Yolanda Augustin reports on how Malaysian activists highlighted rights violations in Malaysia at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva last month.
A team of civil society activists from Suaram, Bersih, Empower and Aliran wrapped up a week-long visit to the 20th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 23 June 2012.
Their aim was to highlight human rights violations in Malaysia, in particular the clampdown on freedom of assembly, association and expression and police brutality at the Bersih 3.0 rally in April.
During the week the team took the opportunity to brief various UN Special Rapporteurs, country-specific permanent missions and human rights organisations on deteriorating conditions in Malaysia.
Earlier this month, Maina Kiai, special rapporteur for freedom of assembly and association, issued a joint press statement together with Frank La Rue and Margaret Soakage, the special rapporteurs on the right to freedom of expression and the situation of human rights defenders, requesting an invitation to conduct an independent inquiry into the human rights abuses during Bersih 3.0. To date, the Malaysian government has failed to respond.
Consequently, it was welcomed when Maina Kiai’s made special mention of the deteriorating human rights situation in Malaysia in his address to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, 19 June specifically in respect of a worrying worldwide trend: governments are using legislative powers to restrict and suppress the rights of citizens, particularly in relation to freedom of assembly and association.
At a parallel event, Kiai, reiterated that he took the human rights violations in Malaysia very seriously, saying, “…the state cannot lose its duty to protect people, protesters alike…” In response to questions posed by Suaram’s executive director Nalini Elumalai, he repeated his request for an invitation by the Malaysian government to visit the country ahead of the 13th general election.
Rights abuses under UN microscope
On Wednesday, 20 June, Suaram held a successful parallel event bringing together leading Malaysian human rights defenders to discuss the Malaysian government’s human rights abuses and international human rights obligations.
Nalini and Maria Chin Abdullah detailed the increasing incidents of government limitations on the freedom of expression, information, peaceful assembly and association.
A Samad Said and Ambiga Sreenevasan, both co-chairs of Bersih 2.0, delivered video messages concerning electoral fraud and police brutality.
Baru Bian, Sarawakian parliamentarian and land rights lawyer, also provided an important perspective on the harassment and intimidation faced by human rights defenders seeking to protect native customary rights in Sarawak and the government’s complicity in human rights violations by logging companies especially in Penan.
Participants were also shown video clips of the police brutality against protesters at the Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur, including the disproportionate use of tear gas, water cannons, arbitrary beatings and media censorship.
The following day Nalini delivered an oral statement to the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of Forum-Asia.
She highlighted the severe restrictions imposed on freedom of assembly by the Malaysian government through the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA) which includes prohibitions on street protests, the organisation and participation in peaceful assemblies by non-citizens, the organisation of assemblies by persons below the age of 21 and the participation in peaceful assemblies of children below the age of 15.
She also highlighted the onerous responsibilities placed on the organisers of assemblies, contrary to the recommendation of the UN Special Rapporteur that “assembly organisers and participants should not be held responsible and liable for the violent behaviour of others”.
She called on the government of Malaysia to repeal the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and to fulfil its obligation to actively protect peaceful assemblies.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Suhakam, also made an oral intervention. The commission shared the special rapporteur’s concern over peaceful assemblies “that were either not allowed or violently dispersed” in several countries, including Malaysia.
The commission affirmed the fact that “while peace and public order need to be maintained at all times, peaceful assemblies must be recognised as a legitimate democratic means for the public to express themselves”.
The commission also reiterated that the authorities remain responsible for assisting and facilitating the assembly process and that “action taken against provocateurs and counter demonstrators must not impede with the rights of other peaceful demonstrators”.
The commission also highlighted the fact that the PAA imposes too many restrictions and conditions in the organisation of such assemblies. It also noted that the government had recently instituted a court action against the organisers of the Bersih 3.0 rally for damages that were allegedly sustained during the rally on 28 April 2012.
The commission concluded “such actions by the government might discourage future assemblies and absolve the authorities of their responsibility to maintain peace and order”.
Stepping up the exposure of Malaysia’s human rights violations in the international arena forms a part of a wider strategy to hold the Malaysian government to account for its poor human rights record in the run up to Malaysia ‘s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations in 2013.
Maria, executive director of Empower and Bersih steering committee member, highlighted the recent violence at Bersih 3.0 and raised the issue of the responsibilities of the state in ensuring the safety of those exercising their right to peaceful protest.
She also raised the issue of the recent intimidation, harassment and personal attacks against S Ambiga, including those by the Traders Action Council intent on laying claimed financial losses at the door of the rally organisers.
Kiai responded robustly: “…public space has as much right to be used by protesters as anyone else…” and urged for “one standard” – that peaceful protests be treated fairly whether or not the demonstration is in favour of the government, without bias or favouritism.
“Moreover, it was the responsibility of the state to ensure a peaceful and safe environment for any demonstrators; this responsibility cannot be transferred wholly to the organisers.
Yolanda Augustin is a Malaysian doctor training in the United Kingdom.
This report first appeared in malaysiakini.com