These are not halcyon days for human rights. Cruelty and discrimination against our fellows appear to be on the up and up, while abuses by people in power are often under-reported or hidden between the lines.
It is no different in this country. US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, after assessing the situation in Malaysia, has a dire view.
“Malaysia’s respect for human rights plummeted in 2015, with increased harassment and persecution of human rights defenders, activists, political opposition figures, and journalists,” reads its most recent report.
“The Government reacted to rising public discontent over issues ranging from allegations of corruption to the treatment of a former political opposition leader with a wave of repression, often relying on broad and vaguely-worded criminal laws to target its critics,” the report adds.
However, Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail says many of these international human rights organisations only look at Malaysia’s issues from a global perspective.
“They apply comparative analyses and try to justify their conclusions that way. There is nothing we can do to prevent them from concluding the way they have.
“Instead, what we can do in future is to use this downhill slide to persuade the Government that these things need to be looked at,” he says, convinced that Malaysia is not going entirely downhill.
According to Razali, it is the role of parliamentarians to uphold human rights, and Suhakam urges Parliament and the judiciary to review laws such as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the National Security Council Act, to look into how necessary these laws are, and how they should be applied in certain cases.
“Of course, we have to be realistic. The Government has passed those laws claiming that there are serious threats out there.
“But there have also been allegations that these laws are being used for other purposes.
“So what we need, essentially, is the involvement of bodies like Parliament, the judiciary and even (Suhakam) to protect democracy and human rights,” he says, adding that it is necessary for all Malaysians to embrace the intrinsic values of human rights.
Razali points out that the treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is among the issues highlighted in Human Rights Watch’s report on Malaysia.
The report says that discrimination against LGBT people is pervasive in Malaysia and that the discrimination “reaches the highest levels of government”.
However, Razali believes that the Government is not to blame for the treatment of the LGBT community.
“It is our society. Most of our society and its communities, they are prejudiced.
“They do not want these people from the LGBT communities to mix as freely as others,” he says, adding that better education – starting at the school level – is needed to remove this discrimination.
Transgender rights activist Nisha Ayub also feels more needs to be done.
“Last year, two men wielding iron rods came to the parking lot in my apartment and beat me up. I remember running for my life while my mother watched in horror from the balcony of our apartment.
“That is the kind of cruelty and discrimination we are subjected to simply because we are different,” says Nisha.
She also alleges that she faced discrimination at the police station when she went to lodge a report on the incident.
“I was bleeding and I had asked to lodge a report. There was no sense of urgency at all, and some even laughed at me. It was not until I left and returned with some prominent activists that I was taken seriously.
“It’s been months now and I have no idea what has happened to the investigation,” she says.
Across the world, war crimes often go unpunished. Syrians have been suffering for over five years now, while the Muslim Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar are considered the most persecuted people on the planet.
Despite opening its doors to victims of wars and asylum-seekers, Malaysia is being criticised for its treatment of refugees.
However, Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed says that the Malaysian Government is not legally obligated to take in refugees.
“To be honest, we don’t want to accept any more refugees anyway, which is why we have been turning many of them away.
“There is supposed to be a clean-up and that is why we now have a task force to look into this,” he says.
Nur Jazlan, however, adds that in order to manage the refugee situation, his ministry is working on a pilot project which will legally grant jobs to 300 Rohingya refugees.
“The reason we are doing it with them is because there are so many of them already.
“To be clear, they will be given jobs that most Malaysians do not want to do. This way, we will be able to secure their livelihood while improving our economy,” he says.
Many of the finer details of the pilot project still need to be looked into, says Nur Jazlan, who adds that the ministry expects the project to take off this year.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), Malaysia currently hosts 150,669 refugees, of which 54,856 are Rohingyas, and many of them came here after losing their homes and families.
UNHCR spokesperson Yante Ismail says that the Malaysian Government treats these refugees well, especially by ensuring they have freedom of movement.
“Though it is often believed that refugees should be kept in camps, that is not the case here. They are given the freedom to move about and they are often allowed to reside within their own community,” she says, adding that most communities such as the Chin, the Sudanese, the Somalis and the Rohingyas have the backing of their refugee groups here in Malaysia.
Yante stresses that the pilot project to allow refugees a legal livelihood will be a very important step in 2017 as it will show that refugees can start a new life in a safe environment here.
The UNHCR is also currently trying to secure a discount for refugees who need to seek treatment in maternity clinics.
“We are in talks about it and we hope we will be able to work something out by this year,” she says.
In addition to the Government, Yante says that many corporate organisations also contribute greatly towards ensuring that refugee groups have access to decent healthcare and education.
“Many corporate organisations take it upon themselves to help run learning centres for these refugee communities, where members of the community itself are trained to teach in accordance with a certain system.
“In terms of healthcare, the Health Ministry announced last year that refugees would be entitled to a 50% discount from the foreigner rates in public hospitals. That, we believe, is a great step for the refugee community,” she says.