A FIERY debate has sparked nationwide ever since Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed announced at the United Nations General Assembly last September that Malaysia would accede to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – one of the six international human rights instruments to which we are not yet a party.
Many fear its implications on our laws and policies. Some initiated a petition against ICERD. Some have even gone to the streets to oppose it. This led to the government retracting its decision to ratify the international treaty on Friday.
“The reaction on the ground (against the treaty) has seen the old playbook coming back. That is the very thing we want to stop by signing ICERD,” says Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Jerald Joseph, referring to the scare-mongering by political parties and right wing groups on the issue.
He says the ICERD is an “aspirational” treaty to fight racial discrimination and there was no need for Malaysia to amend the Federal Constitution to accede to it.
He explains that international human rights treaties are adopted to improve the condition of human rights to a minimum standard. By signing the CRC, for example, Malaysia has slowly progressed by making better laws for child rights.
There are no sanctions or incentives for countries to ratify these conventions, but signing it is a symbolic act where the individual countries put themselves up to certain standards, he adds.
“We haven’t signed the convention on torture, so what does it say about us? Our reputation among the international community will be enhanced by signing the treaties.”
Lawyers for Liberty advisor N. Surendran feels that the government’s ‘u-turn’ on their own earlier decision to ratify ICERD is appalling.
“That we cannot ratify this key anti-racism treaty robs us of moral authority on the world stage,” he says in a statement.
With the decision not to ratify coming in the wake of weeks of politically motivated mischief-making and misconceived arguments by Umno/PAS and right-wing groups, Surendran says government leaders have failed to show moral leadership when it is most needed.
“Whilst it is always good for government to change their position in the face of sound argument, it is a dangerous precedent to do so in the face of prejudice and false arguments,” he says, reiterating that the claim that Article 153 of the Federal Constitution would need to be amended if ICERD is ratified has no legal basis whatsoever.
“This has been pointed out repeatedly. Neither does the ICERD affect Islam; all Muslim countries have already ratified the ICERD except Malaysia and Brunei.”
For Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) secretary Faisal Abdul Aziz, the more important thing was for Malaysians to practise moderation and maturity by taking into account both views to come up with the best conclusion on ICERD.
“To find a halfway point and as an early process to education on rejecting discrimination, it is not far-fetched to recommend that Malaysia enact laws against discrimination by taking the essence of ICERD and at the same time giving the right to Malaysians to decide the narrative and its enforcement without the involvement of outsiders,” he says.
Understanding it as a process without putting a full stop by forcing its enforcement, would help people adapt to the spirit and good elements of ICERD, says Faisal.
“At the same time, putting a full stop to force the people to reject ICERD without finding a middle ground would close discourse and healthy debate among the society.
“Therefore all segments of society should be open to admit the dilemma faced by others. Through this, we will be able to solve societal issues together substantially and not just utter political rhetoric alone,” he says.