International law in Malaysia: ignorance or amnesia? – Shaun

To begin with, let us agree that Malaysia is a sovereign state and has a fully functional legislature, executive and judiciary. But would this imply that the government of a sovereign state such as Malaysia owns the authority to do anything it desires to its citizens? More accurately, is the sovereignty that the government possesses limitless? While it is tempting for the ruling party and its supporters to answer this in the affirmative, it remains a distant fact from the truth.

Published: 5 January 2015

First, Malaysia is bound by the treaties/conventions/international agreements to which it has agreed with other states and organisations. International law compels Malaysia to perform its obligations in good faith. To date, Malaysia has agreed to hundreds if not thousands of such treaties/conventions/international agreements encompassing areas such as trade, transnational crime, transportation and even human rights.

Second, Malaysia is equally bound by practices within certain treaties/conventions/international agreements even though it has not agreed to that particular treaty/convention/international agreement. This concept is known as Customary International Law. Some may see this concept as illogical and question the equity of a state being bound for something it has not agreed to. However, the fact is Malaysia agreed to the rules of the game when it elected an independent country and a member of the United Nations in 1957. Customary International Law forms part of these rules of the game.

For a practice to be recognised as Customary International Law, it must result from a general and consistent practice of states that they follow from a sense of legal obligation. Examples of this include the fact that Malaysia cannot practise acts which amount to torture even though it has not acceded to the United Nations’ convention against torture. Similarly, Malaysia cannot return refugees to their country of origin even though Malaysia has not acceded to the refugee convention. Note that these are only two out of numerous other customs which must be considered by the government in formulating both domestic and foreign policies.

It is therefore imperative to those who often reason that the government has absolute sovereignty and can do whatever it pleases to reconsider their stand and be fully appraised of the fact that the government’s actions are subjected to treaties/conventions/international agreements to which they have agreed and also to a certain degree those to which the government has not. The time is ripe for the rakyat to assess the government through the lens of international law and not just within our own domestic norms and laws. This is especially so since Malaysia has gained international prestige through its successful election to the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member and recently assumed chairmanship of Asean. – January 5, 2015.

* Shaun reads The Malaysian Insider.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.