Comango: Muslim NGOs missing forest for the trees

Suriani Kempe of the Sisters of Islam NGO said that Muslim NGOs were losing sight of the end goal of human rights - to help people live better lives.— Picture by Choo Choy May
Suriani Kempe of the Sisters of Islam NGO said that Muslim NGOs were losing sight of the end goal of human rights - to help people live better lives.— Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 24 — Anti-Islam allegations made by Muslim groups are blinding them to the betterment of Malaysian life being sought in the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Malaysia will undergo tonight, said a coalition of civil society groups.

According to several members of the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR process (Comango), the process is an avenue for Malaysia to prove its commitment towards improving the lot of all Malaysians, not for NGOs to butt heads.

“To really take it at a superficial level ... I think you’re losing sight of the end goal, which is ‘are human beings living better lives?’” Suriani Kempe of Sisters in Islam (SIS) told The Malay Mail Online in an interview this week.

“We want people to live better lives, the ability to live their lives with dignity and live fulfilling lives. At the end of the day, that’s the end goal.”

In a memorandum yesterday, a coalition of Muslim NGOs banding together as MuslimUPRo have accused Comango of being foreign-funded and illegitimate.

On Saturday, a seminar was held by Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) where Comango was accused of trying to spread “liberalism teachings” backed by Western foreign powers.

“There’s a misconception that human rights is something from the West ... If one looks at the history of the human rights, it has global support,” said Yu Ren Chung from Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

According to Yu, two of the five authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were P.C. Chang who was from China, and Charles Malik who was from Lebanon.

The UDHR was subsequently adopted by UN members in 1948, with 48 countries in favour and eight abstained ― mostly from the Soviet bloc.

The representatives also rubbished claims by Muslim NGOs that by ratifying international human rights protocol, Malaysia will open the floodgates to practices that “would threaten the position of Islam” such as same-sex marriages and apostasy.

“Realistically and practically speaking, it seems a far-flung idea, used simply to scare people into taking a position in line with (them) ... They choose the most polemic of all topics, we’re not even at that stage yet,” said Suriani.

“By signing (the protocols), it sends a signal that we would like to meet these standards, basic global human rights standards, and one can work progressively to achieve that,” explained Yu.

Yu has also stressed that there are many Muslim countries that have ratified the global protocols, without any sudden spike in same-sex marriages and apostasy.

Six representatives from Comango, the Malaysian Bar and Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) have made Geneva, Switzerland their base since Monday to discuss their concerns with representatives of UN members.

Speaking from Geneva, Comango spokesman Honey Tan Lay Ean warned Muslim NGOs against misinterpreting the coalition’s report to suit their needs.

“You will see that we are not disrespecting Islam, asking for same-sex marriage, or harming the sovereignty of Malaysia. Ratifying ICCPR will not encourage apostasy,” Tan told The Malay Mail Online through email, referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Ratifying CERD will not infuse western values into the local justice system. Our legal system is already largely based on the English legal system,” she added, referring to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

In response to accusations from MuslimUPRo that Comango was illegitimate since some of its members are unregistered with the Registrar of Societies (RoS), Tan pointed out that under Malaysians laws, it is “perfectly legitimate” to be an unincorporated association.

“It is an improper venue for them. They can criticise Comango all they want, but at the end of the day. it’s not a space for NGOs. While NGOs do fit into the process of this peer review, this upcoming stage basically involves governments,” said Suriani.

Held every four and a half years, the UPR is a UNHRC mechanism that was established in 2007 to improve the treatment of human rights in all 193 UN member states. Malaysia is currently a member of UNHRC, the second time after a term in 2009.

The process involves a three-hour interactive dialogue, where UNHRC members will question Malaysia based on reports prepared by the government, UN agencies, and the stakeholders’ report ― which summarises the report of NGOs both national and international.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), NGOs will have the opportunity to make statements at the regular session of the Human Rights Council when the outcome of the state reviews are considered.

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