The following are observations and opinions that reflect the stances of only myself, Arveent Kathirtchelvan, and #Liberasi. It is advised that this article is a little longer than usual, hence the reader’s discretion is advised.
On Saturday the 14th of October a roundtable discussion was held between the representatives of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC), the United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian Law Students Union (KPUM), #Liberasi and Goh Cia Yee. In it, details were discussed on the Declaration on Students’ Rights to Freedom of Speech, Assembly and Association, with specifics to the role of each organisation and how the declaration should look moving forward. This was broadcast on Facebook through a live stream. Here, I will pick some of these points and elaborate my opinions on them.
Firstly, Liberasi must iterate its utmost gratitude for KPUM, UKEC and Cia Yee for all of the hard work. Highlighting UKEC’s recommendations, it must be said that efforts to make the declaration more accessible to the very people it purports to protect are prudent ones to consider. The point of consulting UKEC’s Executive Council on the feasibility of certain clauses that explicitly demand agency from UKEC especially when it comes to logistical matters was especially insightful.
The Complexity of The First Draft is Due To The Complexity of the Rights Discussed
With this being said, though, throughout the discussion there were a few points raised that were not immediately resolved due to time constraints. The first is the confusion between the terms declaration and treaty. It might seem like the act of signing on to a document would make it more of a treaty than a declaration. This is not true, as even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows for signatories. However, it is true that the First Draft of the Declaration goes further than just listing consensual aspirations to quite detailed descriptions of enforcement steps and definitions of terms.
This is due to the nature of the fundamental rights discussed. When we think about the right to freedom of speech, for example, there are considerations which have to be carefully balanced. Hate speech restrictions have to be light enough to avoid overly stifling conversation on sensitive issues yet restricted enough to avoid massively hurt feelings and general chaos descending upon the discussion of a topic. Many such variables had to be finely balanced and they are far from static, which means it is expected of them to change as time goes on.
To appropriately word the declaration proper, a drafting committee comprising of volunteered student leaders from different backgrounds was convened and any amendments were also passed to them such that they can be considered and inserted into the declaration in such a manner as to ensure most people will be happy with the outcome. It was also understood that the novelty of such a step as the declaration called for more of a structure on how to undertake certain actions, especially when it comes to things like convening meetings and forwarding complaints.
This, unfortunately, has caused come confusion whether the declaration is a declaration or a treaty, the means of getting signatories for the latter would need to be more personalised to each potential signatory. More than this, the wording of the declaration becomes quite complex and long, such that many students who would be affected by it do not understand it in the first place. I will get back to this point a little later.
The Protection of Rights Transcends Personal Impact
For now though, let us think about what this declaration asks of the responsibility of a few parties and what questions surface due to this friction. Firstly, if we analyse what UKEC represents when it comes to steps such as this declaration, the main issue raised is whether a majority of Malaysian students even want it in the first place. It is often touted that a referendum or survey be done to gauge the receptiveness of Malaysian students here on the necessity of this declaration.
While the sentiment is definitely to be appreciated, what with the dependence on the will of the people, to open negotiation on the necessity of what are, essentially, fundamental rights in this context is dangerous as, without the agency to protect these rights from unfettered restrictions, the definition of what act is egregious enough to warrant legal action is open for interpretation by government officials.
This might lead to unwarranted and archaic restrictions similar to the Sedition Act. To be clear, I am not arguing that rights should be absolute. It is understood in this context that certain restrictions are necessary. However, right now, the extent of these restrictions is completely dependent on the discretion of one body, the government, without any concerted effort to challenge or redefine its views. This is what we are fighting against with the declaration.
The protection of rights is a welfare issue. Any unlawful or excessive impingement on fundamental rights should be taken as a grievous offense, especially when we take into consideration how similar it is to assault. When we think about it, any crime is looked down upon due to it impinging the rights of individuals that have been understood to be ultimately protected. So when it comes to being physically assaulted or falling victim to petty theft, it wouldn’t be remiss for student organisations to help the victim especially with escalating to proper authorities. In fact, Malaysian societies in the UK usually have welfare officers for this very reason.
Any organisation that claims to represent a certain group of people, especially when it is as general as Malaysian student societies in the UK, has the responsibility to take care of that group to the best ability it can. This responsibility is heightened when there is no alternative for these people to ask for certain things. This means that by virtue of being student representatives, the welfare of Malaysian students lie with Malaysian student societies. Ergo, it is understood that all fundamental rights, including the freedoms as outlined in the declaration, are automatically supposed to be advocated for by these student organisations against absolute definition by any one body. A need for a majority of students asking specifically for this is unnecessary.
