KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak signed ASEAN’s first human rights declaration (AHRD) in Cambodia today, officially committing Malaysia to its first foreign convention to promote fair treatment of every individual irrespective of race, religion and political opinion.
Today’s signing, which took place during the 21st ASEAN Summit at the
Peace Palace in the capital city of Phnom Penh, comes at an opportune
time for Malaysia and the Barisan Nasional (BN) government led by Najib,
which has come under close international scrutiny for its alleged
mishandling of several recent human rights issues.
“ASEAN shall pursue the protection and promotion of human rights in
the region in our own way and also try to maintain the highest standard
as expressed in various declarations and instruments of the
international community,” ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan was
quoted as saying in The Star Online.
According to media reports, the AHRD has a total of 40 clauses and
covers areas like civil and political rights, economic, social ad
cultural rights, developmental processes and peace enhancement.
The declaration also states that the rights of women, children,
elderly and disabled persons and migrant workers are integral and
indivisible part of human rights and fundamental freedom, The Star reported.
Najib has found himself in the international spotlight on numerous
occasions, taking the hit for his administration’s alleged
heavy-handedness in dealing with matters concerning civil freedom,
individual rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Some key examples include the widespread crackdown on two
pro-democracy rallies held by electoral reform movement Bersih 2.0 — one
on July 9, 2011, and another on April 28 this year — which resulted in
scene of chaos and violence on the streets of this usually peaceful
To dull the uproar, however, Najib has taken great pains to improve
civil liberties in Malaysia, even agreeing to repeal the controversial
Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Sedition Act, enacting a new law to
regulate public gatherings, agreeing to allow student participation in
politics and relaxing provisions in laws governing press freedom.
But after the last protest on April 28, foreign media reports
predicted that the government’s handling of the event would likely
undermine Najib’s image as a reformist and force the prime minister to
delay the next general election.
Several newswires, picked up by major newspapers globally, also took
the same stance, with Reuters reporting that police action raised “the
risk of a political backlash that could delay national polls which had
been expected as early as June.”
Agence France-Presse also said that “the rally poses a dilemma for
Najib, who since last year’s crackdown has sought to portray himself as a
reformer, launching a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to
create what he called ‘the greatest democracy’.”
Several reports pointed to the first Bersih rally held just months
before the March 2008 elections, which saw BN record its worst electoral
performance ever, ceding its customary two-thirds supermajority in
Parliament and five state governments.
Najib took over from Tun Abdullah Badawi a year later, ostensibly to
improve on the results and some observers say only a return to
two-thirds majority will guarantee he remains Umno president.
Widespread condemnation from the international press of Putrajaya’s
crack down on last July’s Bersih rally saw Najib announce a raft of
reforms including a parliamentary select committee on electoral reforms
and the Peaceful Assembly Act, a major concession to win back an
But the findings of a bipartisan panel have been criticised as
cosmetic by civil society and the opposition and yesterday’s planned
sit-in was the first major test of the new law regulating demonstrations
the BN chief says abides by “international norms”.
The foreign press had at the time also widely carried global civil
liberties watchdog Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the government,
saying it showed “contempt for its people’s basic rights and freedoms.”
“Despite all the talk of ‘reform’ over the past year, we’re seeing a
repeat of repressive actions by a government that does not hesitate to
use force when it feels its prerogatives are challenged,” said Phil
Robertson, its deputy Asia director.
Apart from Bersih, the BN administration has also earned itself
international condemnation for bringing charges of sexual misconduct and
sodomy against Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim numerous
occasions, a move that the leader’s supporters have claimed was merely
to stifle his campaign to topple the ruling pact.
Several cases of deaths in custody over the past few years had also
cast the government in the spotlight for alleged human rights abuses.
One example is the death of DAP political aide Teoh Beng Hock, whose
death, which occurred while he was under the care of anti-graft
officials, has continued to haunt the government since 2009.
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