Are we avoiding tough human rights issues?

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Every year on Dec 10, the international community celebrates Human Rights Day.

This year marks the 64th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foremost statements of rights and freedoms of all human beings.

The declaration has since become the universal standard for promoting and protecting human rights around the globe including our country.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has set the theme for this year as 'Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Public Life'.

This highlights the importance of the inclusion of citizens in decision-making processes without any exception. This theme is very timely and much suited to the Malaysian context.

Back to the country, it is very much enlightening to see the increasing numbers of events to commemorate Human Rights Day by civil society as a whole.

Apart from conventional conferences and talks, there are also innovative human rights activities such as a letter-writing marathon, movie screenings, human rights awards, human rights run and the list goes on.

Human rights peer-review system

On this special day, it is timely to take a look at the human rights commitment of the government of Malaysia at the international and national level.

The Universal Periodic System (UPR), established by the General Assembly resolution 60/251 of March 15, 2006, is a mechanism that reviews all the 192 member states of the UN in cycles of four years.

Although Malaysia underwent its first review during the 4th session of the Human Rights Council in February 2009, this particular mechanism remains unknown to the general public.

The UPR should not only be seen as merely an international obligation, but rather as an ongoing national process in which the government constantly engages with the civil society to increase their efforts in the promotion and protection of human rights.

In simpler words, it is to translate the international human rights commitment to the ground.

Such an approach is unique in nature because the mechanism was introduced to systematically and periodically scrutinise a state member on the fulfillment of its obligations and even voluntary commitments.

All governmental stakeholders including Malaysia repeatedly underline openness, tolerance, cooperation and a consensual approach as dominant factors in order to conduct UPR.

However the question is, apart from conducting the regular diplomacy exercise at the UN, are similar approaches being applied at the national level?

Do they utilise the mechanism as a way to improve human rights? Or is it a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" exercise, in which tough issues are largely avoided?

The UPR creates domestic momentum for human rights strengthening.

It provides legitimisation and entry points for NGO stakeholder engagement with governments.

Ideally, the UPR could substantially contribute to improving  the situation generally on the ground by drawing and focusing the international attention on human rights.

Diplomatic exercise?

The UPR exercise is an opportunity for the civil society especially to call upon the government of Malaysia to strengthen and uphold its national and international commitments on human rights.

The government operation was considered as a success. The Malaysian delegation in February 2009 had opted not to respond to critical questions particularly on civil and political rights, but focusing heavily on the economics, social and cultural rights.

The government generally undertakes the UPR exercise as a major diplomatic event to defend its record and performance on human rights.

For that purpose it had brought along one of the largest delegations of senior officials with extensive lobbying amongst friendly countries to gain support or at least neutrality in their statements.

The second review on Malaysia, which will take place in October 2013, will definitely be an important session to observe and participate, as the government will need to report back on their follow-up, with the recommendations that took place during the first review that was already more than three years old.

KHOO YING HOOI is on the academic staff of Universiti Malaya and a PhD candidate at University Putra Malaysia.

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