Malaysia's leaders backtrack on ratifying UN human rights treaty

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad had said in September that his new government would ratify all remaining United Nations human rights conventions as part of its international commitments. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian government leaders are backpedalling on a plan to ratify a United Nations human rights treaty after facing resistance from Malay and Muslim organisations, and with the main opposition parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) united against the issue.

Those opposed to the convention said that if the government ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, it would weaken the rights of Malays and Malay royalty, and dilute Islam's position in Malaysia.

The two top leaders of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, on Sunday signalled that the government is unlikely to ratify the treaty soon.

Once ratified, the convention requires the signatory UN state to set up legislation that prohibits racial discrimination and related acts. This could affect Malaysia's longstanding bumiputera policy that reserves education and job spots for Malays and other indigenous races, as well as the primacy of Islam in the country and the special position of the nine royal houses.

Umno and PAS leaders met last Saturday and agreed to hold a big demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 8 to protest against the government's plan to ratify the treaty.

Speaking at a joint Umno-PAS rally in Perak over the issue, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the crowd: "Don't wait until the Malays run amok. But if our warning goes unheeded, Umno and PAS will unite.

"This is not a mere warning; don't play if you don't want the amok to happen."

The matter became a major talking point in Malaysia soon after Tun Dr Mahathir spoke in September at the UN General Assembly, where he said his new government would ratify all remaining UN human rights conventions as part of its international commitments. Malaysia is also taking steps to remove the death penalty.

Dr Mahathir, speaking to Malaysian reporters in Papua New Guinea on Sunday, said: "This matter (ICERD) is sensitive to the Malays, we understand that."

He was quoted by Bernama news agency as saying: "In my speech at the United Nations, I mentioned about the complexity of implementing ICERD. So, we didn't commit that we are going to do it."

The Prime Minister also said it would be almost impossible to change the federal Constitution to accommodate ICERD, as this would need support from two-thirds of MPs in Parliament.

The ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition that he leads has 127 out of the 222 seats in Parliament. A minimum of 148 votes are needed for a two-thirds majority to change any part of the Malaysian Constitution.

"Only with the support from the opposition can we have a two-thirds majority, and even then government members themselves may not support (it). So I feel that it's almost impossible for us to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary," Dr Mahathir said.

Mr Anwar, speaking to reporters after the annual congress of Parti Keadilan Rakyat that he leads, said he believes it is not the right time to ratify ICERD.

"This is a new government; we need to make sure Pakatan Harapan and the Prime Minister are strong and receive the support of the people. For me, it (ratifying ICERD) can be postponed," he was quoted as saying by Malaysiakini news site.

There have been reports that Dr Mahathir's son, Kedah Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir, and Cabinet minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman had expressed reservations about ICERD. Both are MPs in Dr Mahathir's coalition government.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2018, with the headline Malaysia's leaders backtrack on ratifying UN human rights treaty. Subscribe