Posted by: "Per Ardua Ad Astra" | December 10, 2010

Political criminals, Diplomats and priests

By Sarah-Mae Thomas

What was one supposed to wear to a United Nations conference? Dignitaries would be in attendance but on the other hand, so would NGOs and other indigenous groups- surely not all of them would be in suits?! Though advised by the office that anything smart would do, I decided to go smart casual- Jeans and a crisp white shirt. Being the first delegate to get to the seminar—the over enthusiast that I was, I opened my diary to look occupied at 8am in the morning. After ten minutes of complete boredom and lame attempts of creating the illusion that what was going down on my blank diary page was some brainchild of sheer brilliance, I decided to take a stroll around the lush surroundings of the Park Royal Hotel.

Upon my arrival at the lobby, government and diplomatic cars started to pull up and out of these cars came dignitaries wearing either government suits or national attire. I was in jeans! Eek. To my relief several NGO groups were dressed much more casually and low and behold a priest who I knew in Melbourne was there in his vicar’s garb. And so….the note for the entire seminar was set. It was a true mix of human rights voices in Malaysia and the South East Asia region.- criminals of political conscience, religious leaders and indigenous people.

I took my place next to the Vice Consul of Russia, a minister of the Muslim department for Social Development and behind the Finish Consul General, whilst OHCHR regional representatives and UN resident coordinators gave the opening address. After the coffee break, the 200 or so delegates divided ourselves into four groups. Although it would have been interesting to find out what the experts had to say on indigenous, child and refugee rights, I decided that being a law student, I would find the human rights and law dialogue session interesting.

Chairing the law and human rights seminar was none other than Kofi Annan’s special advisor for ethics( ex officio) in New York- Datuk Dr Khaw Lake Tee who spoke about how he is about to move to make one of the only private member’s bill in the parliament of Malaysia. I sat at a table not anticipating to say much- just absorbing the information that was directed at me. I saw next to one Wonn King Chai- who introduced himself as a politics student facing disciplinary charges for being present at a political meeting. Apparently students in Malaysia cannot even be remotely involved in anything political and under legislation pertaining to universities, can be detained or charged. The story Wong King who is a little younger than me has been splashed all over the papers of Malaysia and his case is going up to the court of appeal.

Next to him was a transgender woman who was working for the rights of sex workers in Malaysia and next to her was the president of the National Council of Churches. We launched into a discussion of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and its provisions relating to liberty. Our table discussed how the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 was no longer customary international law and was much stronger than that because of Malaysia’s strong presence in the Human Rights Council. We applauded the strength of the constitution but talked about how it curtailed rights through laws such as the Internal Security Act which empowered police to detain without trial in Malaysia.

Each table had to present to the panel and I was appointed presenter- I got up, knowing next to nothing about the specific laws and nuances in Malaysian human rights but I think I spoke with a common parlance- that the constitution should embody the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that referendums should be made to amend it and that more importantly Malaysia needs to sign on the many other international human rights covenants and treaties.

But what I really believe is that discrimination can occur in two ways- de jure( by law) or de facto(in practice). More often than not, there are so many laws in place to bequeath citizens with a crown of rights but unless this is actually implemented in practice, such synthetic application of human rights is half-hearted justice- indeed not justice at all. For this to occur, I believe that civil society needs to rise up and question authorities who fail to implement constitutionally and legally entrenched principles. For only then can we enable change!


  1. Um, Sarah-Mae this is completely amazing!!! I am so excited for you – I can’t believe that you also presented something to the panel. Remember me when you take over from Ban Ki-moon, okay?

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