Stop the intimidation: Address governance, rights protection

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It is still painfully pitiful that the police may be investigating Irene Fernandez under the Sedition Act for speaking the truth about the abuse of rights and acts of violence experienced by migrants in Malaysia.

Irene Fernandez - Photograph courtesy of themalaysianinsider.com

According to media reports, Kuala Lumpur CID Chief Ku Chin Wah has confirmed that, as a result of police reports made against me as Executive Director of Tenaganita, by Ikatan Rakyat Iman Muslim Malaysia (IRIMM), Dewan Ekonomi dan Social Malaysia and Rela, the police will investigate me, probably under the Sedition Act.

The speediness with which the police have chosen to act in investigating the reports against me is perplexing; we note with utmost regret that the police have not acted with similar enthusiasm for swift justice when over 15 reports have so far been filed this year by Tenaganita on behalf of migrant workers; we also have evidence of over 10 different police reports filed by migrant workers themselves on various rights violations in the Klang valley.

Tenaganita has raised these core issues of abuse of migrant rights directly with high-ranking government officials – at numerous consultations and meetings, in published reports, through media interviews and public events – countless times over the past two decades. It is highly regrettable that taxpayers’ ringgit is instead being spent on questionings by the MACC and investigations by the police into the human rights defender, rather than on the serious human rights concerns raised.

A country that claims to practise good governance would have acted on these issues raised a long time ago. It would act with accountability and dignity to address the feedback provided by Tenaganita, other organisations and individuals, however critical they may be, instead of regularly sweeping them under the carpet and going into denial mode.

On the issue of the safety of foreign workers in Malaysia, the state-controlled media have of late been generous in publishing stories of employers who declare how happy their migrant workers have been with them. Indeed it would be outrageous for anyone to suggest that there aren’t good employers in Malaysia. However it should be noted that it is the personal sense of goodwill and decency of these employers that ensured the protection of basic rights of their workers.

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Relying on one’s own sense of goodwill, however, is not a sustainable manner to prevent human rights abuses. Good governance demands a more sustainable approach, whereby the State puts in place laws, regulations, policies and mechanisms to ensure the rights of all persons, including migrants, are protected equally and without discrimination. Cultural and structural changes should also be made to remove obstacles towards these measures.

The question of Malaysia as an unsafe country for migrant workers is really an issue of governance. Good governance requires readiness to accept feedback and criticisms arising from experiences of violations of rights of migrant workers and refugees, from cases filed at various courts and enforcement agencies and from consultations held by civil society with the State. These criticisms and actions should be used to plug the loopholes in the system and strengthen governance.

The threats faced by foreign workers in Malaysia are reflected in the threat to one’s safety and protection of rights faced even by our own citizens. This was clearly demonstrated by the police brutality that was evident at the Bersih 3.0 rally where citizens of this country who, while leaving the city after having peacefully assembled, were viciously attacked, beaten, bruised and battered by groups of police personnel. According to testimonies given, none of the police personnel identified themselves nor did they respond to the question on the reason for their arrest.

The above-mentioned episode provides a fair idea of the arrogance of power with which migrant workers are treated by the police. The threat to our safety and security is real, irrespective of whether we are citizens, migrant workers or refugees.

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The situation will only be aggravated if the government of the day continues to condone and deny the violations of rights and police misconduct and brutality. The disregard for such violations is evident in the government’s refusal to establish the IPCMC (Independent Police Commission of Misconduct and Complaints.)

The Sedition Act is an archaic law that has been used to silence dissent, choke discourse and stunt the growth of a democratic, moral and just society. It has also been used in Malaysia to criminalise human rights defenders who have spoken up for marginalised and disenfranchised communities and persons. Therefore, while not necessarily shocking, it is still painfully pitiful that the Royal Malaysian Police may be investigating me under the Sedition Act, for speaking the truth about the abuse of rights and acts of violence experienced by migrants in Malaysia.

The trotting out of this draconian Act and the barrage of statements by high-level government officials in the past few weeks condemning me begs us to ask these questions: Why does the Malaysian government want so desperately to silence human rights defenders in Malaysia? Why does there appear to be a concerted effort to target civil society, instead of collectively and sincerely addressing the problems entrenched in our system that make it unsafe for migrants in Malaysia?

The harassment and intimidation that the police intends to undertake on me as a human rights defender denies a democratic process in good governance. This process of intimidation and harassment leads to the criminalisation of actions taken by human rights defenders. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that everyone who exercises his or her rights is entitled to full protection by law and in practice against any violence or retaliation.

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However, the current regime does not seem to acknowledge this, even though the Malaysian government sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council. When the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy and all of us are made less safe.

The road map towards safe migration for all migrant workers to Malaysia should include:

  • Thorough and transparent investigations into the cases and issues raised by Tenaganita and an end to attempts to intimidate the Executive Director;
  • A comprehensive rights-based policy framework for recruitment, placement and employment of migrant workers (Note: A copy of this framework was sent by Tenaganita, the Malaysian Bar Council and other civil society representatives to the Malaysian government four years ago.);
  • Consultations and dialogues with civil society organisations, especially those who directly represent workers and migrants, on any new initiatives being undertaken, for example, the possible Foreign Workers Act.
  • The Ministry of Human Resources should be made the lead agency for recruitment, placement and employment of migrant workers, and not the Ministry of Home Affairs as practised now.
  • Holding perpetrators of rights violations by State actors against migrant workers accountable.

Tenaganita remains open and ready to work with all State parties to see that we, as a nation, collectively travel down that road map in order to increase the protection of rights for all migrants and workers in Malaysia. Tenaganita will also not be deterred by any threats, nor will we be silenced from speaking the truth.

Irene Fernandez is executive director of Tenaganita

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