IKIM Views

Published: Tuesday September 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday September 24, 2013 MYT 8:03:15 AM

Understanding limits of human rights

The belief in and practice of human rights are subject to limitations as may be provided by religion, international law and/or the national law of any given country.

THE discourse on human rights (“human rightism”) has now become – or almost – a discipline of its own. It first modern landmark achievement was the official acceptance and adoption of its Holy Book – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948.

Since then human rightism has evolved into a powerful notion and movement, receiving huge support measurable by tremendous availability of literature on its various dogmas, giving the impression as if the whole subject matter represents an enormous body of genuine scholarship.

A number of significant principles and values like privacy, freedom, equality, dignity and justice has been defined, or redefined, and developed into fundamental premises of the human rights doctrines, embraced by many as their indispensable philosophy, forming a worldview through which they value almost everything in this worldly life.

The advocates, champions and vanguards of human rightism, indeed, put aside religion – any religion for that matter – or any ethical system based on religion, as a more meaningful guideline for man.

To them, human rights principles are superior, absolute and supersede all other religious considerations by default.

This is a sheer delusion that needs to be rectified. Strictly speaking, nothing pertaining to this mundane life is absolute. Human rightism falls under this realm. So the belief in and practice of human rights are subject to certain limitations, beyond which man must apply their wisdom to not hold to such a conviction any more.

These limitations may be provided by religion, international law and/or national law of any given country.

Obviously most religions impose certain restrictions on their adherents like the prohibition of killings, adultery, liquor consumption, same sex marriages and many others.

In the international conventions of human rights themselves, for example, there is a provision towards the end of the UDHR, which says:

“In the exercise of his rights and freedom, everyone shall be subject to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

The above is further reinforced by an almost similar provision in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19(3), where it points to the need to have a legitimate reason in order to limit the right to freedom of expression: “... respect for the rights and reputations of others, and protection of national security, public order, public health or morals”.

The same is echoed if we look into our own Malaysian law.

For instance, the Federal Constitution prescribes, in Article 5(1) that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law.”

In the case of freedom of religion, Article 11(5) spells out that it “... does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health or morality.”

From all the above, we understand that one is not free to act according to one’s own whims and fancies, beliefs or philosophy. Even if one is a stern believer of human rightism, one’s overzealousness and obsession with it does not grant a licence for one to act as one wishes and pleases.

On the one hand, the above limitations seem to be exceptions to the rule. But, on the another, under certain circumstances, these limitations are actually the rules to be observed in earnest, in order to protect (i) the rights and reputations of others, (ii) national security, (iii) public order, (iv) public health, and last but not least, (v) morality.

Within our Malaysian context, perhaps we may extend this scenario to the ongoing controversy over the usage of the term Allah.

Non-Muslims who claim that it is their right to apply the word Allah as a translation of the word ‘God’ in their rituals and publications must be aware that their questionable insistence on it will only adversely affect particularly items (i), (ii), (iii) and (v) mentioned above.

As rightful as their claim may appear to be to them, it does not, in fact, be claim-worthy as, firstly and primarily, both the concept as well as the name Allah have never existed in their original sacred book.

Neither can they be at liberty to introduce changes to the extent of corrupting the original understanding of certain concepts peculiar to certain language, culture and religion of others.

Hence, either way, such claims do not warrant them any rights whatsoever to do so.

In the light of their current persistence in pursuing the matter legally, it is deemed downright wrongful even.

Thus, rather than merely expend their efforts on their rights to make such a hollow claim, a society as plural as ours would benefit much more if they give due attention to their duties and responsibilities to be truthful to the tenets and teachings of their religion so as to preserve peace and harmony.

Indeed, rights do not come in a vacuum as they are always accompanied or preceded by certain duties, obligations and responsibilities.


> Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad is Senior Fellow/Director at Ikim’s Centre for Shariah, Law and Politics. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.



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