Malaysia and the Human Rights for Responsive Good Governance and Sustainable Development.
by Simone Galimberti
An invitation by the United Nations to a head of government can be simply seen for what it is, pro-forma, ordinary standard procedure.
Yet the confirmation by Prime Minister Anwar of Malaysia that he will attend the commemoration later in December of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR75) could herald a new symbolic phase for promoting human rights in South East Asia and beyond.
While hundreds of leaders might have gotten the same invite, the fact that United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk personally phoned PM Anwar to convey the message could be seen as an important gesture of high symbolism offered to the new administration in Putrajaya.
Though human rights are not established as a pillar of the strategic framework, “Malaysia Madani,” that is guiding the work of the Anwar government, they certainly are key crosscutting elements at its foundations.
So the pure symbolism of a high visit to Geneve could potentially be an opportunity for Malaysia to present its vision of human rights as an unbreakable aspect of good governance and sustainable development.
Indeed, Putrajaya could really start sketching out a new narrative about human rights, one founded on the assumptions that human rights are not just a Western construct being imposed over developing and emerging nations.
Over the past decades, as a scholar of an enlightened version of Islam, PM Anwar, a key member of the UMNO coalition and as leader of the opposition, spent a great deal of time trying to explain to the world how Islam embraces human rights and human dignity.
Now, once again, he has the chance to propel human rights at the centre of the global debate.
Often seen as a too sensitive and complex topic that must be subjected, shrunken and adjusted to local norms and values, human rights should instead be right at the centre of any efforts to ensure sustainable development, including any ongoing efforts towards zero emissions.
That’s why PM Anwar could take advantage of the spotlight during the UDHR75 celebrations to launch a new global agenda that could be entitled Human Rights for Responsive Good Governance and Sustainable Development.
Such an initiative can easily support the efforts undertaken by the UN Secretary-General to rethink and revamp the global multilateral order.
At the same time but it can also become an opportunity to back the daunting work of High Commissioner Türk of safeguarding and promoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Malaysia could do so on two different but interlinked fronts.
First, in South East Asia, where human rights and responsive, inclusive good governance, that means a rule of law that involves and respects the citizens, have never been trendy nor appealing.
Second, the country, thanks to PM Anwar’s moral authority, can go beyond the region and reach out to other middle and developing nations and encourage them not only not to backtrack on their commitments but revamp them.
Ideally, reflecting on seventy-five years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should imply receiving a new buy-in from governments around the world on human rights.
PM Anwar could support the process by prompting his peers in the ASEAN to reconsider their failures towards upholding human rights.
For example, his pressure and influence can ensure that human rights are central to designing any new vision for the bloc.
He can do this by persuading the respective annual rotating chairmanships of ASEAN to also include the issue of human rights.
Regardless of whom is holding the chairmanship, Malaysia could co-sponsor events, seminars about human rights, possibly by partnering with the ASEAN Foundation and with ASEAN Secretariat, the latter an institution that certainly lacks not only a strong mandate but also the adequate know-how and expertise on the issue.
In short human rights should be included in any new strategic planning and initiatives being carried out by the bloc.
Though the ASEAN’s members’ understanding of human rights greatly differs from any acceptable global standards, the simple fact any future endeavour of the bloc would, even only nominally and on principle, mainstream them will further force the regional capitals to be on the defensive and justify their abysmal practices.
So far, what I am proposing are undertakings of more symbolic value.
An area where instead PM Anwar could truly make an impact is strengthening the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) that still does not have its own human resources but rather depends on the Jakarta secretariat of the ASEAN.
The circumstances its commissioners are forced to work are a clear indicator of an institution that does not stand on its own and does not have any teeth of providing any sort of remedy mechanism.
PM Anwar can make the commission a central feature of its global campaign at the regional level, first by ensuring that it gets the indispensable resources, human and financial, to carry out its limited mandate.
Then he can commit to fastening the process of reviewing the TOR of the commission, which is now stalled, and get it re-activated.
It is where PM Anwar should put his weight behind the idea of creating some mechanisms for the citizens of South East Asia to complain about human rights abuses and seek remedy.
Ensuring even the most basic forms of accountability at regional levels could be the first step to establishing a real regional human rights mechanism in the region.
Because it is impossible to imagine any time soon a commission equipped with any investigative power, a cooperative agreement could be created with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
After an initial assessment by the commission on the claims received, the UN would take over any further assessment or inquiry on such instances.
Now moving to the global dimension of the proposed Human Rights for Responsive Good Governance and Sustainable Development, there are several areas where PM Anwar could make a difference.
Imagine an initiative to discuss about the death penalty.
As I have already written in the past, Malaysia, with its recent progress on the subject, could advance a more human debate about taking steps towards abolishing mandatory sentencing.
Kuala Lumpur could – for example – host a global summit on ways to reconsider the death penalty.
Despite maintaining it on the books, there is now a certain propensity in Malaysia to listen to experts and practitioners that even advocate for its complete abolishment.
Also in this case, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could be the perfect partner to promote this initiative.
Another area where it’s indispensable to focus more is the linkages between human rights and businesses. The government of Malaysia should take a progressive view over the ongoing negotiation of a legally binding instrument (treaty) on business and human rights, another undertaking being facilitated by Mr. Türk’s agency.
The negotiations over it are not moving forward with the urgency that is instead should be required and lack visibility and the much-needed engagement from the highest echelons of the member states.
Ensuring that human rights are included in the agenda of localizing the SDGs should be another key area of action.
After all, SDGs are not just high levels goals, but they are also participatory instruments to involve and engage the people. In short, they are a tool to democratize the process of decision-making.
We should also take note of the fact that PM Anwar, over his conversation with Türk, also officially invited him to visit Malaysia.
Mr Türk, despite being an affable gentleman and certainly not a radical extremist, does not often receive warm welcomes whenever places he is allowed to visit.
The reason for this is simple: human rights are still a too inconvenient and uncomfortable topic for far too many, especially in South East Asia.
PM Anwar could help change this equation and rally the world behind a new human rights agenda that rather than dividing, can unite the international community.
Undoubtedly PM Anwar’s participation at the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR75) will be the perfect opportunity to launch this revamped agenda proposed here.
Equally important, a visit of Mr Türk to the region can be an incredible leverage to force leaders of the region to unequivocally admit their shortcomings in the matter of defence of human rights.
Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.