UN human rights chief sums up his mission to Malaysia

The UN Human Rights Council - geneva.usmission.gov

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By Volker Türk

It has been good to be back in Malaysia at a time of many opportunities, so much potential and various challenges in the realm of human rights, at national, regional and international levels.

I am grateful to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for inviting me to visit at this time and to the government for facilitating my visit.

As Malaysia is poised to take the Asean chairmanship next year, we look forward to its leadership to strengthen Asean’s human rights agenda and to inject renewed vigour into the international response to crises like the catastrophic situation in Myanmar.

This week I will also be engaging with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on its current chairmanship.

Three years after the military coup, more than three million people are internally displaced in Myanmar, with significant need for humanitarian assistance, and people desperate for an end to the violence and mayhem.

Malaysia has made clear its strong opposition to the military coup, and is hosting refugees from Myanmar, including Rohingya.

In my discussions with a diverse group of refugees from Myanmar, as well as with Malaysian government officials, it was evident that there are high expectations of Asean in relation to resolving the current crisis in Myanmar, with humanitarian aid and protection of civilians at the forefront, while not losing sight of the need for an urgent solution to an untenable situation. Malaysia’s leadership role as future Asean chair will be key.

In today’s polarised, geopolitically fraught world, Malaysia’s active engagement with multilateral institutions like the UN Human Rights Council, as well as with my office and UN human rights bodies, is particularly welcome and much needed as we go forward.

Malaysia’s review under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has just concluded. As Cedaw has noted in its concluding observations, Malaysia needs to take immediate steps to increase the representation of women in decision-making positions – currently very low. My office is ready to provide support in implementation of the recommendations of the UN committee.

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I welcome in particular the adoption of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, the Anti-Stalking Act, and the Sexual Offences against Children Act.

Malaysia has ratified three international human rights treaties. I have also offered our support to move forward on ratification of the other six core international human rights instruments by Malaysia, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

There are many opportunities to build on the human rights advances of recent years and for the seeds of the reform agenda to bear fruit in tackling ongoing challenges. How Malaysia navigates these issues will define its future, and human rights can provide a compass.

In my meetings with many committed civil society representatives, members of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and parliamentarians, some key areas emerged: sustainable development, including the right to a clean and healthy environment; business and human rights; economic inequalities; societal issues, including discrimination based on gender, disability, race or sexual orientation; civic space and the freedom of expression; and the treatment of migrants and refugees; as well as inconsistencies between national legislation and Sharia law.

How a society treats its most vulnerable is a key measure of progress, and indeed a litmus test for social and human rights protection. I welcome the “Malaysia Madani” (civil and compassionate Malaysia) national vision, which is about humanity, inclusivity, sustainability, as well as just and effective governance.

I welcome the proposed constitutional amendment to enable Malaysian women to pass citizenship on to their children on the same basis as Malaysian men. I hope that all possible steps will be taken to address other forms of statelessness.

The abolition of mandatory capital punishment and the reduction in the number of offences punishable by death are also very welcome steps, and I hope this will pave the way for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

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I also welcome initiatives to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs – it is important that a human rights and health-based approach be taken in managing the drug problem.

The Internal Security Act, which was widely misused to penalise legitimate exercise of the freedom of expression, was finally repealed in 2012. It will be important also to review the colonial-era Sedition Act, as well as other vague and overly broad legislation like the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma).

Laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act continue to be used against human rights defenders, including environmental human rights defenders.

For a society to be able to harness creativity, innovation and progress, people must be able to express dissenting views without fear of reprisal.

The development of the country’s first national action plan on business and human rights is another very welcome development – and I hope it will be finalised soon, in line with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

It is clear to me that there is a need for a comprehensive human rights-based migration plan. I urge the government to end the criminalisation of irregular migrants and to develop alternatives to immigration detention, in particular for all children and other groups in situations of vulnerability.

Malaysia is also not alone in having to grapple with exploitation, extortion and ill-treatment of low-wage migrant workers, including foreign domestic employees. I call on the government to ensure equal access to justice, including through free legal aid, for all migrants, documented or undocumented.

It would be important for the government to adopt a comprehensive refugee protection system, reinforcing the legal status of refugees and enabling their access to employment, formal education, health and other essential services.

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I also call on the government to reinstate access to detention facilities for national monitoring bodies and UN refugee agency. I heard worrying accounts from several interlocutors of harsh conditions and ill treatment in detention facilities – reports which need to be investigated.

It is important that disinformation campaigns and hate speech against migrants and refugees are stemmed. Migrants’ manifold contributions to society need to be validated, honoured and appreciated.

According to research commissioned by my office, a clear majority of Malaysians see the benefits that migration brings to the country’s economy and society. Some 63% of those polled agreed that our communities are stronger when we support everyone – and more than half said we should help other people no matter who they are or where they come from.

Anti-rights movements – including those that instrumentalise religious beliefs to incite hatred and intolerance — continue to proliferate in many parts of the world, online and offline. I urge all Malaysians to resist such provocations to hate, and to instead stand strong in preserving this country’s rich diversity and its tradition of inclusivity and warmth.

As Malaysia progresses in economic development, I have heard loud and clear – from many of the people I spoke to during my visit – about the desire to ensure the progress is grounded in human rights and to keep the human rights ambitions high and the scope wide.

With its already vibrant civil society, a strong judiciary, and a well-established national human rights institution, I trust Malaysia will keep the human rights ambitions high.

The UN Human Rights Office, including through our Southeast Asia regional presence, remains ready to support. – OHCHR

Volker Turk is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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