Being Human: Riding the tiger to promote human rights

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WORSE THAN a toothless tiger” — this self-deprecating description that Tan Sri Hasmy Agam has given the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), of which he is chairman, sums up its sorry record in holding the government accountable for its transgressions against democratic rights.

Although Hasmy’s frustration, which he expressed when announcing the release of the commission’s report for 2014 last week, is understandable, it would be a grave mistake to dismiss Suhakam’s role in society as irrelevant or its task as an exercise in futility.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that an entity like Suhakam can only be as influential as it chooses to be, in the same way as we empower ourselves as individuals through the self-image we cultivate, or conversely, limit our abilities by perceiving ourselves as lacking in certain qualities.

This is, of course, quite separate from any statutory limitations placed on the powers of Suhakam, but refers to the broadest definition that can be given to the commission’s scope in promoting the universal principles of human rights.

The key to this empowerment lies in holding true to the spirit of human rights as enshrined in universal covenants such as the United Nations’ International Bill of Human Rights, in legal instruments like the Federal Constitution and in the shared values of our ethical codes and belief systems.

So, if we accept that the protection and promotion of human rights in its totality is institutionalised in Suhakam, it would be clear that the commission is limited only by the resources it can gain access to in order to foster a society that cherishes these fundamental principles.

Indeed, Hasmy’s observation would be entirely valid in relation to the most politically charged aspects of its work such as the government’s failure to engage Suhakam in meaningful consultation on laws that are in conflict with universal norms of human rights.

In this scenario, Suhakam would need to employ a multi-pronged strategy for engagement with its stakeholders that can compensate for its limited success in broadening the democratic space, for instance, with a strong thrust towards the universal right to education, to give another example.

Such a campaign, if sustained and systematically upscaled, could lay the foundations for the greater recognition of human rights in other areas, especially if it is vigorously advocated to include the most disadvantaged groups like stateless and refugee children. In effect, it would help ingrain the idea that certain rights are inalienable and encourage progress towards a society that cherishes the dignity and welfare of all people.

To be sure, Suhakam has established a commendable array of programmes in selected areas of its work, ranging from education and indigenous peoples to human trafficking and various disadvantaged groups, many of which have both immediate and intergenerational goals. On this count alone, it would be self-defeating to underestimate the commission’s potential for inculcating the respect for human rights at all levels of Malaysian society.

Of course, if we were to critically evaluate Suhakam’s engagement with the most pressing and egregious violations of human rights in the country since the commission’s inception in 2000, there would be much to be disappointed about.

One illustration, from Suhakam’s latest annual report, will suffice to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge: the scourge of human trafficking that has led the US State Department to downgrade Malaysia to Tier 3, the lowest ranking, for failing to comply fully with the minimum requirements of the US law against trafficking, despite waivers for two consecutive years.

Following a six-day visit to Malaysia by the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner issued a press statement last month, which noted that in addition to the two million documented migrant workers in Malaysia, two million or more undocumented migrant workers were often exploited for cheap labour by unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers through breach of contract, payment of excessive recruitment fees, debt bondage, non-payment of salary, withholding of passports, excessive working hours, lack of rest days and abuse, both physical and sexual.

In addition, the statement said, “The trafficking of young foreign women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation is also prevalent in the country, where they are mostly forced into the commercial sex trade following deceptive practices for legal work in Malaysia. Many victims of trafficking are often detained and subsequently deported and not provided with adequate specialist support for recovery and social inclusion.”

Although Suhakam states in its latest annual report that it has consistently drawn the government’s attention to its recommendations to strengthen the state’s mechanism for prosecuting offenders, protecting trafficked persons and deterring human trafficking, the commission’s ineffectiveness on this issue is all too glaring.

To stand a fighting chance to make a difference, the commission must be sufficiently fired up about the depravity of human trafficking and the colossal web of exploitation that supports this trade to summon all the resources it has at its disposal — including the special interest groups in this field, local and national figures, sympathetic institutions and international allies — to put the heat on this national shame, and not to waver until the roots of the problem are addressed.

As the issue poses no overt political risk to the authorities, Suhakam should not feel constrained to pull its punches in pressing for a systemic overhaul of the institutions that deal with workers, immigration, employment, enforcement and victim protection, as well as to transform societal attitudes towards the problem.

After this earthshaking work is done and if the commissioners are not reappointed to their posts, it may be a telling yardstick, though not a foolproof one, that they have been effective in their mission.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 20 - 26, 2015.