This might seem like a gross insult to democracy but upon a little more thought, it would seem obvious that some special considerations must be afforded. Let’s talk about privilege. Not everyone cares about the type of activism the declarations seeks to create, one that is focused on social issues and is inevitably political in nature. Hence, the weight and impact of the declaration is lost to many. This was obvious during the roundtable itself and also feedback from certain quarters. What is important to realise is an issue doesn’t need to directly resonate with a person to be important. There will be many people who do not feel the resonance of Orang Asli welfare, for example, but that doesn’t mean the Orang Asli should be forgotten about.
The protection of rights transcends personal impact. Yes, one might not have gone through specific experiences that highlight the restriction of these rights but if there is an avenue by which they can be restricted without any real deterrent, that should be cause for concern in and of itself and enough to warrant action. A referendum or survey might not be sufficient for the total weight of the declaration to be accurately judged because there simply might not be enough individuals who respond that resonate with it. This doesn’t mean this declaration or more generally the agency necessary to protect these rights aren’t important, it just means that the need for proactive leadership is that much greater, one which strives to protect these rights while also sensitive to lawful restrictions of them.
Advocacy Is Needed Instead of Only Facilitation
What I mean by this is a concerted effort to advocate for these rights should come from the aforementioned student-representing organisations. One in particular seems perfect for me and that is UKEC. Instead of simply facilitating the creation of this declaration, UKEC could have supported it outright. As it stands, whether UKEC even needs to uphold these fundamental rights depends on a vote where the relevant student organisations decide whether or not to give them this mandate.
This is no to say UKEC should have just accepted the declaration per se without an official voting procedure undertaken for its adoption rather it should have advocated it to the student organisations from the get go. It would be understandable if the issue was with the wording of the declaration in the first place, but, even then, an independent drafting committee formed it. How much more bottom-up can we get? Especially when the document created would still be open to amendments and signatories could opt to submit reservations to certain clauses.
However, when it was agreed in the roundtable that the motion to be presented in UKEC’s Annual General Meeting was to ask for a mandate on the adoption of the responsibility to protect the rights specified in the declaration, it seemed redundant. Why is a mandate necessary for essentially a responsibility that already exists within UKEC through its existence?
It Is Imperative That The Declaration Gets Voted In
I say these yet I cannot help be grateful for all the help UKEC has already given to the creation of this declaration. The drafting committee itself was sourced from UKEC Supreme Councillors and a substantial amount of time was afforded by UKEC’s Executive Council to the nitty-gritty planning of it. If they deem it necessary for the aforementioned mandate to exist for them to act, then it is up to the Supreme Councillors now to restore the proper understanding of what UKEC and themselves should strive for. In other words, I am openly appealing to the Supreme Councillors to keep an open mind and seriously consider voting in a motion to give UKEC this mandate. It is only right.
However, more than this, it is quite concerning that some Malaysian student leaders complain about not understanding the declaration in the first place and that 20 pages is too long to read thoroughly. These are quite valid considering the dense, legal language used and the busy fresher period in which the declaration is being discussed. This problem is currently being remedied by the drafting committee but it must be stated that this is a civil rights issue. The implications of the declaration are massive, stretching from a soft law-like protection of students to potentially catalysing student activism in the UK. As such, it is imperative that student leaders actively strive to read and understand the document.
One student society that is taking it seriously is the Malaysian Student Society of Manchester (MSSM) which is actively scouring for public opinion regarding the declaration. MSSM seems to be in a special place in history, with their Malaysian Night plays focusing more on social issues than before. It is both encouraging and exciting that, though they have not signed on to the declaration nor have they indicated that they absolutely will, they are still doing their best to keep their members informed and understood about the need for feedback and responses. Liberasi would like to wish kudos to them and all those who are like them.
In closing, the creation of this declaration is unprecedented. As such, there are a lot of kinks to resolve. With that said, Liberasi believes the declaration is an imperative step that must come during this time in our lives. At least, for me, it is my final year in the UK and I desperately want to see it coming into force. We are on the brink of having an actual document that declares our rights and bands us together as one bloc that strives to protect and define them to best serve Malaysian students. It is now that Malaysian student leaders need to come together to get the declaration from a theoretical possibility to a routinely referred-to document that consolidates our voices into one. Let us be on the right side of history.