Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dire human rights situation in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Human rights violations continue to occur almost on a daily basis in Malaysia, said the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) chairman Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman.
As an advisory body without executive power, he said there was nothing Suhakam could do to ensure the Government responded to and acted upon on its recommendations.
Although the Government had made significant improvement since the Suhakam Act became law on Sept 9, 1999, Malaysia did not have a perfect human rights record, Abu Talib said in his keynote address at Suhakam’s Malaysian Human Rights Day celebration on Wednesday.
He reminded participants at the celebration, which had the theme “Human Rights in Malaysia: The Last 10 Years,” that Suhakam was a “creature of statute” and that the solution lay in the hands of Malaysian voters.
“If you vote the right people into Parliament, they will amend the law to give us teeth to bite with,” he said in response to a question from the floor.
Earlier, in his speech, Abu Talib said Suhakam’s probe into complaints of abuses such as police inaction, excessive force, selective prosecution, death in custody, delays in citizenship applications and denial of rights to ancestral land found that most of these were legitimate.
“To many government employees, it would appear that the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) is very remote from their everyday working lives,” he said.
He cautioned the Government that quelling dissenting voices and a free and open media would only encourage “whispering campaigns” that would result in social unrest.
Stressing that religion could not or should not be legislated, Abu Talib urged religious leaders to promote tolerance and respect for others.
Asked at a press conference about the boycott of the conference by 42 non-governmental groups because, among others, Suhakam had refused to send a team to monitor the anti-ISA (Internal Security Act) protest on Aug 1, Abu Talib said:
“It was not right for us to be there because the rally did not have a permit. We cannot act against the law. By not being there, it does not mean we cannot give an effective recommendation.
“We are for peaceful assemblies and we have recommended that the Police Act be amended so there is no need for a permit,” he said.
Commissioner Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, who is the organising chairman, clarified that representatives from 32 of the 42 NGOs had turned up.
Speech by Tan Sri Abu Ralib Othman
Chairman of Suhakam
At the Malaysian Human Rights Day
Sept 9 2009
Excellencies; Distinguished Guests; Yang Bahagia Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, Vice-Chairman of Suhakam; Yang Bahagia Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, Chairman of the Organising Committee Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning and welcome to the Suhakam 2009 Human Rights Day Conference.
We are honoured by your presence here this morning. We are grateful that you have accepted our invitation and have come with the common purpose of assessing what has changed for human rights and exploring ways in which the Government, individual and society can play a more meaningful and constructive role in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For this year’s Human Rights Conference we have chosen the theme “Human Rights in Malaysia, The Last 10 Years” (the period since Suhakam was established) which has the objective of highlighting some of the human rights violations, the challenges facing the community in the field of human rights and how we should now proceed.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Suhakam was established by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 which came into force in April 2000. It was done at the initiative of the Government with little public involvement. At the start human rights activists expected little of Suhakam. They were sceptical of the Government’s motives and critical of Suhakam’s actions.
Nevertheless, Suhakam held faith that human rights have attained a paramount status in mankind’s aspiration for an equitable and happier world. In Malaysia’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society, this aspiration has no room for confrontation or acrimony. In order to address the issues of human rights and to promote human rights awareness, we held consultations and dialogues with various stakeholders.
Suhakam has gone a long way to fulfil its obligations and realise its goal, continuously expanding its operations to reach towns and villages in various parts of the country. It has imparted human rights awareness and knowledge to people of all segments of society ranging from government officials and corporations to the general population, including orang asli (indigenous peoples), the Penan and schoolchildren. We did our utmost to address the root cause of violation of human rights and to protect and promote the human rights of the people in a balanced and equitable way.
We believe that when rights and responsibilities are balanced, freedom is enhanced. In carrying out our duties and responsibilities, we are guided by Human Rights principles and good practices. If, therefore, we were perceived to have been biased, when we are not, it is because we lean in favour of human rights. Today, human rights is known to a wide spectrum of the population and the people are now exercising their fundamental human rights more than ever before.
Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nation, said that “Human Rights are the foundation of human existence and co-existence … . Human rights are what made us human. They are the principles by which we create the sacred home for human dignity.”
In essence, Human Rights are the people’s rights. To mention the essential, they are the right to life, right to citizenship, right to education, right to development, right to standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, right to housing, equality before the law, prohibition of arbitrary arrest and detention, the presumption of innocence, right to freedom of thought, conscience, choice and change of religion, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to take part in the government of the country.
The most fundamental requirement is that human beings must be truly free in order to exercise such rights and freedom. Difference in status, race, language, sex, religion or political affiliation must not provide for discrimination regarding such rights. The exercise of those rights should not be the privilege of the happy few but all the people as envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is greatly reflected in the Federal Constitution.
It is true that Article 29 of the Universal Declaration and the Constitution permit the imposition and limitation on such rights, but I submit, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the imposition of such limitation must be subject to the rule of law in a democratic society.
In my view legislation is not enough to ensure that human rights are respected everywhere and at all times, as the past 10 years made only too clear. We have during that time received and investigated complaints of police inaction, excessive use of force, selective investigations and prosecutions, death in police custody, selective enforcement of the law, arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of rights to ancestral land, delay in disposal of court cases and delay in processing application for citizenship.
We found most of the complaints to be legitimate.
To many government employees, it would appear that the Universal Declaration is very remote from their everyday working lives. But the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a fundamental guideline for every executive government agency that is respect for the human dignity of everyone with whom it comes into contact.
One should fully acknowledge the fact that members of the public have many relationships of dependency with the government from the day they were born to the day they leave this world. Government’s relations with the members of the public are not merely in law, determined by what is prescribed by law, there is always an element of personal interaction as well.
Many complaints about the authorities are based on the individual’s sense of not being taken seriously, particularly the underprivileged, the poor, the weak, indigenous people and the disabled. They believe that they have human rights and that those who caused their suffering were acting illegally. It is their hope to be treated with dignity and to have their rights respected and that it is the purpose and duty of the government to respect and protect their rights.
It is in this connection, Ladies and Gentlemen, that we should all welcome the policy of “People First and Performance Now” announced by the Honourable Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak.
In my view, the Prime Minister’s policy is consistent with the Principles of Human Rights of ensuring a life of dignity for all. It is the realisation of this landmark policy which is pro-human rights that the people look forward to.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Government is firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights on the basis of its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution, the establishment of Suhakam as well as from the values, customs and traditions of the people.
That may sit well, but we the Defenders of Human Rights must advance the agenda for a higher standard of accountability and performance consonant with international transparency practices. In this respect we welcome the decision of the Prime Minister to introduce KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for government employees, from the highest to the lowest. It is our hope that the Government will ensure that its agencies are not only well-staffed but that its employees must be adequately equipped to cope with this aspect of their work. Appropriate internal regulations and procedures to promote and protect human rights can certainly help to achieve this.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Over the last 10 years Suhakam has conducted public inquiries on complaints of human rights violations, reviewed laws which clearly are contrary to the principles of human rights, such as the ISA (Internal Security Act), the Police Act, the Printing Press and Publications Act and the Official Secret Act, conducted research on land rights of indigenous people, organised forums and roundtable discussions on human rights education and recommended the ratification of the core human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Against Torture.
Suhakam had also recommended the introduction of a National Action Plan in the field of human rights and that major bills should be referred to a Select Committee of Parliament and State Assemblies after the first reading so that different sectors of society, such as experts, public interest groups and other concerned individuals, could give their input to the process.
