“Suka Hati Kami”, meaning “as we please”, is a joke borrowed from political cartoonist Zunar, whose latest creative impulse caricatures Suhakam’s controversial line-up of human rights commissioners.
The artist was taking the mickey out of the human rights agency appointees, who were perceived to have been selected without transparency and on the whims and fancies of the Ismail Sabri Yaakob government.
Suhakam, the Malay acronym for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, was set up 22 years ago to serve as an official but independent watchdog, whose commissioners are appointed for a three-year term. The new appointments for the 2022-2025 term took effect on 22 June.
The selection process in the past had involved consultation with stakeholders, particularly civil society. This dimension is absent from the current selection procedure.
Against the backdrop of a Suhakam that has made substantial strides in human rights advocacy over the years, the commissioners’ appointments have, therefore, become a major disappointment as the majority of them are seen as not inspiring confidence particularly by a coalition of 120 civil society groups, who recently expressed protest.
Collectively called the CSO Platform for Reform, they were concerned that the commissioners, many of whose human rights credentials are perceived to be questionable, may not stand up for human rights in the country.
The line-up is considered contentious because it is headed by Rahmat Mohamad, one of four academics who reportedly had convinced the Conference of Rulers to reject the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which led to the Pakatan Harapan government of the day having to abandon its plan to ratify it. He is expected to determine the direction that the institution will take in the coming years.
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Concern also surrounds the other appointees, particularly Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim, who is the former Islamic Development Department director general; Nazira Abdul Rahim, who is women’s chief of the Kulim-Bandar Baharu Umno division; and Hasnal Rezua Merican, who is the Selayang Umno deputy division chief.
It is feared these individuals may have a certain mindset that might compromise the institution’s obligations to further enhance the country’s human rights standing, especially at a time when Malaysia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
The two Umno members are active politicians, which is a clear departure from past practice that disallowed politicians from taking up such important positions.
As a result, would the appointed commissioners concerned be willing or able to professionally deal with, for instance, issues of unilateral conversion of faith involving children that are considered unjust? Or institutional discrimination that affects the ethnic and cultural minorities in our society?
While past commissioners might have, like any other citizens with democratic rights, their personal political preferences, these generally did not adversely affect the independence and human rights commitment of the institution.
Thus, central to this issue is the crucial process of selecting the commissioners that needs to be transparent and inclusive in terms of diverse membership and representation of the wider spectrum of concerns in our society. And what criteria were used for the selection?
This raises the importance of revisiting the proposal to amend the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 so that the selection is exercised by Parliament – and not solely by the executive that may have its narrow interests colour the selection.
Additionally, Suhakam should be answerable to Parliament so that its annual reports and recommendations would not eventually gather dust, but instead be addressed adequately to improve the country’s human rights standards.
The selection of commissioners is indeed vital to ensure that they have deep commitment and moral fibre, which is essential for them to act without fear and favour and reinforce the commission’s political independence. This point seemed to have escaped the attention and understanding of whoever had advised the prime minister on the selection.
It is worth being mindful that Suhakam is only as good as its commissioners. – The Malaysian Insight