Politics of human rights: Does human rights matter? — Khoo Ying Hooi

DECEMBER 10 — As we move into the celebration of the international human rights day today, it is time to look back and take stock of the state of human rights today. This year is made special with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) this year, and the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

Although both declarations were adopted in different times, both emphasised similar notion in which it describes human rights as universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.

Human rights is put forward as a matter of priority for the international community with the aim to maintain peace and justice in the global arena. Yet, throughout history, the origin of the human rights has sparked debates until today - whether it is rooted in liberal, socialist, or “third world.”

I do not intend to look into the internal contradictions concerning on which version the notion of human rights come from, rather, I intend to emphasise that rights should be shared equally by everyone regardless of sex, race, nationality and economic background.

Linking to that, the question is, are we heading to the direction based on the aspirations as shown in the UDHR and the Vienna Declaration, where everyone at all times, in all places are able to enjoy basic human rights?

In recent years in the South-east Asian region, human rights are sorely under pressure. The legitimacy of human rights principles is attacked and the practise of human rights norms is in retreat. Here in South-east Asia, populist nationalism sentiments are on the rise, profiling on racial and religious grounds and scarring the societies with deepening divisions.

In Malaysia, it has been seven months since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) taken over the Barisan Nasional (BN) government on May 9, 2018. It has been a roller-coaster ride not only for the many first-time cabinet ministers and member of parliaments, the journey has been particularly challenging too for Malaysians who are all the witness of the democratic transition of the country. The sense of euphoric might have decreased and slowly everyone is getting back to the reality.

A noteworthy tug-of-war is playing out in Malaysia where Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s government move to abolish the death penalty and to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) has met with strong resistance, a sign of which indicate the play-out on racial and religious grounds.

The government was forced to make a U-turn decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and even giving way to the rally on anti-ICERD by postponing the human rights festival to commemorate the international human rights day organised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).

Since May, the progress in Malaysia has been becoming a major attention for not just scholars but also analysts across the world, where generally, there have been much discourse about this “disruptive” era that we are living in, where many believe democracy is seriously challenged, and even losing ground.

What has been taking place show us that, the notion of human rights is challenged not just in Malaysia, but also in many other South-east Asian countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, and Cambodia where with it is facing continuous human rights violations in various forms.

The military remains powerful in Myanmar, and the autocrats are doing everything to stay in power in Cambodia. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a new low level to the country where once was seen as the shining example of democratic country in the South-east Asia.

Although the nature and circumstances vary from one country to another, yet things have gotten worse from a human rights standpoint in nearly all of them. While the internal conditions vary from country to country, there is one reality that affects all of the 11 countries in South-east Asia — an assertive China and the counterbalancing power by the United States.

Changing dynamics with China and the US are aggravating the region’s deterioration in human rights, although it is not easy or direct to link either the US power with human rights or Chinese power with abuses of those rights.

In my attempt to take stock on the state of human rights today, I wish to affirm that rights and politics are not static categories. The central to this perspective is the need for an understanding of the dynamic interrelationship of rights and politics, as well as the dual and contradictory potential of rights discourse to hinder or advance political development.

What is evident is that, although South-east Asia has seen economic growth, inequality has also at the same time increases, and this scenario leads to insecurity and weakening support for democratic institutions. One popular argument is that the elites have taken advantage of identity politics to generate conflict to maintain their powers and to put pressure on leaders for quick solutions.

Human rights matter in many ways. In commemorating the international human rights day that falls today, international standards of human rights applied to all, whether or not a particular country had ratified additional human rights instruments.

What is also required is that, politicians too should be educated about human rights and should try to understand the people that they serve to better articulate the people’s interests and grievances.

* Khoo Ying Hooi (PhD) is senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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