The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting produced an opportunity to further the agenda of human rights, yet many chose to distance themselves from what would have been a major reform.

IS human rights a purely Western construct that is of no relevance to the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East?

It’s a question worth pondering given the striking fault lines between East and West on the issue. Western nations always seem to be pushing for greater respect for human rights while developing countries always seem to be on the defensive.

The recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia, was no exception.

An Eminent Persons Group (EPG) led by none other than Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proposed, among other things, the creation of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights to help ensure that Commonwealth governments live up to their obligations under the “Harare Declaration”.

Australia, Britain and Canada supported the proposal while most of the rest objected, waffled or simply kept silent on this long overdue and much needed initiative.

Abdullah, who as prime minister sadly missed his own reform moment, expressed disappointment that heads of government opted to postpone a decision on the matter.

It is not surprising that the president of Sri Lanka should lead the opposition to the initiative given the war crimes his government stands accused of, but where were the other erstwhile Asian and African democracies?

Even India, the world’s largest democracy, sat with the opposition on this issue.

After all, issues like democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law, and an end to racial and religious intolerance are already widely accepted as part and parcel of civilised societies. These ideas and principles are also enshrined in the Universal Declaration ofHuman Rights.

Why then are Asian and African governments so paranoid about it?

Third World leaders frequently remind us that freedom and democracy could lead to instability and chaos or that unbridled freedom often finds expression in licentious behaviour incompatible with local values.

They also warn that human rights is simply a tool of neo-colonialists with imperial ambitions and that Western governments themselves don’t practise what they preach.

Former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Rahim Noor, for example, recently warned of the threat to national security posed by human rights activists. He denigrated Malaysians who press for greater civil liberties as representatives of a new religion created by the West and accused them of trivialising our constitution.

He is badly mistaken.

If anything, it is he and his ilk who trivialise both our constitution and the values it seeks to defend. With people like him once helming our police force, is it any wonder that our country has become notorious for civil rights abuses?

Thankfully, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has opted to boldly break with this culture of repression and do away with some of our country’s oppressive laws. If there is one thing we can learn from the recent Arab uprisings, it is this: people everywhere yearn to be free – free from intimidation, manipulation, oppression and a corrupt government. They want governments to represent them, not the few who now control power. They want accountability and justice. In short, the very thing that the human rights agenda encompasses.

All this is not to suggest that charges of Western hypocrisy are unfounded.

Western governments have a long history of the most outrageous criminal conduct when it comes to human rights. Colonial rule in Asia, Africa and the Arab world was predicated on mass exploitation, slaughter and unimaginable human misery. And their support for some of the most brutal regimes of our times is a telling indictment of their commitment to human rights.

However, such duplicity must not blind us to the fact that human rights are universal, important and very much needed, especially in the developing world today. The failure of Western democracies to live up to their ideals is no justification for tyranny in the developing world.

It is also ironic that many of the same Third World leaders who wax eloquent about the dangers of neo-colonialism behave exactly like colonial overlords and even resort to colonial-era laws to oppress their own people.

There are of course some controversial issues being raised under the rubric of human rights as well. A case in point is gay rights, including legalisation of same-sex marriage, which some Western governments are aggressively pushing. British Prime Minister David Cameron for one has even threatened to cut off aid to those countries that discriminate against homosexuals.

Many developing countries have a fundamental disagreement with the West on some of these issues which remain contentious and divisive even in the West. An appropriate response would be to thoughtfully articulate our reservations without stifling the overall human rights agenda.

Whatever it is, human rights must be seen for what it is: the protection of the inalienable rights of all people. It’s time for us to stop being defensive on the issue of human rights and work with other countries to develop an effective global framework that protects and enhances the rights of all.

Malaysia should seize upon the work of Abdullah and his colleagues in the EPG as well as the momentum generated by Najib’s own leadership and commitment to reform to lead the way forward.