Malaysia’s UN fan club

By Shanon Shah (The Nut Graph) MALAYSIA has announced publicly that "respect for human rights has long been established given the country's character as a melting pot of various cultures, religions and ethnicities." This announcement was made at none other than Malaysia's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) in February 2009.

The post-March 2008 electorate can be forgiven for being skeptical, or even shocked, at this statement. The number of police crackdowns on public demonstrations, controversies regarding religious conversions, and Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act arrests over the past year might come to mind.

What is even more shocking is that the majority of the governments reviewing Malaysia at this UPR session not only glossed over these contentious areas, but instead had only praises and congratulations for Malaysia. The UPR process is actually meant to be an opportunity for governments to hold their peers accountable for their human rights track records. However, what is clear is that Malaysia is using the UPR process — and using it very ingeniously — to excuse and justify human rights violations at home and abroad.

Perhaps a little background is in order. The HRC is a body within the UN made up of 47 states elected through the General Assembly. Each membership lasts for three years, and in any given year, there will be a certain number of states whose memberships expire, and a balance of states whose memberships commence.

The HRC was created by the General Assembly in 2006 to replace the Commission for Human Rights, which many had accused of being ineffective and overly politicised. Of the new mechanisms introduced by the HRC to address human rights issues among UN member countries was the UPR process, which is basically a peer-to-peer review.

Back-scratching and mutual adoration

Malaysia's presentation at the UPR in February received responses from 60 delegates. Statements by an additional 23 delegates could not be delivered due to time constraints. But political blood is often thicker than water. Of the 60 delegates that responded, more than 40 had nothing but praises for Malaysia. Among Malaysia's endorsees were:

Sudan: "[Malaysia's] experience demonstrates that economic development decisively helps in preserving national unity and stability";

China: "welcomed … economic growth and … ethnic harmony";

Myanmar: "Malaysia enjoys political stability with good governance"; and

Iran: "[Malaysia should] undertake more effective measures to further improve the implementation of Shari'ah law in the country."

These are countries constantly criticised for their own human rights violations. This is something that should not escape our scrutiny, because, of course, backs get scratched in return: Malaysia was part of the HRC up to June this year, and was itself a reviewing country.

In Pakistan's May 2008 UPR review, Malaysia said, "We are impressed with Pakistan's concrete legal and administrative measures to improve human rights in many fields." This is despite the sacking of Pakistan's Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and 60 other judges by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

Iftikhar Chaudhry (right) swearing in Pakistani President
Pervez Musharraf (Source: Wiki commons)
And by the rule of reciprocity, Pakistan's review of Malaysia in February 2009 was that "Malaysia has been able to transform its ethnic diversity into strength; that fundamental liberties are guaranteed by the [constitution]; and that [Suhakam] has been entrusted with wide powers."

This is what led the non-governmental organisation UN Watch to dub the HRC a "mutual praise society". The organisation observed that "bloc affiliations played an important role in determining how countries reviewed each other".

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