Saturday, September 6, 2008

Long road to rights utopia


IT has been called a toothless tiger but Suhakam’s report to the Human Rights Council for Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review shows it can still use its tongue and claws to improve the state of human rights here.

SUHAKAM submitted its report for Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review under the United Nations’ new Human Rights Council on Thursday.

In accordance with UPR guidelines for only a five-page report, Suhakam assessed critically Malaysia’s human rights development.

“We are not trying to tell the world at large that we, as a reporting agency, are a dragon-slayer of the state,” says Suhakam commissioner Datuk Choo Siew Kioh, adding they had had consultations with NGOs on Aug 14.

“We have been critical in that we want to move the message of human rights forward, not kill it,” he adds in disclosing to The Star the contents of the report that had been agreed to by all 16 commissioners.

“We should look upon the UPR as a responsible exercise to inform the government and people where we all are on the road to a strong human rights culture. You may call it a wish list.”

The UPR process allows for a review every four years of each 192-member states of the UN on their human rights obligations and commitments. Malaysia’s review is in February and Suhakam and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have to submit their respective reports to Geneva by Sept 8. The Government’s self-assessment is due later.

One way to look at this UPR, says Choo, is to see it as a test of political will using the markers: is political will sympathetic to human rights principles, how committed is the government to such principles/ practice in its international relations, how much has it done to translate international covenants into domestic law and how strongly does the government intend to exert its collective right to limit individual/minority/community rights?

The final marker, he adds, is: “Do you feel good after reading the report?”
So, what is the state of human rights here?

Saying Malaysia’s reference for the protection of fundamental liberties is the Federal Constitution, Choo notes however these freedoms are circumscribed by laws that have been applied often in the name of public order and security.

He adds the law now determines the courts’ jurisdiction and the use of ouster clauses had further strengthened the authorities’ hand.

Although there has been progress in the protection of civil liberties in the past four years, he says that in other areas they “have sadly regressed. The most assailed is the integrity of certain judges and individuals.”

Has the Government given Suhakam enough teeth?

While Suhakam was established with popular support, Choo says the Suhakam Act needs amending as it currently restricts the development of human rights, allows the Government to ignore Suhakam’s recommendations from public inquiries and for Parliament to not debate its annual reports.

On Aug 20, in Parliament, the Prime Minister said the Government would ensure Suhakam was strengthened. His written reply was in response to a query on the threat by the International Coordinating Committee for National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to downgrade Suhakam on grounds there was no transparency in the appointments of commissioners.

Has Malaysia met its international obligations?

Of the nine core international treaties on human rights, Choo says, Malaysia has ratified only two – Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) – and with reservations.

Suhakam notes the irony of the Government adopting a liberal stance on foreign policy but continuing to wield laws here for preventive detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Emergency Ordinance and Dangerous Drugs Act (Special Preventive Measures) Act and restrictions under the Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act and Societies Act.

Among the Government’s positive steps were amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code with regard to investigations and prosecutions, for example, requiring detainees to be told of the grounds of their arrest within 24 hours; implementation of the parole system that has helped reduce congestion in prisons; setting up the Malaysian Integrity Institute; and promise to make the Anti-Corruption Agency independent, says Choo.

The Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers signed last year could lead to measures to combat human trafficking and improvement in the rights and welfare of migrant workers but Suhakam recommends there be a regional basis to strengthen such efforts, he adds.

Choo lists some Suhakam concerns cited in the report:
> Government saying it would review the ISA but declining to give details;
> Delays in trials/ inquests and written judgments and that no Judicial Appointments Commission had been set up although the Government had announced in April it would;
> Deaths in police custody and the continued provision for the death penalty and natural life sentence;
> Not having completely free elections since the ruling party has wide control and use of public resources and the media;
> Insufficient attention paid to the rights of the indigenous peoples;
> Presence of illegal immigrants and foreign nationals in Sabah who have obtained citizenship through dubious means; and
> Inadequate attention for HIV/AIDs and access to healthcare services for the disadvantaged.

Would the UPR process effect change in Malaysia?

“There is no human rights utopia. There is only a continuous state of adjustment. Abuses will always occur. What we are trying to build is a culture that limits this – you’re bound to expect non-uniform progress and regressions because of political vicissitudes and changes in government actors,” adds Choo.

“So, how do you feel?” he asks.


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