Unfortunately, most of Suhakam’s findings and recommendations have yet to be implemented by the Government. As an advisory body without executive power there is nothing that Suhakam can do to ensure Government’s response and action to what it recommended. As such, human rights violations continue to occur almost on daily basis.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There can be no denial that we live in a society based on rights. The rights of every human being are very precious and important. Every effort should be made to protect and promote the belief that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Freedom, however, becomes meaningless in the absence of justice. No one should be allowed to take the law into his hand. It must not be that the guilty go unpunished, the dishonest rewarded, the custodians of the law become the biggest law breakers and that the court should strive in every case to determine what is right rather than who is right. Bad laws constitute the worst kind of injustice. A society not only needs good laws but also good people to restrain bad laws and enforce good laws without fear or favour.
Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquier, in 1742 said “There is no crueller tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”
Justice should not only be done but also be perceived as having been done.
Only the Government has the ability to ensure that the police and other agencies respect human rights while maintaining peace and security, and that the judicial systems are independent and effective in providing access to justice to all citizens. They can allow citizens to freely voice their concerns on important issues such as the misuse of public funds, abuse of power and illegal practices. By not allowing citizens to freely voice their concerns on such issues, we are encouraging whispering campaigns that will ultimately result in social and public unrest. We need to be open to legitimate criticisms and react positively.
The only means of truly gauging the public pulse is to listen to voices of dissent, a process reinforced by free and open media. In this connection we welcome the Government’s decision to amend the Police Act, the ISA and other preventive legislations. What the nature of amendment is has yet to be seen.
Religious leaders can mobilise the hearts and minds of their adherents. They should not use their influence to advocate and commit gross human rights violations. The purpose of religion is to bring lasting happiness to Man and that is only possible through obedience to God’s commandments, performance of one’s prayers and religious duties and naturally, through proper social conduct and observance of the rights of others. Religious belief cannot and should not be legislated. Religious leaders, therefore, should spare no efforts to promote tolerance and respect for others within and outside their communities.
Business leaders have a responsibility because they can directly influence the quality of life enjoyed by their employees. For this reason, corporations should be held to the same standard of human rights protection as the Government. Also, those who achieve great wealth have a moral obligation to give back to the communities that have enabled their success.
Individually, each of us can become a leader for human rights in our own communities by showing respect not only for our friends and families but also for those who are different from us. For us who have the right to choose our leaders, our commitment is to choose a leader who is committed in advancing human rights and good governance.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Human rights violations can never be accepted and can never be a good thing for the people and the country. Human rights are our rights, now and for all times. When they are ignored, human misery and political instability all too easily follow.
In this regard I would like to commend on some of the positive moves made by the Government in its effort to protect public interest and human rights. In 2001, the Government amended Article 8 of the Constitution to include “gender” as one of the grounds prohibited from discrimination, improve the condition in detention centres and police lock-ups, ratified the Convention against Corruption, enacted the Anti Trafficking in Persons Act and the Person with Disabilities Act, addressed the plight of the poor, persons with disabilities, victims of trafficking and public housing, improve access to healthcare and providing free primary education.
Although the Government has made significant improvements in the protection of human rights in the last 10 years, this is not to say that Malaysia has a perfect human rights record. No Nation, no matter how enlightened, can claim to have a perfect human rights record.
Together, Suhakam with the Government, corporations, civil societies and the public can further improve human rights condition in the country. We simply have to work together instead of diverting our energy into futile and unproductive debate over wrongly perceived alternatives or who is right or wrong. Human rights should not be politicised and its principles selectively applied.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the last 10 years, Suhakam has done a lot in promoting awareness in the promotion and protection of human rights and helping to ensure a life of dignity for all regardless of gender, status, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation. We still have much to do.
In this connection we derive some consolation from the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of US President Roosevelt, the Chairperson of the drafting committee of the Declaration of Human Right and I quote, “Promoting respect for human rights is a fulfilling – but never fulfilled -- obligation.”
I feel very privileged to have the opportunity of speaking this morning at this conference which is dedicated to addressing human rights issues in Malaysia. I do hope that all of you will have a substantive and productive discussion -- for human rights, justice and happiness of the people. I wish you all the best and a successful and fruitful conference.
Thank you.
By SHAILA KOSHY
koshy@thestar.com.my

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