As the world marks Human Rights Day today, Malaysia remains adamant that human rights has little bearing on an individual's life
Allegations of human rights abuses in Malaysia abound and both human rights groups and international human rights watchdogs have time and again taken the ‘powers that be’ to task for failing to uphold the tenets of human rights, as enshrined both in the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.
In 2009, the Reporters Without Borders ranked Malaysia 131st out of the 175 nations where the Press Freedom Index was concerned. Still, the federal government under the Barisan Nasional administration has refused to take heed and make amendments; instead the atrocities against the rakyat continue, in one form or another.
Be it detention without trial to deaths in police custody to the trampling of the people’s right to speak against injustice, the BN government under premier Najib Tun Razak has done it all.
On July 9 this year, Najib spared no effort in trying to squash a rally aimed at urging the government to clean up the electoral system. The ‘Walk for Democracy’ organised by election watchdog Bersih 2.0 was the trump card needed to awaken the slumbering BN from its comfort zone. But cocky as it has always been, the BN government refused to learn from the July 9 events and could at best declare both Bersih 2.0 and the rally illegal.
More recently, the latest ‘crime’ against human rights involved the jet-speed passing of the Peaceful Assembly Bill which it advocates is a threat to Malaysians’ freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
So damaging is the threat posed by the Peaceful Assembly Bill that the nation’s Bar Council on Nov 29 marched to Parliament as a show of support for the right to peaceful assembly as guaranteed in article 10 of Malaysia’s constitution and Article 20 of the UDHR.
What does it say when under the Najib-led government, the gross violations of human rights keep repeating?
It is precisely because Najib and company couldn’t care less about upholding human rights in the country that the Human Rights Watch decided to shoot a letter to the prime minister, which among others urges amendments to the hurriedly approved Peaceful Assembly Bll.
Human Rights Watch director Phil Robertson had lamented: “Malaysia’s lawyers are marching out of real concerns that Malaysians’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and association are under threat from the proposed law. They have serious proposals to amend the law and the government should give them a serious hearing.”
Concerns over erosion of human rights
The Human Rights Watch in its letter to Najib raised concerns about the bill’s blanket prohibition against “assemblies in motion,” such as marches and processions.
There were more concerns: Broad authority for the Royal Malaysian Police to regulate and disperse assemblies; an extensive list of “prohibited places” where the assemblies cannot take place; wide powers for Malaysia’s home minister which includes determining whether an assembly may be held legally and prohibiting participation of children under the age of 15 and non-citizens.
Richardson matter-of-factly said the Malaysian government should withdraw the draft law immediately and refer it to a Parliamentary Select Committee, where stakeholders can have an opportunity to express their views on the measure.
It remains to be seen whether the BN-administration is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing; doing otherwise would speak volumes of how shallow and disrespectful it still remains in respecting the rights of the people of this country.
Prior to this, the actions of the BN government last month in outlawing Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual festival that sought to empower the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, intersex and queers (LGBTIQ) is proof enough of its bluff in wanting to champion the people’s rights.
Champion human rights without fear or favour
Addressing the issue of human rights remains incomplete if Malaysia’s human rights commission or Suhakam continues to remain a ‘toothless tiger’, suffering from political interference by the ‘powers that be’.
Thus far, Suhakam’s record in dealing with cases of human rights in the country leaves much to be desired. Its many recommendations put forth by its first and second chairmen Musa Hitam and Abu Talib Othman respectively were never given due hearing by the government.
Three years ago, the accreditation sub-committee of the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institution (ICC) demanded justification from Suhakam on why the human rights body must not be downgraded from the ‘A status to ‘B’. Had this been done, it would have deprived Suhakam of certain access privileges within the United Nations system.
Suhakam was fortunate enough to retain its ‘A’ status after review by ICC in November 2009. But the ICC urged the Malaysian government to amend Suhakam’s founding laws and make it more independent.
In 2000, the then Foreign Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, in presenting the Bill in Parliament promised that the establishment of Suhakam should be seen as a positive development in protecting the interest and realising the aspirations of the rakyat.
He assured the people that the Paris principles (relating to the status and functioning of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights) were used as guidelines in the formation of Suhakam.
(The Paris Principles were defined as the first International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights held in Paris in 1991. The following year they were adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Eleven years later, the questions remains – have those aspirations been achieved? Can Suhakam claim to have protected the interests of the people, looking at how the plight and cries of the Penan women and girls who were raped by timber loggers made no headway where Suhakam is concerned?
What this human rights body desperately needs is a conviction of courage and purpose, autonomy from the government and the powers of investigation.
Meanwhile, news that Malaysia was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for a three-year term from June 19, 2010 to June 18, 2013 did not go down well with human rights advocates who instead say Malaysia should be ousted from the council for failing to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”, a pre-requisite to sit on the council.
Jeswan Kaur is a freelance writer and a FMT columnist.