Repressive laws persist in Malaysia despite pre-election promises

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Amnesty International’s annual “The State of the World’s Human Rights” report documents human rights concerns during 2023 in 155 countries.

The report provides a comprehensive overview, on a macro level, of the state of human rights globally and regionally, as well as on a micro level, in each of the 155 countries.

At its launch on 24 April, Amnesty International Malaysia placed the spotlight on the state of human rights in Malaysia over the past year, while connecting it with issues at the global and regional level.

Speaking at the launch, Amnesty International Malaysia’s executive director said that the report calls for urgent action by world leaders and shows what steps governments and other non-state actors need to urgently take to improve people’s lives across the world.

Global overview

Last year, 2023, witnessed horrifying consequences of escalating conflicts that have led to the near breakdown of international law. As powerful states continue to flout international law, the world has seen thousands of innocent civilians killed – including a horrifically high percentage of them being children – and millions displaced, leading to famine and hunger crises.

The founding values of humanity enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been blatantly forsaken by states, undermining the very institutions designed to protect civilians and uphold human rights.

Adding fuel to the fire, the unchecked use of rapidly evolving technologies is aiding and supercharging this breakdown of the rule of law globally.

Amnesty International found that political actors in many parts of the world are ramping up their attacks on refugees, women, LGBT people and marginalised communities who have historically been scapegoated for political or electoral gains.

New and existing technologies have increasingly been weaponised to aid and abet these repressive political forces to spread disinformation, pit communities against each other and attack minorities.

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories

In a conflict that defined 2023 and shows no sign of abating, evidence of war crimes continues to mount as the Israeli government makes a mockery of international law in Gaza.

READ MORE:  UN rights chief calls for human rights-centric policymaking amid global crises

Following the horrific attacks by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October, Israeli authorities responded with unrelenting air strikes on populated civilian areas often wiping out entire families, forcibly displacing nearly 1.9 million Palestinians and restricting the access of desperately needed humanitarian aid despite growing famine in Gaza.

The report points to the US’ brazen use of its veto to paralyse the UN Security Council for months on a much-needed resolution for a ceasefire, as it continues to arm Israel with munitions that have been used to commit what likely amounts to war crimes.

It also highlights the grotesque double standards of European countries such as the UK and Germany, given their well-founded protestations about war crimes by Russia and Hamas, while they simultaneously bolster the actions of Israeli and US authorities in this conflict.

Protect the protest

“Where leaders the world over have failed to stand up for human rights, we have seen people galvanised to march, protest and petition for a more hopeful future,” said Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard.

The Israel-Hamas conflict sparked hundreds of protests worldwide. People demanded a ceasefire to end the staggering suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the release of all hostages taken by Hamas and other armed groups, long before many governments did.

“The right to protest is critical to shining a light on abuses and on leaders’ responsibilities. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights; the onus is on governments to show that they are listening,” said Agnès Callamard.

In Malaysia, the government has failed to fulfil commitments to reform restrictive laws, threatening civic space and furthering rights violations

In Malaysia, the report highlights the various developments and trends in key areas where human rights concerns continued to persist in 2023, such as the death penalty, freedom of expression, police violence and custodial deaths, refugee and migrant rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and the right to a healthy environment.

“If the government is truly committed to improving the state of human rights in Malaysia, it must acknowledge its shortcomings and work more collaboratively with civil society to ensure that policies and practices are brought in line with international human rights law and standards,” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

READ MORE:  'State of the World's Human Rights' report 2023

Abolition of death penalty

Despite some positive developments in 2023, such as the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, concerns persist regarding the continued resort to the death penalty by courts in Malaysia, which underscores the need for more legislative reforms to be swiftly introduced.

Currently, Malaysia remains in the minority of countries globally that have chosen to retain the death penalty. To join the global majority, the government must continue taking steps towards full abolition while ensuring that the moratorium on executions is kept in place until all death sentences are commuted and until the death penalty is fully abolished.

“Fully abolishing the death penalty would demonstrate the commitment to human rights of the government of Malaysia and be an example of the needed leadership for rights in the region,” Katrina said.

“Malaysia must indefinitely extend the moratorium and urgently commute all existing death sentences as the next step towards abolishing the death penalty entirely.”

Restrictive laws

Amnesty International’s report also highlights the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Malaysia, with increased censorship, harassment and restrictions on peaceful assembly.

The use of repressive laws continued to stifle dissent and curtail freedom of speech in 2023.

“What has been deeply disappointing is that the government has failed to fulfil its commitments to reform laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression as it had committed to do in its pre-election manifesto.

“Completely backtracking on its commitment, the government has instead continued to use these laws to silence critical voices and prevent peaceful protest.”

In 2023, the police questioned the filmmakers of Mentega Terbang, a Malaysian film that was eventually banned by the Malaysian Film Censorship Board, citing alleged violations of censorship guidelines.

Organisers and participants of peaceful assemblies, including the Women’s March gathering and two separate Labour Day rallies last year, faced scrutiny and investigation by the police simply for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right.

READ MORE:  Extend moratorium on executions

“To make matters worse for the state of freedom of expression in Malaysia, the government seems to have launched a fervent campaign to systematically erase all aspects of LGBTI culture.

“This became abundantly clear when Malaysia made global headlines for the wrong reasons in 2023, for seizing and banning rainbow-colored watches that were being sold by Swatch and introducing new penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for selling or wearing them.

“A government that says it is ‘reform-minded’ will need to be honest about how laws have been used to stifle expression and political participation and will have the integrity to fulfil its own commitments to repealing draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.”

Forced deportations, indefinite detention

In December 2023, authorities disclosed that 12,400 people, including 1,400 children, were being held in immigration detention centres across Malaysia. Allegations of human rights violations continue to be reported in these detention centres where refugees and migrants are indefinitely detained.

“We learnt in 2023 that in 2022 alone, 150 people, including children, have died while under state custody in immigration detention centres – annual statistics that are distressing yet met with inaction.

“Incidents such as these underscore the dire situation within immigration detention centres and the urgent need for comprehensive reforms to protect the rights and dignity of detainees.”

Worse, forced deportations continued to take place in 2023 with individuals and entire communities-at-risk being sent back to places where they are likely to face serious human rights violations, such as Myanmar.

Amnesty International Malaysia urges the Malaysian government to prioritise human rights and take concrete actions to address the issues highlighted in the 2023 annual report.

The organisation remains committed to advocating for justice, equality and respect for human rights in Malaysia and around the world. – AI Malaysia

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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