Why do activist groups representing some of society’s most marginalized employ legalistic forms of ‘rights talk’ when the reality of securing rights via the judicial system is almost unimaginable? The article considers this question in relation to the work of the Malaysian non-governmental organisation (NGO) EMPOWER who, in 2011, produced the Malaysian Women’s Human Rights Report focusing attention on the rights of informal sector workers, refugees, sexual minorities and women’s rights under non-Islamic family law. The engagement of a legalistic human rights perspective is important to this group – the existence of some constitutional guarantees for socio-economic rights and Malaysia’s commitments to CEDAW do, after all, provide scope for activism. Yet such activities take shape within the context of rising Islamic conservatism within the political and legal system, commitments to an economic development model in which the interests of labour are subordinated to those of capital, and state authoritarianism. Attempts to engage with justiciable frameworks for human rights serve to legitimate human rights claims in the sense that claims are presented in an appropriately legalistic language. This is a largely aspirational exercise – albeit one that is tied to wider civil-society led critiques of Malaysia’s political and economic system.
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Asian Studies Review is a multidisciplinary journal of contemporary and modern Asia. The journal sets out to showcase high-quality scholarship on the modern histories, cultures, societies, languages, politics and religions of Asia through the publication of research articles, book reviews and review articles.