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Civil servants and human rights are inseparable

  • Why is it important for the civil servants to understand the human rights?

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Recently, the Legal Affairs Division (BHEUU) of the Prime Minister's Department organized a seminar on human rights and policy making focusing on the development of the national human rights action plan (NHRAP). The NHRAP is a plan that is currently in its drafting stage under a team of consultants and is expected to be in implementation next year.

Officiated by Tan Sri Ahmad Zaki Ansore Mohd Yusof, Director-General of the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU) of the Prime Minister's Department and Datuk Jalil bin Marzuki, the Director General of the BHEUU, 250 civil servants from various ministries and agencies attended the seminar.

I had the privilege of being invited as one of the panelists together with Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Datuk Dr. Denison Jayasooria, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

Apart from the intention to raise understanding among civil servants on the significance and benefits of an effective NHRAP to the country, what I want to highlight about this seminar are: First, one of the key objectives of the seminar is also to create awareness among civil servants on the importance of inserting human rights element into the framework of public policy development. Second, I was told this is the first ever seminar on human rights and policy making that being held by the government.

Generally in Malaysia, we have rare chance to have knowledge about human rights. I myself have never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) until much later. That precisely the reason that brings to the misperception of what human rights is. Everyone has their own interpretation when it comes to human rights and it is always challenging to come to an agreement.

Human rights are no jargon; it is grounded in universal objective values, which are rooted in basic human needs. It is not a concept belongs to Western or Eastern. Amidst of all these principles, what's important is that, human rights primarily regulate the relationship between the state and the people.

That brings in the key question, why is it important for the civil servants to understand the human rights?

From Malaysia Plans to many other government public policies, and now everyone talks about the National Transformation 2050 (TN50), all these public policies have similar features. First, many development issues that are highlighted in these public policies, such as education, health, water and sanitation, decent shelter, labour, environment, social protection and well being of vulnerable groups are not new issues.

Second, one missing component in all the discussion of these public policies is the rights language, meaning the policy makers do not normally address these issues through a human right lens with the aim to empower the people, rather the initiatives are mostly from the needs approach.

TN50 for example, it highlights on bottom-up approach and inclusivity. If you come across TN50 public announcement on radio, it emphasizes on “leave no one behind”, the same tagline with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the government of Malaysia is also implementing.

The seminar on human rights and policy making was organized exactly for that purpose, which is to cultivate such awareness. The idea is to mainstream human rights lens into the national development framework, so that human rights and the development agenda can be mutually reinforcing.

In the early years of 2000, the United Nations (UN) introduces the concept of human rights-based approach (HRBA) to be integrated in development programs. During the panel, I highlighted the importance of applying the HRBA into government's public policies. HRBA works to fulfil the rights of people, rather than the needs of people. It recognizes that people are actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of services.

This approach entails a shift of perspective in the strategic focus of cooperation whereby, now the state institutions are “duty-bearers”, who must be enabled to fulfil their human rights obligations, while people become “rights-holders”, who must be empowered to claim their rights effectively.

For example, if we talk about housing, we should be thinking about the right to shelter and housing. It is an obligation of the state to ensure its people enjoys the basic rights. The right to housing is considered as violated if a state engages in arbitrary forced evictions.

Another example is poverty; poverty cannot be eradicated without the realization of human rights, ranging from economic rights, social rights, and cultural rights to civil rights to political rights.

Ministers are responsible to us through their representations in the parliament. They have overall political responsibility to steer policy formation and make decision for the country. But then, it is the civil servants whom play a significant role as they assist members of the government in developing and delivering government policy and services.

That shown how important it is for the civil servants to respect, protect and fulfil human rights because these policies will directly impact on us in many areas such as health, education, social welfare, housing, child protection and justice. It is therefore, essential for civil servants to have knowledge of human rights standards and principles so that they are able to carry out their statutory duties effectively and impartially.

In order to achieve that, I believe what's really crucial is then to strengthen the culture of human rights awareness. Human rights are crosscutting issues. Human rights are indivisible, where the improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects others.

The seminar on human rights and policy making organized by the BHEUU are a significant turning point in ensuring every civil servant in Malaysia realize the effectiveness of human rights that will help them to implement policies effectively. After all, in the end of the day, it is not about the indicators in numbers that should count when discussing human rights, it is the human rights culture that we need to nurture.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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