Signing other human rights treaties likely to be ‘smoother’

Sheridan Mahavera Yvonne Lim

Aceh province still canes those found guilty of shariah crimes like adultery despite Indonesia being a signatory to a number of UN human rights convention. – EPA pic, July 31, 2019.

PUTRAJAYA has started consulting shariah law authorities to reassure them that the country’s dual legal system won’t be impacted on by the latest human rights treaty Malaysia is looking to ratify.

Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told The Malaysian Insight this is one approach Pakatan Harapan is taking to avoid a repeat of two earlier controversies which scuttled its plans to sign on to global human rights treaties.   

The administration is engaging with the shariah law authorities to assure them that caning won’t be affected if Malaysia signs of the UN convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

This is since there are concerns that the punishment could be construed as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and the country would be forced to give it up once it signs UNCAT.

Talking to stakeholders is one way to allay fears of these United Nations treaties after the controversies over the convention to eliminate racial discrimination (ICERD) and the Rome Statute, said Saifuddin.

The cabinet has also made the legal affairs department under the Prime Minister’s Department the focal point for all of its efforts to promote human rights, said Saifuddin.

This move means that there is a more serious and systematic effort to ensure that human right concerns would influence how the government and the country’s laws operate, he said.

These two thrusts would make it smoother for Putrajaya to ratify future human rights treaties, he said.

“The cabinet has agreed that the department on laws and Minister V.K. Liew become the focal point for human rights work in the government and that Wisma Putra handles the international aspects,” Saifuddin told The Malaysian Insight.  

“This is important. In the past, we never had a focal point for human rights works by the government. This is very positive because we have now a more concerted effort,” Saifuddin said in a special interview segment called Menteri in MyVi.

Malaysia wants to sign a UN convention that protects the rights of all migrant workers despite opposition from certain quarters. – AFP pic, July 31, 2019.

“In the past, Wisma Putra was the focal point for the UPR (universal periodic review) process which is a reporting process,” Saifuddin said, referring to the process where Malaysia’s progress on implementing human rights standards would be reviewed by the UN.

The UPR process is different from the work needed to make human rights “operational” in the government and legal systems, he said.  

“Now you have a minister (who) operates the human rights aspects so I would be very hopeful now that we have a proper focal point, we can expedite work to ratify if not both but one of the two low-hanging fruits.”

These low-hanging fruits are signing UNCAT and the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED).

Assuring stakeholders

In December last year, Putrajaya had to back down from signing ICERD due to protests from a Malay Muslim nationalist movement called Ummah led by opposition parties Umno and PAS.  

In April, the administration was also forced to abandon signing the Rome Statue which would have made Malaysia a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Both policy reversals have been slaps for a political coalition known for supporting human rights and civil liberties.

The setbacks have also called into question whether Putrajaya has the political will to sign these remaining treaties before the end of its five-year term.

These are UNCAT; ICPPED; the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

At a Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) talk last month, fears were expressed that the country’s shariah law system and its caning punishment could prevent Malaysia from signing UNCAT.

Saifuddin said many Muslim countries have signed on to UNCAT and were able to keep their shariah caning punishments.  

“The UNCAT controlling organisation also understands that shariah caning is different from the common law version so because of that, it should not be an issue.”

Putrajaya is also talking to the shariah court authorities to assure them that the system will be preserved despite Malaysia’s signing of UNCAT.  

“Learning from experience, there may be people who say ‘look we are now compromising shariah law because we are now ratifying UNCAT’.

“So what is being done is to talk to shariah court authorities to discuss with them and tell them that ‘look we are continuing with our shariah court’.

“Nothing will change as far as the caning is concerned but we are going to ratify UNCAT because it’s about torture.” – July 31, 2019.

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