WHEN the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed 70 years ago, racial segregation was legal in the United States. Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands were still colonial powers, and the state of Palestine was unilaterally dissolved and rights of the Palestinians extinguished with the one-sided recognition of Israel by the United Nations.
In other words, at the very moment of declaration, the human rights espoused by the most powerful signatories were, in fact, far from universal. It is not a new argument, but also not an insupportable one, that the UDHR was colonial document, reflecting a colonialist philosophy. The signatories, certainly, felt entitled at the time to implement its universality quite selectively; and this continues to be the case to this day.
The fundamental rights enshrined in the UDHR are not particularly unique, and, as developing countries grow and modernise, their societies embed these core values in their own legal systems; not because of the UDHR, but because they are core values. However, increasingly, countries around the world are asserting the right to interpret these values according to their own cultural traditions, particular circumstances, and the distinct needs of their societies; rather than adopt the interpretations of Western and more powerful nations.
The UDHR, though it may have originated as a quasi-colonialist document, must not be allowed to impose a specific meaning and understanding of human rights upon all its signatories. Inevitably, every society’s peculiar situation will determine what limits, what parameters, what exceptions are applicable to the general principles of the UDHR; and they must be free to exercise that degree of sovereignty without fear of censure.
We must acknowledge that trends in political thinking and ideological factors can weigh heavily on how any nation interprets human rights provisions, and these influencing factors are not themselves universal, but rather are quite specific to the circumstances of this or that society. No other society should, therefore, be obliged to capitulate to so-called universal norms when they possess those distinct interpretations.
It cannot be that every charter and treaty subsequent to the UDHR must necessarily be universally endorsed, or a country’s acceptance of the UDHR would be deemed to have been negated.
If, for example, Malaysians, by and large, do not see the necessity of ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) because its provisions are prone to highly politicised interpretation, and because sufficient safeguards against discrimination exist in Malaysia’s legal code—this should not be misconstrued as Malaysia being unopposed to racism and discrimination.
This is where the colonialist ghost of the UDHR emerges to haunt us: the West’s identification of social ills, and their remedies, must be accepted as definitive. Obviously, this is an unacceptable viewpoint and must be firmly and consistently denounced.
The Malaysian Constitution with its provisions forming the core of the social contract agreed upon by all ethnicities prior to independence adequately frames race relations with its own unique approach thereto, and this must not be undermined by reference to a so-called universal standard championed by proponents of ICERD.
Indeed, such attempts have been met with hostility and have contributed to race relations deteriorating, when in fact the correct approach would have been to further improve upon what has already been provided for in the constitution, such as the unqualified enforcement of its provisions that specifically provide for better relations between Malaysians of different ethnic backgrounds.
Article 152 thereof recognising the Malay language as the sole language of the nation is one such example. Were this provision to be fully understood, it would be recognised that schools and educational establishments teaching in vernacular languages, which go to the root of racial segregation, have no basis for their existence in Malaysia.
The same applies to issues of sexuality and gender. The Western world has experienced a phenomenon in recent decades of LGBT activism to which they have largely acquiesced; to the extent that they seem to desire to retroactively insert LGBT rights into the UDHR. But there is a reason why most experts consider most General Assembly resolutions to be non-binding; because one cannot legally alter the terms of a contract after it has been signed.
The UDHR says nothing whatsoever about rights connected to sexuality, and while some signatories may choose to interpret its provisions as inclusive of LGBT rights, others are certainly free not to do so, and should not be blamed for their alternate interpretation.
If this spirit of tolerance and respect for the sovereignty of each national signatory of the UDHR is not preserved, if the UDHR is used as a political instrument to impose the world view of the West upon other countries — it is predictable that the document will not reach its centennial commemoration, and indeed, the “universal” declaration may well earn a “universal” denunciation.
The position of the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA) is consistent with that of the drafters and original signatories of the UDHR, that is — we unhesitatingly affirm the fundamental principles therein, while maintaining the right of sovereign countries to reasonably interpret the practical applicability and implementation of those principles through their own legislatures in accordance with the unique conditions of their societies.
This is the only way forward if rights are to be realised in any meaningful manner.
Azril Mohd Amin, a lawyer, is chief executive officer of the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA).