Tens of thousands took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 8 to celebrate that Malaysia had not ratified a U.N. convention aimed at eliminating racial discrimination.
The protest-turned-thanksgiving rally was given the green light to go ahead by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall last week after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government decided not to sign the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) last month.
ICERD, which was adopted at a U.N. General Assembly in 1965, asks its signatories to take on measures to eliminate racial discrimination in their country based on race, colour, descent, national, or ethnic origin.
Held in the heart of the city at Merdeka Square, the rally turned out to be largest of its kind since Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad returned to power in May’s shock general elections.
According to police figures, over 55,000 are estimated to have participated in the celebrations. The official figure was just over a tenth of the organisers’ initial estimate of 500,000 attendees. That estimate was based on figures provided by opposition parties; 300,000 from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), 200,000 from the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and approximately 50,000 from civil society organizations.
The protest had been backed by the country’s major Malay opposition parties who had expected PH to sign the convention.
PH had promised in its election manifesto to reform human rights in Malaysia and ratify relevant international conventions endorsed by the world body. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28, Mahathir said Malaysia would commit to ratifying “core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights.”
However, on Nov. 23, the administration made a shocking u-turn under pressure from Malay and Muslim organizations and communities who fear that ratifying the charter would jeopardize Malay rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution.
Many voiced fears the charter would also dilute Islam’s position in the country, with previous anti-ICERD rallies drawing in crowds of thousands.
Originally organized as a protest against the administration for signing the charter, it was rebranded as a “thanksgiving” rally to show gratitude to the government while displaying continued strong opposition to the international convention.
Dressed in white T-shirts, the anti-ICERD rally-goers gathered in the early hours of the morning on Dec. 8 for the 2 to 6 p.m. event and marched from a number of locations in the capital, including Masjid Jamek, Sogo Shopping centre, and the National Mosque. Marking the start of the event, demonstrators sang the national anthem, Negaraku, in Merdeka Square.
Among those who attended were PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor. Several celebrities were also spotted including television host Azwan Ali, singer Datuk Hattan, comedian Abon, and actor Mustapha Kamal.
Malaysia has yet to ratify six of nine core UN international human rights conventions, including ICERD, and is one of 14 countries globally that has not yet ratified the charter, alongside countries such as Burma, South Sudan, and North Korea.
Mahathir has previously said ratifying ICERD would be a complex process, and cannot be done without amending Article 153 of the Constitution, which would need a two-thirds parliamentary majority—which the administration currently does not have.
The reversal of the government’s decision has raised concern over the possibility of Malaysia adopting other conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture.
Democratic Action Party MP Charles Santiago said Mahathir’s sudden U-turn “placed a question mark on all the remaining UN treaties.”