Malaysiakini Letter

Human rights is not a new religion

Ambiga Sreenevasan, Andrew Khoo and Zarizana Abdul Aziz  |  Published:  |  Modified:

On 28 April, The Star published an article by Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad under Ikim's Views entitled ‘ Human rights shouldn't impose on religions and cultures '. We wrote a rebuttal. The Star has chosen not to publish it.

Below is our rebuttal, and it is our personal opinion.

In the area of supra-national laws, there is a move to advance binding sets of principles that will guide nations. By their very nature, these principles govern and restrict the conduct of the state.

Malaysia is no stranger to such principles. We are a party to the Geneva Conventions and the Chemical Warfare Convention. These conventions regulate the conduct of warfare by states and are very much part of human rights laws. These laws are intended as a reflection of common decency, which guide civilised nations to the extent that they override or circumscribe a state's absolute freedom in the conduct of war. Indeed, this is only to be welcomed.

Are these rules new? Hardly. Such rules of war have been in existence for several hundreds of years. For example, when the international community questioned and condemned Israel's conduct in the Gaza War, we appealed to international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Is this a new religion? Definitely not. Countries that became parties to such international conventions did so out of their moral outrage at people's inhumanity to others, their deeply held values and profound desire to ensure that common decency and humanitarian principles must prevail even when countries are at their most belligerent temper. The universality of such values is undeniable, and their intended result, peace, is beyond question. Is Wan Azhar saying that this is unacceptable?

But peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is the enabling of equality and the dignity of human beings. Coming as we do from ancient faith traditions, Hindusim, Islam and Christianity respectively, we see human rights as a positive expression of deeply held religious systems and moral values. Rather than being in contrast and contention with religious systems and moral values, human rights are in fact some of their highest expressions.

A God or godly pantheon responsible for the creation of humanity demands that human beings be accorded and treated with all due dignity and respect without qualification on the basis of race, religion, gender or political or moral philosophy. So human rights are a way of elucidating and enunciating how such expressions should be effected.

Such human rights should be equally applied to all citizens and residents of a country regardless of what the official religion of that country is, or if it has none. In this regard, secularism seeks to apply those basic human rights norms in non-religious terms and language, without preferring religion over non-religion or one religion over another.

Human rights, simply put, is about respecting and upholding the dignity of each and every human being. How does that not accord with religious beliefs? It is a poor and sad human misinterpretation of religion that accords basic rights and fundamental freedoms only to a religion's own adherents, or to those in agreement with the powers-that-be behind such a religion.

Wan Azhar suggests that the concepts of human rights and religion in Malaysia are antagonistic. Let us look at the human rights of ‘Orang Asli' in Malaysia. If we take the situation of Orang Asli' land rights, we can see that this is patently untrue. All major religions and value systems enjoin their adherents and followers to care for and improve the welfare of those among us who are defenceless, weak, underprivileged, marginalised and effectively disenfranchised. All the major religions would recognise the customary rights of the ‘Orang Asli' to their land.

Yet for such a long time, the previous Selangor state governments have chosen to challenge and dispute such rights. The present-day Selangor government is to be commended for finally choosing not to pursue this challenge and to recognise such customary land rights.

While a national constitution can stipulate an official religion for the nation, such a document must also recognise the rights of those who do not subscribe to that religion. International human rights norms seek to make commonplace the understanding that the lives of citizens and residents of a country should be free from interference and molestation as a result of any official religious or philosophical orthodoxy.

International human rights norms object to the attempt to legislate for a particular religion and to impose such legislated rules to non-adherents or non-practitioners. And these norms also additionally object to the attempt to deny non-adherents any means to participate in a public debate about that which nonetheless affects their lives and that of their country. A self-serving interpretation of a religion's tenets as a pretext to separation and exclusion, rather than in favour of universality and inclusivity, is to be abhorred.

Wan Azhar wrote that "human rights should neither be made the basis to undermine the constitution, nor be worshipped as if they represent a sacred agenda which could impose restrictions in terms of transforming the country into a united, peaceful and developed nation." We couldn't agree more.

International human rights norms serve as a checklist to uphold our constitution and to benchmark it against international best practices. There is no attempt to undermine but rather strengthen and undergird our Federal Constitution by eliminating any attempt to utilise it as a basis to perpetuate unjust laws, rules and regulations which cause hardship, harm and suffering to our fellow citizens and residents. Where there is a lack of clarity, international human rights norms offer a clear and unambiguous frame of reference. Hence the latest cabinet directive regarding the religious upbringing of children of divorced parents, which we support.

Wan Azhar concludes his essay by saying that "if we really believe in a religious or value system, we cannot accept any notion under the banner of human rights which propagates the idea that humankind is free to do whatever he/she likes without restriction."

The comparison is incorrect. To each right there is a balancing obligation not to act in a way that would discriminate others. Human rights do not promote anarchy and irresponsible behaviour without limitation, as Wan Azhar would like your readers to believe.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, Andrew Khoo and Zarizana Abdul Aziz are members of the Bar Council. This opinion piece does not in any way represent the views of the Bar Council or organisations they are attached with.

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