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Volume 12 Number 2
New Delhi, Summer 2005

Legislators and Human Rights: A Malaysian Snapshot

Edmund Bon
Advocate & Solicitor, High Court in Malaya

It is ironical indeed that the actors who are responsible for upholding the law are the principal violators of human rights around the world. Human rights protection cannot subsist without State participation. Lawmakers and legislators play a vital role in protecting and promoting human rights through legislation and democratic practices. In Malaysia, law makers are unfortunately blase about human rights and its impact on the society.

Since its inception, the Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has actively carried out its mandate culminating in no less than 15 reports. Of all the annual reports submitted to the Parliament none have been either tabled or debated. The Government has appeared reluctant in explaining why adequate time was not given for consideration of these reports. Besides pointing to the Government’s lack of respect for SUHAKAM, it also impairs its right to defend human rights which is an abdication of responsibility on part of the Government.

A genuine desire to uphold human rights is usually clouded by political motivations. After attending the Cabinet meeting on 2 March 2005, Datuk Azmi Khalid, the Minister of Home Affairs, said, “Bona fide refugees, as well as those who had applied for refugee status, would not be targeted during the current Ops Tegas against illegal immigrants.” This decision was welcomed as it represented an open acknowledgement of the principle of non-refoulment which forms the core content of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951.

The next day however, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, reversed the Government’s position and said, “We will take action against anyone who is here illegally. There is no exemption on this including those who are carrying letters, genuine or otherwise, from the UNHCR.”

At the international level, Malaysia has been repeatedly defensive of its human rights record and continually deflects attempts to improve the monitoring mechanisms promoted by the United Nations.Recently, Malaysia resisted the recommendation of the United Nations to prepare an annual report on the situation of human rights worldwide in view “of the varying human rights perspectives and different political, historical, social, religious, cultural and developmental characteristics”. Yet, in the same breath, legislators maintained that not enough was being done to address poverty, underdevelopment, marginalisation and instability as “the universality and indivisibility of all human rights have been accepted as far back as 1993, at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.”

The problem is endemic. Contradictory public statements such as the ones quoted above are not isolated. This displays a deficiency on the part of MPs in understanding the struggle, thereby rendering other useful statements on the commitment to human rights as mere lip-service.

Criticising the legislators is no solution to the problem. We must make an attempt to understand them and where they are coming from. Human rights activists and non-governmental organisations find it easy to take

an altruistic position, legislators on the other hand are constrained by the political realities of the day. Legislators are elected and sustained by the power of numbers. It is these numbers they must keep to hold onto power. Human rights transcends the power and numbers game. Hence, the dilemma.

Battles however have been won, and the statement of Datuk Azmi Khalid on 2 March 2005 exemplifies that. It was a battle fought and won by a combination of unrelenting and tireless NGOs, human rights activists and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to uphold Human Rights.

Yet, as the struggle continues, the feeling is that the legislators use concepts of human rights to serve their own hidden agendas. Saying so doesn’t negate the fact that, in reality, they are indispensable to the process of furthering the cause effectively. The focus must now be to re-educate and re-democratise our country. There must be a concerted agenda for MPs to pursue in terms of human rights protection and promotion. Almost every issue in an election can some way or the other be articulated in the language of human rights. The promotion of human rights issues must then be shaped in different forms to reach out to different sectors of the electorate – the poor, the disabled, the middle-class, the rich, the educated et al.

As long as the Opposition continues to be fragmented and disorganised, there can be no effective challenge to the ruling Government. Exercises in excess of power will continue. The baggage which PAS1 brought to the Opposition was probably the major factor in the overwhelming majority voting for the BN2. Despite PAS’s stated commitment to human rights, its basic ideology and raison d’etre does not sit well with international rights norms.

There must be a concerted human rights agenda based on clear policies (at the macro and micro level) of a shadow or alternative government for the electorate to choose from. The human rights cause cannot be fought on a piecemeal basis. It must be advanced as a whole in every aspect of the administration and management of the country.

CHRI Newsletter, Summer 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.