Malaysia: More rhetoric than reality on human rights

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The New York-based Human Rights Watch has found false promises and persistent human rights abuses in Malaysia in 2009. “The Malaysian government appears to be more interested in pursuing short-term political advantage than safeguarding rights,” said it deputy Asia director.

Prime Minister Najib Razak took office in April 2009 promising to respect “the fundamental rights of the people,” but his government has failed to undertake the systematic reforms needed to fulfil that pledge, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2010.

The 612-page report, the organisation’s 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarises major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. In Malaysia, the report says, instead of addressing persistent human rights problems, the government harasses the political opposition, improperly restricts the rights to peaceful expression, association, and assembly, and mistreats migrants.

“The Malaysian government appears to be more interested in pursuing short-term political advantage than safeguarding rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In the hopes of maintaining control and power, the government has turned its back on its promises to protect people’s rights.”

The release of a number of detainees held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) early in Najib’s term was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But Parliament should repeal that law and other repressive laws, including the Police Act 1967, which was most recently used to justify a violent crackdown on a citizens’ march against the ISA on 1 August. Security forces attacked the gathering with tear gas and water laced with chemicals fired from water cannon trucks, and arrested almost 600 people, including 44 children.

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Human Rights Watch criticised the government’s continuing heavy restrictions on freedom of expression. The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 enables government officials to compel censorship of publications through control of printing and distribution licences. More recently, internet media and bloggers are coming under closer scrutiny as the government, cognisant of the internet’s impact in the last general election, tries to rein in non-traditional media.

Malaysian legislation failed to distinguish refugees and asylum seekers from other undocumented migrants and authorised Ikatan Relawan Rakyat (Rela), an ill-trained, abusive civilian force, to use its authority to enter living quarters and make arrests without search or arrest warrants.

Apprehended undocumented migrants are detained under inhumane conditions in immigration detention centres, where several migrants died during 2009 and dozens were sickened by leptospirosis, a disease spread by animal faeces in unclean water. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report alleging ties between Malaysian deportations and human trafficking gangs at the Malaysian-Thai border, where the lives of deportees were at risk if they could not pay ransoms.

“It is beyond understanding why the Malaysian government delays access to basic medical services for the thousands of migrants locked in cramped, dirty, and disease-ridden conditions,” Robertson said. “How many more migrants have to die in detention before Malaysian policy-makers wake up?”

Human rights defenders – such as lawyers, journalists, and members of non-governmental organisations – faced continued harassment and the possibility of arrest, especially if the government considered their work to be connected to opposition political parties.

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Malaysia also continues to violate human rights norms by criminalising adult consensual sexual behaviour, as evidenced by the ongoing efforts to bring the parliamentary opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, to trial for alleged consensual sodomy in a case that many observers believe is politically motivated.

“For a country that is so proud of its post-colonial political development, it is truly bizarre that the government continues to enforce an antiquated British colonial law against ‘sodomy’ by consenting adults,” said Robertson. “It’s about time the government brought its criminal code into the 21st century.”

Under pressure from the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC), the government made slight modifications to the law that established Suhakam, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission. However, Suhakam remained hampered by its status as an advisory committee, without adequate independence for its commissioners or power to compel enforcement of its decisions.

The major recommendations to Malaysia’s government in the Human Rights Watch report are:

  • Revoke the Internal Security Act and other arbitrary and preventive detention measures;
  • Rescind the Printing Presses and Publications Act, narrowing the definition of sedition and seditious tendency;
  • Amend the Police Act to provide for reasonable and negotiated conditions for assembly;
  • Abolish Rela and uphold the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

In addition, Human Rights Watch urges ratification of key international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

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“During the early days of his government, Prime Minister Najib talked big on protecting human rights – but talk is cheap,” Robertson said. “If the government really believes in its 1Malaysia campaign, then it should demonstrate real commitment to improving respect for the human rights of all Malaysians.”

To read Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2010 chapter on Malaysia, please go here.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Malaysia, please go here.

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