The UN special rapporteur on cultural rights Karima Bennoune has lauded Malaysia’s efforts to draft a national strategy on human rights, but wants clarification on international benchmarks.
She said she was told that the effort involved some 50 agencies and some parts of civil society, and is a bid to assess gaps between practice and human rights guarantees.
“She was told that this was a way of assessing gaps between practice and human rights guarantees. Its stated goal is very laudable: to be a national document integrating human rights efforts by all ministries and to contribute to the promotion of human rights in Malaysia.
“She was told that the drafters are ‘looking for a balance between domestic demands and international standards,’” she said in her preliminary report following a visit to Malaysia, in which she addressed herself in the third person.
She said she is pleased with the process, which she described as thorough and takes the UN Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action into account.
She said she is also pleased that cultural rights would form the second pillar of the plan, and urged that these rights should be strongly articulated in the document in accordance with international standards.
However, she expressed hope that the role of international benchmarks in drafting the plan would be clarified, and that the plan would include concrete plans for monitoring its progress.
Bennoune had been visiting Malaysia from Sept 11 until Sept 21 to assess the state of cultural rights in Malaysia. This is at the invitation of the Malaysian government, and her findings would be tabled to the UN Human Rights Council.
In 2015, the then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri had told reporters that the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) is a five-year plan, and was formulated in response to recommendations in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) Universal Periodic Review.
The NHRAP has five core areas, namely: civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights;
rights of vulnerable persons; rights of the indigenous people; and international obligations.
Nancy had said at the time, that she hoped the plan could begin implementation by the end of that year.
Meanwhile, Bennoune thanked the Malaysian government for inviting her to Malaysia. She said she had been able to travel unimpeded and had met with 62 government agencies, as well as civil society groups, activists, and experts.
Her travel included visits in Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan, and Sarawak, and she also received a delegation from Sabah that visited her in Kuching.
Her report, which is over 6,200 words long, contained a wide variety of issues that need to be addressed.
Among others, she expressed concern over the unilateral conversion of children and its impacts on the cultural rights of the mother and the child.
“She hopes that the process currently underway to address this issue will guarantee the equal cultural rights of all, without discrimination, and the best interests of the child in accordance with Malaysia’s obligations under international human rights law,” he said.
As for the proposed amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) that had been tabled in Parliament, she said the amendments would introduce corporal punishment that would violate international law, and expressed regrets that the religious authorities that she met had clearly supported the amendments.
“She believes that such punishments pose a threat to human rights in the country and are difficult to rationalize with stated commitments to moderation and progressiveness,” she said.
She also expressed concern over the abduction of the pastor Raymond Koh and several others, saying that it suggests the possibility of violent extremism. She supported the Malaysian Human Rights Commission’s (Suhakam) plans to open a public inquiry on the disappearances.
Meanwhile, in the state of Kelantan, she urged the state government to immediately lift a ban on Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit, Main Puteri and Dikir Barat, as well as restrictions against women performing for mixed audiences.
“These restrictions and the negative discourse around them and their practitioners have already threatened the transmission of these art forms. They are also setting a negative tone for other, informal restrictions in social and cultural practices that involve women performing on stage with mixed audiences […]
“Simply moving the practice of these art forms elsewhere, away from the very region where some of them emerged, is insufficient to guarantee cultural rights. Measures should be taken to provide better understanding and explanation of the meaning of these practices, and their long histories in Malaysia to overcome prejudicial views about them.
“In doing so, it is important not only to focus on the ritual elements but also on the social function these arts play in society, as spaces to engage in an intergenerational manner, to explore discuss problems and difficulties, as well as shared human universal experiences,” she said