During the Universal Periodic Review of Malaysia’s human rights record by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a process which concluded on 12 June 2009, Malaysia received high and plentiful praise from countries from ASEAN, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement. According to these countries, Malaysia had achieved great strides in improving the human rights of women, children and persons with disabilities.
The situation in the government-run shelter known as Taman Sinar Harapan in Kuala Kubu Baru highlighted by a local newspaper on 5 July 2009 speaks of a different story. It is a sad reminder that much still needs to be done in Malaysia to strengthen and improve institutionalised care for the infirm and persons with physical and mental disabilities.
The “quick fix” of a clean-up job recently reported in the Internet media merely reveals once again our poor maintenance culture. We establish such a facility for persons with physical and mental disabilities. An impromptu site visit is conducted (based on a tip-off from London of all places). A mess (in this case literally) is discovered. A mopping-up operation is carried out. The situation then recedes into the background until another expose at another time. We do not learn any long-lasting lessons. No one is faulted, no one is taken to task, nothing more is heard.
It is not good enough. The root of the problem may well be an inadequate level of “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” and that “in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights” (quoting from the Preamble to the 1966 International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or ICESCR). Persons with disabilities are also human beings with basic human rights.
The Government of Malaysia has steadfastly refused to recognise the ICESCR, which, in Article 16, addresses the issue of adequate food, clothing and housing, and continuous improvement of living conditions. This international covenant applies to all peoples, including the physically and mentally disabled.
As part of the Universal Periodic Review process, the Government of Malaysia repeatedly stated that it had passed the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2008 and was in the process of acceding to the 2007 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). But it has firstly failed to stipulate a time frame to accede to this. Secondly, and equally important, it has totally ignored the Optional Protocol, which would provide for the right to redress by citizens against their governments for any shortcomings in complying with the provisions of the CRPD. The right to bring an action against one’s government will allow citizens to hold their leaders to account. This critical feature is absent in the Persons with Disabilities Act. In fact, under the Act, there is no provision for anyone to be prosecuted for failing to provide adequate facilities for persons with disabilities. It is this culture of impunity which will permit incidents as that which happened at Taman Sinar Harapan Kuala Kubu Baru to recur.
We call on the Government to immediately accede to the ICESCR, and to expedite its accession to the CRPD and the Optional Protocol, and to have the provisions of all these documents fully reflected in local legislation. It is only then that the residents of Taman Sinar Harapan Kuala Kubu Baru, and similar places like it throughout our country, will truly be able to enjoy a firm foundation for the ray of hope for their future.
Andrew Khoo is the co-Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee, Bar Council Malaysia.