Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Walking and Rights

Since April this year, the Human Rights Committee of the Bar Council has been tirelessly planning its annual Festival of Rights (to commemorate Human Rights Day) to be held on 9 December 2007. Much credit goes out to all in the team especially the Chair of the Organising Committee, Dara Waheda Bt Mohd Rufin. As Chair of the main Committee, I owe an explanation to everyone who has followed this event with keen interest.

Three major rallies have been held since we first planned the Festival of Rights - the Bar’s Walk for Justice, one by BERSIH and another by HINDRAF. The primary intent of the said rallies was to peacefully yet purposefully convey various messages to those who are able to act on them. At both the BERSIH and HINDRAF rallies, observers for the Bar Council on the ground witnessed and experienced the effects of tear gas and chemically-laced water which were unjustifiably used by the authorities on peaceful citizens of our country seeking to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly. This was extremely painful and disappointing.

Subsequent to each rally, the authorities including the police and Ministers in Government vilified the participants and organisers. They attempted to influence public opinion by distorting the nature, purpose and effect of the assemblies. Coupled with the unnecessary and wanton use of force to disperse the participants, the purport of their criticisms was to engineer an aversion towards public demonstrations of support and solidarity. These developments have been most disconcerting. Key features in our democracy are speedily being dismantled, and we appear to be continuing down a dangerous path to greater authoritarianism.

With these events which precipitated the Peoples’ Freedom Walk in mind, there were generally three options open to the Bar Council – to proceed as planned without a police permit, to proceed with a permit or to call off the Walk. After a lengthy debate with equally valid arguments in favour of each option, the Council decided by a majority on the third option. It was not an easy decision. I was in the minority, seeking to re-affirm our earlier decision which was to proceed without a permit. Nevertheless, once a decision is made, we must abide by it.

It must be explained that before the decision was taken, Council had notified the police regarding the planned Walk by a letter. This is consistent with international human rights practice. Our leaders, the President and Vice-President, then made every effort humanly possible to negotiate with and seek the assistance of the police to facilitate the Walk. However, the police wrote to request that an application for a permit be made.

For some of us, making an application for a permit would be contrary to Council’s position contained in our submissions during the Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday incident at KLCC in 2006. Further, we are against the present "licensing" model which empowers the police to regulate the right to peaceful assembly by the issuance (or otherwise) of a permit. We recommended that a "co-operative" model be adopted where the organisers and authorities worked together in the spirit of co-operation to facilitate any proposed assembly. Our submissions were adopted by SUHAKAM.

It is also pertinent to note that when we walked to the Prime Minister’s Office at the Walk for Justice, no application for a police permit was made. Our leaders are currently being investigated for an offence. We must stand united with them and continue to adopt the position taken at the Walk for Justice at any cost. We cannot waver.

Much as Council's position that we ought not require a permit for a peaceful assembly is consistent with human rights law, an equally important consideration is whether we should nevertheless exercise our right to peaceful assembly under current conditions. We may lay claim to a right, and yet choose to exercise it sometimes, all the time or not at all.

It is not easy to dismiss the argument that in view of recent events and the attitude of the authorities, it would be dangerous to proceed with the Walk, and with little assurance that the safety of our participants would be guaranteed. We expected a large number of participants from various walks of life including women, children, the elderly, refugees and the Orang Asli.

Another overarching consideration continues to be the credibility and integrity of the Bar, and the welfare of our members. We cannot allow our well-intentioned motives and actions be distorted willy-nilly by those who hold positions of power in Government and influence over the media. The cause of human rights will continue to be fought nonetheless, and there is less lost in calling off the Walk as opposed to having to deal with an unmitigated disaster post-Walk, a prospect which is more real than imagined. It was an extremely difficult decision, but the majority felt that there was no better alternative.

As stated by our Bar President, this is a “missed opportunity”. It is sadly a loss for our nation and the Government as we seek to build a liberal, tolerant and caring society encapsulated in Vision 2020. Despite being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, our Government clearly lacks sufficient political will to meet the expectations of Malaysians to respect and protect human rights, and to fulfil its international obligations.

This year, we will not be able to walk on our streets in commemoration of a joyous occasion. This year, Malaysians will be compelled to celebrate Human Rights Day in a fashion of protest. Protest by NOT walking our streets, or re-claiming them. We know we could have walked and re-claimed it, easily. We will take the streets in celebration on another day. We could have proceeded and joined the masses in the thousands at the Walk. But we chose not to. We could have been dispersed forcefully by the authorities. But we chose not to let them do so. A story in the media could have been spun about the Bar and paint it in a negative light. But we chose not to give them that luxury. It was never originally intended this way. But it has turned out so.

To all those who expressed their interest in the Walk, we are truly grateful and touched for your show of support. We understand that this Walk has created much excitement even among our friends from the rural settlements and the Orang Asli who intended to travel from far to join us. Speaking for the Committee, we deeply regret any inconvenience or misgivings we have caused.

We apologise for calling off the Walk. Please join us for Part 2 of the Festival which starts at 9.00am at Central Market. Among others, we will have a lip-reading session of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a multi-religious forum titled “When Faith Meets Law” which showcases religious leaders on the panel of speakers, an Orang Asli cultural performance and various performances featuring artists within the Bar and outside of it. Breakfast and lunch will be served.

We will continue to do what is right in the interests of the Bar and civil society. Rest assured, this difficult struggle will continue unabated. I urge you to stand in solidarity by our Bar leaders during these trying times.

Dated this 4th day of December 2007

Chair, Human Rights Committee
Bar Council Malaysia

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