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Politics of fear impedes human rights progress

  • To move forward, we need to overcome the politics of fear, and to do this we need to start from education.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Last Sunday, December 10 was international human rights day. Various local and international civil society organisations organised activities and programs to commemorate the celebration. While the day might be celebrated more widely in certain parts of the world, it is not a day where Malaysia celebrates in the scale of nationwide.

Interestingly, a day before the international human rights day, Malaysia created history at the United Nations (UN) when the UN adopted Malaysia's resolution of moderation at its General Assembly. Apart from the United States and Israel, the resolution was voted in favor by 135 member countries of the UN. While this is a commendable effort by the government, it is sadly does not reflect the reality on the ground.

Over time, human rights has increasingly becoming a term that people speak about, but the challenges remain. It is a concept that many continue to distant themselves from, without knowing human rights is always around us. How is human rights like in a country like Malaysia?

The late Dag Hammarskjold, who was the second Secretary-General of the UN once said, the whole philosophy of human rights could be summed up by the idea of freedom. What's interesting about the saying by Hammarskjold is that, he referred to a very particular freedom that is the freedom from fear. In one of my previous articles entitled, "Does freedom come with a price?", I highlighted the importance of freedom and how it is intertwined with the concept of human rights.

Malaysia has been in the limelight internationally for various wrong reasons. With the growing public discontent over various contentious issues in the country, ranging from unsolved political scandal to religious intolerance, many remain puzzle over the future direction of Malaysia. While we always tend to look at issues from the political perspective, it is maybe time for us to start looking at issues from the rights perspective.

By far, many human rights reports on Malaysia have most often been not favorable. According to the recently launched Suara Rakyat Malaysia's (Suaram) Human Rights Report 2017 Overview, the number of cases filed under Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) jumped to 249. It is reported that freedom of expression remains worrying as it witnessed a rise in prosecutions under the CMA.

Politics of fear is real. Ask around, self-censorship is something that many Malaysians engage in, as many are worry about its possible consequences. Very often, laws are easily twisted by the powerful that potentially deprive the people of their legitimate rights. What's more worrying is that people remain ignorance in understanding of the implications of the denial of their fundamental rights.

It may seem ironic that in this information age, we still need to deal with the discussion on censorship and banning. The Internet has given us access to almost everything from the previously banned books and movies to the "secret" document in Wikileaks. Yet, words and thoughts are still banned.

Internationally, Malaysia has by far gone through two cycles of Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a UN peer-review mechanism on country's performance on human rights. After two cycles of UPR exercise on the government of Malaysia in 2009 and 2013, the debate remains as whether the UPR has any meaningful influence on Malaysia's human rights performances despite Malaysia's commitment internationally.

Through analysis on the two UPR exercise on Malaysia, there is a similar trend that most of the recommendations made are pertained to accession to treaties and UN mechanisms. Ratification of core human rights conventions is a major area of concern. Malaysia is far behind in term of its ratification track record. So far, Malaysia has ratified only three of the nine core human rights conventions. They are Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the latest being the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Malaysia's unwillingness to ratify major human rights conventions is an indication of its disconnection with its human rights commitment in the UPR.

All these moves just further strengthen the logic that the country is clearly troubled to have their ideas challenged and questioned, that they could risk to be weakened and their power diminished. A vibrant and creative society is a place where open discussion can take place freely. Political will remains one key challenge in the country and coupled with this, it is probably ignorance.

The late Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." No one would refute the importance of education. I have always felt strongly about education not only because it is an incredible force in many ways, but also the basic building block of every society. To move forward, we need to overcome the politics of fear and that I believe has to start from our education.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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