rate is healthy for the country’s economy, knee-jerk changes to the country’s fiscal policies will create shock and unrest. To make things worse, the Prime Minister’s wife, who apparently obtained the cabinet’s approval to represent the country for official visits using the country’s jet plane, has displayed spendthrift ways unbecoming of someone in her position.

How UMNO equates itself with the great Nelson Mandela who passed away on 6 December this year is yet another mind-boggling claim. One fights for human rights, while the other fights against it. One helped in the removal of the noxious apartheid policy, while the other promotes superiority of a certain race.

Facts are indeed stranger than fiction.

So what are Human Rights? Human Rights are the ability to treat another fellow human being with goodwill and mutual respect to achieve peace and unity. In Malaysia, with things as they are now, that ideal scenario is a long time coming. Until then, we still need Human Rights Day.

** Article published in MSN Malaysia
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