The silver lining from Malaysia’s UPR

Nov 11 — THE last time Malaysia had its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations, it was a bad time to cover human rights issues.

What more to be a human rights defender.

In 2013, the previous administration was vehemently against “human rightism”. Human rights defenders were vilified.

The Coalition of Malaysian NGOs to the UPR Process (Comango) was outlawed -- using the flimsy excuse that most of the NGOs allied to it were not legally registered with the Registrar of Societies.

The decision was never officially rescinded by Putrajaya. It is as if Comango was never wronged.

The Islamist lobby had gone all out against Comango, trying to paint it as the biggest threat to Muslims here with wacky ideas such as equality, civil liberties, and fundamental rights.

It was vicious, it was ugly.

This time around for the country’s third UPR, the ugliness was at least kept under the floorboards as the Islamist lobby has either lost its lustre, or is being kept in check by a more politically and civically aware, “woke” young generation.

So it was rather tranquil.

The performance of the Malaysian delegation in 2013 was dismal, to say the least. Perhaps abhorrent is more accurate, with bald-faced lies and double-speak such as claiming civil society was consulted, and downplaying the situation of the Orang Asal.

Members of Comango watching the live-streaming of the UPR session in Geneva, Switzerland. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Members of Comango watching the live-streaming of the UPR session in Geneva, Switzerland. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Federal Islamic agency Jakim had then denied there was discrimination against women under Shariah laws.

The delegates this year seemed more polished, perhaps reflecting the new unapologetic mandate of human rights carried by the new administration.

Many observers confessed they were anticipating another session where Jakim would again reveal to the rest of the world the kind of Islam that is being prescribed here.

Jakim director-general Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim had last week posted that the agency would send a representative, his deputy handling the policy portfolio Hakimah Mohd Yusoff, as part of the delegation -- expecting to help Putrajaya answer when it is grilled on female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and the LGBT.

But unlike last time, no Jakim representative stood up to answer the questions and recommendations mooted by Malaysia’s peers, or at least attempt to do so.

Instead, we had a disappointing representative from the Ministry of Women, Children, and Community Development addressing FGM and the LGBT; by refusing to accept that “female circumcision” and FGM are essentially a subset of the other, and merely citing Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution as the sole argument that there is no discrimination against the LGBT.

The issue of child marriage was deftly handled by Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secretary-general Ramlan Ibrahim who clarified that Putrajaya is already in the process of raising the minimum age to 18.

There are several possibilities why Jakim was not involved in the replies.

Perhaps after the last UPR, the delegation realised how much of a liability Jakim is and decided that the image of the country may be spared from humiliation by excluding it.

Or perhaps, there is the dreadful possibility Putrajaya has taken the strategy of double-speak, attempting to dazzle the international community, but implementing the opposite towards Malaysians.

This strategy of course will not be new, as it was employed extensively by former prime minister Najib Razak to give the illusion of a moderate Muslim country that could serve as a role model to its peers, when the reality was much harsher for minorities and Muslims alike.

If this were the case, we can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that whatever pledges Putrajaya has made publicly on the global stage, we can hold them to it. And we should continue our vigilance to ensure that the country does not go in the wrong direction.

But a more hopeful possibility is that Jakim’s stance may no longer matter when it comes to accepting universal human rights, and formulating policies related to them.

None of the answers carried the usual flavour of Jakim and the Islamist lobby. There were no excuses about how child marriage can be valid under Shariah laws and there should not be a blanket ban, as it offers a way for young Malays to avoid sex out of wedlock.

The previous excuse that FGM in Malaysia is part of a religious obligation has been replaced instead by claim that it is a cultural tradition.

And not mentioned was Jakim’s current stance to rehabilitate the LGBT in order to “bring them back to the right path”, through conversion therapy masked as religious rituals.

By citing Article 8(2) that states “there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender”, Putrajaya virtually concedes that the provision applies to sexual and gender minorities as well, which should set some sort of precedence when it comes to moral arguments.

Putrajaya made a bold claim during the UPR that it would not sideline the recommendations made by its peers, and will annually meet civil society on how best to achieve them -- before reviewing them twice a year, including greater role for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).

The UPR may have been less than satisfying -- after all, we can always do better when it comes to human rights -- but if anything, it is a good time to cover human rights and be a human rights defender.

Dare we dream of better days ahead?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.