SUHAKAM Can and Must Do Much More Than Justifying Its Failures
In response to several statements made by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) on its Malaysian Human Rights Day event on 9 September 2009 which was boycotted by 42 Malaysian NGOs, SUARAM would like to make the following clarifications and comments:-
Stop justifying failures – Be proactive and bold
Firstly, SUARAM would like to challenge SUHAKAM Chairman Abu Talib Othman’s continued justification of SUHAKAM’s failure to effectively protect and promote human rights in Malaysia. According to Abu Talib, SUHAKAM is not to be blamed for its weaknesses because it cannot function beyond the law that governs it. However, SUARAM contends that SUHAKAM, despite having limited powers, can actually do much more than it has generally done to protect and promote human rights.
On this note, we acknowledge SUHAKAM’s latest decision on 11 September 2009 that the SUHAKAM Act, being a human rights statute, should be treated sui generis and interpreted in a liberal, fair and large fashion. This decision thus affirms that SUHAKAM has the power to compel witnesses, be they civilians or police officers, in response to the refusal of police officers to provide authenticated statements for SUHAKAM’s ongoing public inquiry on the arrests of five lawyers. This decision is indeed commendable and is proof that SUHAKAM can take proactive steps to overcome its limitations and improve its effectiveness. Such steps to fully utilise its powers and mandates under the current legislation should be made consistently by SUHAKAM.
SUARAM therefore strongly urges SUHAKAM to reflect on its own weaknesses and find ways to improve, rather than continuously making justifications of its failures. We wish to reiterate that the current Commissioners need to urgently redeem themselves and play their expected role as public human rights defenders before their respective terms end in April 2010. We urge the current Commissioners to be more bold and proactive in pushing through SUHAKAM’s recommendations to the government. The 8 September 2009 joint statement of 42 NGOs has offered detailed proposals of how SUHAKAM can improve itself. It is now incumbent upon SUHAKAM to take concrete steps to make improvements.
Stop defending the indefensible – Fulfil your powers and mandates
Secondly, SUARAM deplores SUHAKAM Chairman Abu Talib Othman’s defence of SUHAKAM’s position not to monitor human rights violations on the ground, with specific reference to the anti-ISA rally on 1 August 2009 which resulted in 589 individuals, including 44 juveniles, arrested. We strongly contest the Chairman’s explanation SUHAKAM monitors were not deployed due to the risk of arrest as the police had deemed the rally “illegal” and that it did not want to be construed as condoning an “illegal” assembly.
We would like to remind SUHAKAM that it has powers to “study and verify any infringement of human rights” under Section 4(2)(c) of the SUHAKAM Act. We are of the view that SUHAKAM’s power to study and verify human rights violations should not be confined to cases where violations have already occurred. This power should also be discharged in cases where there are imminent threats of human rights violations. Further, SUHAKAM itself has noted in numerous of its reports of the serious human rights violations which occur during public assemblies deemed “illegal”.
SUHAKAM’s refusal to monitor public assemblies deemed “illegal” therefore, firstly, contradicts its previous positions on freedom of assembly; and secondly, underscores its failure to carry out its powers as spelt out in Section 4(2)(c) of the SUHAKAM Act.
SUHAKAM’s failures are many
Thirdly, we would like to correct the Chairman’s misled assumption that the 42 NGOs boycotted SUHAKAM’s event merely because SUHAKAM had failed to monitor the anti-ISA rally on 1 August 2009. The failures of SUHAKAM are many and its failure to monitor the anti-ISA rally was but one of the many instances. In the joint statement endorsed by 42 NGOs, three main concerns were highlighted, namely the failure of SUHAKAM to proactively protect and promote human rights; the failure of the government to make SUHAKAM a truly independent and effective institution; and the failure of the government to implement most of SUHAKAM’s recommendations.
Our concern on SUHAKAM’s failure to proactively protect and promote human rights stems from numerous instances where SUHAKAM failed to act when serious human rights violations occur. The NGOs’ boycott of SUHAKAM’s Malaysian Human Rights Day event was a show of no-confidence in SUHAKAM for the lack of substantial positive changes despite the NGOs’ numerous engagements with SUHAKAM previously. It is therefore unacceptable that the SUHAKAM Chairman chose only to focus on our dissatisfaction over SUHAKAM’s failure to monitor the anti-ISA rally. Such assumptions only amount to what seems to be a denial on the part of SUHAKAM of its own weaknesses and failures.
Commissioner’s claims erroneous
Fourthly, we would like to seek clarification on the statement reportedly made by Commissioner Dr. Chiam Heng Kheng that only 10 of the 42 NGOs endorsing the statement dated 8 September 2009 had actually boycotted SUHAKAM’s Human Rights Day event on 9 September 2009. This is an erroneous claim which was not substantiated with facts. We believe that this statement was derived from the fact that only 10 of the 42 NGOs had earlier registered for the conference and subsequently boycotted the event. SUHAKAM however cannot discount the absence of the other 32 NGOs as having also boycotted the event just because they did not register for the event earlier. We strongly urge that the Commissioner corrects her statement made to the media on 9 September 2009.
Dr. Chiam Heng Kheng also reportedly claimed that a SUARAM representative attended the event on 9 September 2009. While not intending to engage in a lengthy polemic with SUHAKAM over this matter, because Dr. Chiam’s statement is entirely untrue, SUARAM demands that SUHAKAM publicly clarifies this matter and apologises for the Commissioner’s highly erroneous assertions.
Urgent need for substantial reforms
Finally, we would like to reiterate our demands to SUHAKAM and the government as articulated in the joint statement of 42 NGOs on 8 September 2009. We urge SUHAKAM and the government to take up our proposals for substantial reforms within the proposed timeframes. Failing which, we would consider more permanent forms of boycott of SUHAKAM.