Putting human rights at the forefront

CIFoRB speaks to Malaysian parliamentarian, Kasthuri Patto, about strengthening human rights on her home soil and across the Commonwealth.

Baroness Berridge and Kasthuri PattoBaroness Berridge and Malaysian MP Kasthuri Patto

“It starts with a snowball which gathers pace and size and eventually it becomes an avalanche for change.”

Malaysian MP Kasthuri Patto first heard this adage when she was at a gathering of parliamentarians in Norway  some years ago with CIFORB's Director, Baroness Berridge. Coming from a warm climate it stuck with the parliamentarian, as has her commitment to work with Baroness Berridge to speak out and defend one’s right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The two have met several times since Norway and the location, this time, was London, at a conference for parliamentarians to support human rights and the rule of law across Commonwealth borders. They gave a joint presentation on regional cooperation; employing their own experience of initiating dialogue to build a partnership and now a friendship to meet the challenge of protecting the freedom of religion or belief. CIFoRB spoke to Kasthuri Patto about her hopes for Malaysia and the Commonwealth as an Opposition MP and member of ASEAN parliamentarians for Human Rights.

This Human Rights conference comes at a critical time for Malaysia, a country which has long embraced a rich, multicultural, multi religious society but in recent years, has come under scrutiny for its human rights record and treatment of dissenting voices. As a Malaysian opposition MP what do you hope to achieve from attending human rights conferences?

As the Human Rights Watch 2017 reported on the decline and abuses on civil liberties and human rights in Malaysia, particularly on voices of dissent against the government and on Prime Minister Najib's mammoth financial scandal, I felt compelled to be here to observe and to participate in dialogues with other parliamentarians on the setting up of a Human Rights Committee under the purview of the Parliament so that the fundamental liberties and basic human rights are protected in Malaysia.

Currently, cartoonists, activists, elected representatives , parliamentarians and even varsity students are facing various charges like the archaic Sedition Act, Peaceful Assembly Act, Printing Press and Publications Act, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, Communications and Multimedia Act, Official Secrets Act, Societies Act and other oppressing laws that curtail human rights, specifically the right to criticise.

I hope to be able to highlight these abuses so that there will be external pressure on the government to do what is right and to respect the rule of law and human rights on its own soil.

Looking more closely at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 which states: everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Are there areas where you would like to see improvements in your country and elsewhere?

In Malaysia, archaic laws like the Sedition Act has been used time and time again by the government to threaten freedom of thought or speech especially on criticisms against the 1MDB financial scandal involving the Prime Minister, on racist policies, on religious bigotry and exposures around  the governments mismanagement of public funds.

In 2012 the PM announced that the Sedition Act would be abolished but instead it has been reinforced and used as a political tool against voices of dissent. I would like to see the Sedition Act repealed as well amendments to ALL laws in Malaysia that allow the powers that be to interpret anything and everything as a threat to parliamentary democracy, detention without trial, arbitrary arrests by the police and various other silencing methods.

BERSIH which is a coalition of various NGOs calling for clean, free and fair elections have been demonised time and time again by the authorities – the police, the Home Ministry and the Prime Minister with threats to arrest, detain and charge supporters under various offences to prevent peaceful public rallies to hold the government accountable for corruption, the blatant bullying of members of the press and media, the lack of independence of public institutions and many other abuses of human rights. Nov 19 2016 saw throngs of Malaysians take to the streets, once again to participate in a peaceful assembly, making 5 demands, namely

  • Clean elections
  • Clean government
  • Strengthen parliamentary democracy
  • Right to dissent
  • Empowering Sabah and Sarawak

The Malaysian Government had used the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) to detain Maria Chin Abdullah, the BERSIH Chairperson, a mother and a women's rights activist, for 11 days and had placed her in solitary confinement and detention without trial despite Section 4(3) of the SOSMA which clearly provides – No person shall be arrested and detained under this section solely for his political belief or political activity. She was released on 28th November and within hours lobbied for the abolition of this law. 

As far as the freedom of religion and belief is concerned, Article 11 of the Federal Constitution provides for the Freedom of Religion where every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it, which means the federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.

While it is clearly stated that the right to belief and profess is protected in the highest law of the land, there has been an increase in religious harassment against believers or nonbelievers by many self-appointed moral police, in the form of religious enforcement officers. The world bore witness to the government’s decision to disallow for the word 'Allah' to be used in the Catholic Herald. The decision by the Federal Court and Court of Appeal was heavily criticised and mass protests were seen across the country by those who supported the decision.

The slow creeping in of Talibanisation and Islamisation in Malaysia has been frowned upon even by Malay Muslims in Malaysia, which has prided itself on its wonderful multiculturalism and multi-religious social fabric. The freedom of religion and belief in Malaysia is unlike what is happening in Pakistan or Iran or Afghanistan where there is religious persecution for professing ones faith openly. However the situation in Malaysia is one that is simmering. And if the government doesn’t play its part in curbing radicalism and extremism, we will soon be the next playground for religious hegemony.

Baroness Berridge and Commonwealth Parliamentarians

Respect for human rights comes in many forms and there are many examples of good and bad practice within the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world. Do you feel the Commonwealth could do more to promote human rights?

I believe the Commonwealth should engage with training for parliamentarians who are lobbying for human rights to be restored or protected in their respective countries. I also think that the Commonwealth should reach out to Parliaments to organise dialogues through the Speaker's office to break the stigma that human rights DOES NOT contravene any provision of religious laws. Through engagement sensitive matters can be ironed out in a positive way, especially for Asian countries and those in the region where cultural and religious beliefs can co-exist with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is often said parliamentarians have the power to bring about change. How do you think you can effect change, particularly in these challenging times and how could CIFoRB help?

There is only so much MPs can do in their countries when faced with stubborn rigid governments that are slow to accept progress and change but quick to punish critics. The international community must make it a moral responsibility to condemn human rights abuses in any country which use laws to demonise voices of dissent and to name-and-shame the heavy hands behind it.

I would like the respect of the rule of law to be reinstated in my country and that the Prime Minister of Malaysia is reminded that he is indeed not above the law. I would like the public institutions in Malaysia like the Elections Commission, the Anti-Corruption Agency, the Royal Malaysian Police and the judiciary to act independently without fear or favour to persecute and prosecute those who have wronged in the eyes of the law.

I wish for CIFoRB to make a visit to Malaysia to engage with academics, civil society and particularly state and federal lawmakers on the importance of Malaysia to become again a nation that embraces and respects multiculturalism and various religions as well as to stand united against radicalism and religious extremism.

CIFoRB would like to sincerely thank Kasthuri Patto, MP for the Democratic Action Party in Malaysia.

Baroness Berridge and Kasthuri Patto