Friday, November 1, 2013

Differing standards of 'universal' human rights?

Alyaa Alhadjri
COMMENT: Observing first-hand the international scrutiny of Malaysia's human rights record at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Geneva, I could see a disconnect between what is accepted as universal standards and its interpretation by local Muslim pressure groups.

Most tellingly, Malay-Muslims in Malaysia appear to be a unique lot of people who prescribe to a “different interpretation” of universal human rights standards, or at least if going by the arguments presented by self-proclaimed "defenders of the faith".

Further complicating the matter are concerns that these arguments were in fact politically motivated, despite being made in the name of upholding the sanctity of Islam.

Malaysia was urged to, among others, ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which in Article 18 states that "everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

Representatives from the Muslim NGOs in the UPR Process (MuslimUPRo), who have been leading the voice of resistance against ratification of the ICCPR, had repeatedly warned that it may lead to a rise in apostasy cases.

MuslimUPRo had also called upon the government to take action against the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs (Comango) which had submitted its recommendations to the UN as part of the stakeholders’ report for Malaysia, alongside 27 other local and international civil society groups.

What appears to escape their attention, however, is a clause under Article 18 which subsequently stated that the "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others".

Malaysia also has the sovereign right to accept or reject any recommendations made by UN member countries, as well as to express reservation on any clauses within the ICCPR – the same process it undertook in ratifying the three core instruments pertaining to rights of women, children and persons with disabilities.

If that is not stated clearly enough, one just needs to look across the ocean at Indonesia (only the world's largest Muslim nation) that is also a party to ICCPR – along with other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In arguing the case against ratification of the ICCPR, which first came into force in 1966, terms such as "secular values" and "liberal Western ideologies" were also thrown about to strike fear in the Malay-Muslim community that the status of Islam as enshrined under the Federal Constitution will be at stake.

Are these groups trying to tell the world that Malaysia is “more Islamic” than Afghanistan?

And if so, how is that a logical argument against global superpowers which may still have a (most likely biased) perception that Afghanistan is a hotbed for Muslim “terrorists”?

In a related matter, as I was searching (read: disturbing friends on Facebook) for help in writing this piece, I came across a shared posting of a photograph taken outside the Putrajaya High Court on the day the “Allah” case verdict was delivered – banning use of the word in the Bahasa Malaysia edition of the Herald.

Much (maybe too much) has been said about the verdict itself, but it is worth pointing out that right-wing Malay group Perkasa vice-president Datuk Zulkifli Noordin was seen in the photograph, dressed in his lawyer's garb, despite not being directly involved in the proceeding.

"He [Zulkifli] has no shame to wear his robe and pretending to 'sibuk-sibuk' [busy-body] when he is not even an observing lawyer or a representative of the government," said the caption, originally written in Malay.

For the record, MuslimUPRo did not “officially” submit its recommendations to the UN for this cycle of the UPR review process.

Muslims Lawyers Association president Datuk Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, as part of the 16-member delegation, had, however, reportedly said they were present as accredited observers of the review proceedings.

In noting that there are specific procedures involved in the UPR process, including submission of the stakeholders' report, MuslimUPRo's presence at the UN has about as much relevance as Zulkifli's appearance at the High Court – an impressive show of bravado but with no significant impact on the actual outcome of the process.

Islam in its essence is about human rights and good values. Unfortunately, as Muslims become territorial and forget the oneness (ummah unity) as preached by the religion, every Muslim tries to be more Muslim than the other, or so they would like to believe.

~ The Ant Daily

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