The Prime Minister’s Department has just revealed the line-up of human rights commissioners for the next three-year term even as 30 groups said they were appalled by the undue delay.
The commissioners, led by new chairman Othman Hashim, comprises Mohd Hishamudin Md Yunos, Godfrey Gregory, Mah Weng Kwai, Lok Yim Pheng, Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Saleh, Jerald Joseph and Medaline Berma.
The 30 groups expressed concern over the 60-day delay in the annoucement, saying that “human rights suffers in the absence of a functioning national human rights institution in Malaysia”. Their statement is reproduced below.
We, the 30 undersigned groups and organisations, are appalled that Malaysia still does not have human rights commissioners in the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) since the term of office of the last batch of commissioners came to an end on 27 April 2019, which was about 60 days ago.
The end of the term of office of commissioners is fixed, and as such the selection should have been done earlier, and the appointment by the king should have happened immediately, so that there would never be a time that Suhakam is left without any human rights commissioners.
Suhakam was established by Parliament under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, Act 597. The first batch of Suahkam commissioners started work in April 2000. There have been many different batches of commissioners to date, and this also makes the failure to appoint the new batch of commissioners immediately unacceptable.
Suhakam cannot function without human rights commissioners
Without human rights commissioners, there is no human rights commission, and that is why we have not seen any media statements or any new public inquiries initiated.
All that remains at Suhakam are the staff, who without the commissioners cannot really do anything. Neither the prime minister, minister nor can chief secretary to the government have the power to direct the work of Suhakam staff.
The act is clear that Suahkam staff are not public servants, but are “member, officer or servant of the Commission’’. They are appointed by the commission and their work is directed by the commission.
The Act allows the commission to delegate powers to the staff, but without commissioners, there can be no delegation of powers to the Suhakam staff. On the day the term of office of past commissioners expired, delegated powers also expired – which means Suahkam employees cannot anymore attend (or call for) meetings, organise talks, training, conferences and any other activities until we have new commissioners – who can then delegate powers to staff and give needed direction to the staff.
Commissioners also have certain special powers, like the ability to make unannounced visits to places of detentions, which is important to ensure strict compliance to human rights standards. A pre-informed visit may result in detention authorities cleaning up or even hiding the truth. Now, without commissioners, this also cannot happen.
Delay in appointment questions government’s commitment to human rights
It must be pointed that the immediate past commissioners have all, except for Prof Aishah Bidin, have only served their first term of three years, and as such, qualify to be re-appointed to serve their second and final three-year term.
As such, the delay in appointment of Suhakam commissioners raises many questions. Does the new government and the prime minister want to get a new batch of commissioners, given the fact that the past chairman, Razali Ismail and the seven other commissioners were seen to be committed to human rights and often made statements, even against the government of the day and its positions, when the Malaysian government failed to defend and promote human rights.
The last Suhakam public inquiry was about the disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo and activist Amri Che Mat. The inquiry panel made up of commissioners Mah Weng Kwai, Prof Aishah Bidin and Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Saleh on 3 April 2019 came to the decision that it was the police, in particular Special Branch officers, who were responsible for the enforced disappearance of both Koh and Amri.
Would such a brave finding against the police be a factor that will not result in their re-appointment as commissioners?
Suhakam, if there were commissioners, would have most likely responded to many issues in the past couple of months, including also possibly the issues concerning Orang Asli and environmenta; pollution affecting health.
Effectiveness of Suhakam depends on commissioners appointed
History has shown us that the effectiveness of Suhakam rests on the chairman and commissioners appointed.
Under the chairmanship of Hasmy Agam (2010-2016) and later Razali (2016-2019), who also had a sufficient number of good commissioners, Suhakam’s image as a national human rights commission shone and public confidence increased.
Sadly, in the past, when former Attorney General Abu Talib Othman (2002-2010) was the chairman, Suhakam’s performance was lacking, except for maybe the individual actions of a couple of commissioners.
As such, the choice of the chairman and other commissioners is of primary importance. We need people who are committed to the defence and promotion of human rights, who will act without fear or favour – even if it means taking a stand against government positions and actions. They will act without fear or favour, despite knowing that the prime minister has the power to re-appoint them for a second term of three years or not.
The power of choosing commissioners effectively lies with the prime minister alone, who is duty bound to consult (but not follow) the recommendation of the selection committee. The king appoints on the advice of the prime minister. One future reform could be an independent selection committee or process, which selects commissioners and the king appoints.
Delay in appointing commissioners prejudicial to human rights
The former Barisan National government also delayed the appointment of Suhakam commissioners; the appointment of the immediate past team of commissioners was delayed by about 58 days, and before that, there was a delay of 38 days. Now, the delay by the new Pakatan Harapan government is already 60 days.
Even if the appointment is backdated, it still will not be able to extinguish the effect of not having commissioners for the past few weeks and months.
Suhakam’s response must be contemporaneous and timely – as and when the issues of violations or otherwise concerning human rights happen or are highlighted. Commissioners also usually make general comments when people hand over complaints and memorandums concerning human rights issues – something that is important that cannot happen if there are no commissioners to receive such complaints.
Commissioners are paid a monthly remuneration, and as such commissioners entitled to be re-appointed, who may be waiting, are also prejudiced by the current uncertainty and may end up taking up other income-generating positions in the meantime. This is also unfair.
Reforms needed in Suhakam
Suhakam commissioners should preferably be full-time, and as such their monthly remuneration should be increased to maybe match the monthly salary of sitting members of Parliament ie RM16,000. Unlike MPs, their constituency or responsibility is the entire country and all persons (citizens and non-citizens) – and they must be willing to go down to the people to investigate various human rights violations.
The law obligates Suhakam to submit its annual report and other special report to Parliament. But unfortunately under the previous regime and even now, under the current government, none of these reports seems to have been tabled and discussed by Parliament. This must change.
Therefore, we the undersigned groups and organisations:
- call that commissioners by immediately appointed by the king without any further delay
- call for independent inviduals who will act without fear or favour to uphold human rights to be appointed as the chairman and commissioners of Suhakam
- call on the prime minister and the government to explain the delay in the appointment of commissioners
- call on the government to immediately table all past Suhakam annual reports and special reports in Parliament to be discussed and debated
- call on the government to reform the Suhakam Act to ensure a more independent selection process, increased tenure and remuneration for commissioners and other reforms to make Suhakam an independent, more efficient and effective national human rights institution
Charles Hector and Ng Geok Chee
For and on behalf of the 28 organisations and groups listed below
- All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC)
- Association of Human Rights Defender and Promoters-HRDP in Myanmar
- Bangladesh Group Netherlands
- Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum), India
- Burmese Worker’s Circle, Fort Wayne, Indiana. USA
- Clean Clothes Campaign International Office
- Knowledge and Rights With Young People Through Safer Spaces Network (KRYSS)
- Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet)
- Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC)
- Marvi Rural Development Organization – MRDO
- Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists (Mash)
- National Union of Bank Employees (Nube)
- Oriental Hearts & Mind Study Institute (OHMSI)
- National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (Nufam)
- Odhikar, Bangladesh
- Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (Pacti), India
- Peoples Service Organisation (PSO)
- Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)
- Persatuan Komuniti Prihatin Selangor dan Perak (Prihatin)
- Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham)
- Sarawak Dayak Iban Association
- Sahabat Rakyat 人民之友 மக்கள் தோழர்கள்
- Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign
- Teoh Beng Hock Trust For Democracy
- Workers Assistance Center, Inc., Philippines
- Workers Hub For Change (WH4C)
- Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association
- North South Initiative
- National Union of Transport Equipment & Allied Industries Workers