The recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticising Malaysia on a number of fronts, unfortunately, reveals yet again that human rights advocacy in the West all too often reflects an antiquated colonialist mindset; that of the wise teacher to the ignorant pupil, the civilised to the primitive, the missionary to the “wretched of the earth”.
We can, of course, rebut HRW’s criticisms point by point, but the truest answer to the report is to simply and unapologetically state that Malaysia is a nation that respects the rule of law; our law based on our own customs and values reflecting our existence as a sovereign nation, and similarly, we honour the sovereignty of every other country in the region, and around the world, to enact and enforce their own legal frameworks for protecting and upholding the legitimate rights of their citizens.
This accords with Article 7 of the Asean Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), where the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context, bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.
In citation after citation, HRW demonstrates that they do not share this respect for Malaysian sovereignty nor for our laws, none of which were breached in any of the complaints they mentioned, but which were applied scrupulously in every instance.
Rather, they slavishly apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in a way that has become so par for the course for them — i.e. following the precepts of their colonist ancestors, a method which is forbidden by Article 11(b) of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI).
Those with genuine grievances have legal recourse in Malaysia for relief, and our government is continuously pursuing ways to better safeguard the rights of citizens, immigrants and refugees in our country.
We do this not for the approval of the West or the United Nations, nor for the applause of HRW, but because we are committed to uplifting human dignity as a nation in our own mould according to our Constitution, laws and values reflected not just in the UDHR, but also the CDHRI and AHRD.
Our concern for human rights did not begin in 1948. Our recognition of the fundamental rights of people did not spring forth from the Pax Americana. We were painfully cognisant of our rights precisely by being denied them by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British for not less than 450 years.
Our path to independence was not stained by bloody conflict and our nation was not founded by a military junta.
Malaysia’s record of civility and judiciousness is both longer and more pristine than that of our critics, and our sovereignty has been earned with a prudence and determination unseen in the history of anti-colonialist struggle.
We respectfully insist upon our right to pursue human rights in accordance with our own culture, values and legal processes.
By taking this position, Malaysia is not rejecting the universality of human rights. We are not attempting to “pick and choose” which rights to protect and which to dismiss under the rubric of national sovereignty.
We understand that the power of the state must be checked by obligations to its citizens, by contractual commitments to ensure that the vulnerable are not exploited or abused.
But this understanding has always been a feature of our nation and was a driving principle in the establishment of our Federal Constitution and our pursuit for independence.
HRW was not here in British Malaya to document violations of our rights, exploitation of our resources, and the institutionalisation of ethnic discord amongst our peoples, but we were here and we strove to reform, rehabilitate, heal and build our country into a land where our human rights were inviolable.
We have never stopped striving in this regard, and no one is better qualified or more sincerely dedicated to this mission than Malaysians themselves.
The writer is founder of Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy