The way Suaram reasoned its position on drinking and smoking ban shocked me.

According to the group’s coordinator, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not explicitly mention the consumption of alcohol and tobacco as a human right but it does mention detention without trial is a violation. Because of that, Suaram supports drinking and smoking ban if the majority supports it. And because of the Declaration as well, the group does not support detention without trial.[1]

For a group that fancies itself as a human rights group, I expect more than an appeal to the Declaration. Any serious human rights group needs to have a more developed view on rights. Several Pakatan Rakyat politicians who are also members of Suaram have rightly condemned the group’s view as being simplistic.[2] (Now, I am aware that these politicians may be inconsistent with their views with regards to what I am about to share but let us ignore that at the moment for I want to focus on Suaram).

Suaram’s view will not stand any liberal test. Consider this appalling case: if detention without trial was not mentioned in the Declaration, then Suaram would have supported detention without trial. There is no two-way about it. The Declaration is the document of reference for Suaram after all. Or maybe, I should just say that it is the view of the coordinator.

Such is the inadequacy of Suaram or the coordinator’s reasoning.

A more respectable human rights group would have derived its position from the first principle instead.

I want to say this rather forcefully because I think the point on first principle is crucial.

Any libertarian will reject the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rejection is due to the categorization of liberties and rights into negative and positive.

Negative liberties and rights refer to absence of interference by others to a person action that does not necessarily or dangerously affect others (after reading Nozick’s State, Anarchy and Utopia, I have a little bit trouble defining this but you know what I mean). Freedom of expression is part of negative liberties.

Positive liberties and rights refer to obligation by others to aid the person to achieve the person’s positive rights. The supposedly right to employment is an example of negative rights.

Libertarians reject positive liberties. Only negative liberties are accepted and these negative liberties are simply referred to as individual rights. Libertarians, or maybe at least me, understand negative liberties as individual liberties. Because the Declaration contains positive liberties, libertarians reject the Declaration.

This is my first principle: negative liberties. All rights originate from those liberties. Most of my positions are derived from that first principle. And you can see how my position on drinking and smoking come from; it comes from that first principle of negative liberties.

Drinking and smoking ban interferes with individual action as defined above. Hence, libertarians reject the ban, whether or not it is mentioned in the Declaration.

(If there is conflict of rights there, then Coase theorem is there to save the day. If it involves private property, then the owner’s words are supreme.)

But the libertarian view does not matter as much here.  What matters is the first principle. You can see where the libertarian — my — position on drinking and smoking ban is derived from. Suaram lacks such rigorous reasoning.

Another angle demonstrating the inadequacy of Suaram’s view is this: if all liberties and rights are derived from the Declaration as understood by Suaram, then the Declaration is utterly inadequate to function as the document of reference in a liberal society. Many negative liberties simply would not exist and that is an unpalatable scenario for any liberal, and I use the term liberal here in the widest of all sense.

Now, here is something more insidious than naïve thinking.

There are many negative liberties unmentioned by the Declaration. Now, left-leaning individuals and entities claim to embrace a more comprehensive view of liberty. They accept both negative and positive liberties and rights.  The crucial point is that a left-leaning entity accepts negative liberties as well, notwithstanding the areas where positive rights prevail over the negative ones. It is safe to say that any person who confesses belief in liberty however it is defined at least subscribes to negative liberties.

For the negative liberties unmentioned by the Declaration, by deduction, Suaram believes the majority has the power to decide whether a person should be stripped of his or her negative liberty.

The discretionary leeway is despicable for one reason: it is the tyranny of the majority. For a self-proclaimed human rights group to see no wrong in tyranny of the majority, that is shockingly disappointing.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — KUALA LUMPUR, June 7 — A human rights group today will support a ban on alcohol consumption or smoking should the majority of Malaysians favour it.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) said, however, that the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, was exempt from public opinion.

“The right to drink and the right to smoke is not explicitly spelled out in the UDHR (United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but the right to fair trial is,” Suaram coordinator Hasbeemasputra Abu Bakar told The Malaysian Insider today.

In a statement sent last night, Hasbeemasputra said “the state has the responsibility to make laws that regulate society and has a duty to ensure the wellbeing of the people, and gazetting no-smoking zones helps to fulfil these two roles.”

When asked why Suaram now supported the smoking ban in Malacca but opposed the ISA, the human rights activist insisted that the ISA ran contrary to the UDHR. [Boo Su-Lyn. Alcohol, smoking ban if majority wants it, says Suaram. The Malaysian Insider. June 7 2011]

[2] — SHAH ALAM, June 7 — Two members of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) rejected today the human rights group’s backing of bans on alcohol consumption or smoking as long as a majority favour it. [Boo Su-Lyn. Pakatan reps slam ”˜simplistic’ Suaram over alcohol, smoking bans. The Malaysian Insider. June 7 2011]

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