Human rights situation in Malaysia makes major gains

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Mahathir addressing the United Nations in September 2018

Malaysia’s human rights situation improved significantly in 2018 after the election of a new government that ran on a manifesto promising to make the country’s rights record “respected by the world,” Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019.

The government’s commitment to reform is being tested, however, by political backlash from members of the former ruling coalition and conservative religious leaders determined to resist change.

The newly elected prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018 that a “new Malaysia” would abide by “the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability”. He also pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights.

“Since the landmark election last May, Malaysia has been a bright spot for progress on human rights in South East Asia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But it will only remain that way if the government stops backtracking and follows through on its promises for human rights reforms.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries.

In his introductory essay, executive director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

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The new government announced plans to abolish the death penalty and established a moratorium on executions. It said that the much-abused Sedition Act would be revoked and announced a freeze on its use pending repeal. That freeze proved short-lived, however, with the government lifting it in December in the wake of an outbreak of violence at a Hindu temple.

The government also announced that it would create an independent police complaints and misconduct mechanism to end torture and killings of suspects in police custody and excessive use of force by police when pursuing and apprehending suspects.

The government’s effort to repeal the Anti-Fake News Law passed by the previous Barisan Nasional government was blocked by the appointed Malaysian Senate. The Senate, controlled by allies of the former ruling coalition, could seek to block further reforms.

While the government has pledged to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 under both civil law and Sharia (Islamic law), progress has been slow and exceptions to the minimum marriage age remain even in those states where the law has been reformed.

The new government has also committed to improve the situation for refugees and asylum seekers but has not yet taken concrete steps to do so.

The government backtracked on a commitment to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination in response to claims by opposition parties and Malay activists that doing so would undermine privileges for the Malay population that are enshrined in the Constitution.

Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remains pervasive even with the change in government. Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to 20 years in prison, while numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people.

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The new minister for religious affairs has called for an end to workplace discrimination against LGBT people. But he also made clear that any visible expression of an alternative sexuality or gender identity will be prosecuted under existing laws and that he supports programmes, broadly discredited, designed to change personal sexual orientation. On 21 September, Mahathir stated that Malaysia “cannot accept LGBT culture”.

“The new government has made impressive commitments to improve the human rights situation in Malaysia, but too much is still only on paper,” Robertson said. “The government should act on those commitments in Parliament so that all communities in Malaysia benefit.”

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