Posted by Oscar the Grouch on July 28, 2008
The article in the Sunday Star, 27 July 2008, entitled “Suhakam in danger of downgrade” makes an interesting read. It was pointed out that Suhakam, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, has been slapped with a show-cause notice by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, or ICC for short, to explain, within a year, why it should not have its status downgraded.
The downgrade, if carried upon, will be a demotion from a status Grade A to a status Grade B. The impact of this relegation would be two fold – firstly, Suhakam would lose its right of participation in the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions; and, secondly, Suhakam would be stripped of its membership in the Asia-Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions, or APF for short, and be relegated to a non-voting member. The latter effect, in respect of the APF membership, is a total slap in the face of Malaysia, as it was reported that the country is hosting a four-day APF forum, starting today.
However, I believe that this is something the Government should see coming, given the incessant criticism against the implementation of Suhakam and the drafting of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999. The condemnation of Suhakam has started way back in year 2000, the year of which Suhakam has been in operation. It is hard to believe the Government has not taken heed of any of the critique and censure; instead it allowed Suhakam to descend to this embarrassing level of international condemnation.
In order to fully appraise this issue, I would like to touch, briefly, on how Suhakam and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 came about:-
A background history
Malaysia became a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, UNCHR for short, in 1993. At that time, Tan Sri (now Tun) Musa Hitam was appointed to represent the country to the Commission. It was from there, that a proposal was made to the Government, to establish a Human Rights Commission for Malaysia.
Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act was enacted in 1999. The main purpose of this Act is to establish the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, or in Malay, the Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia, or Suhakam.
Functions of Suhakam
Primarily, its function is to protect and promote human rights. Suhakam can, on its own motion, or on a complaint made by aggrieved persons, inquire into allegations regarding infringement of human rights. Other ancillary functions include, advising and assisting the Government in formulating legislation and directives; recommending to the Government with regard to subscription or accession of treaties in the field of human rights.
Powers of Suhakam
Suhakam has the power to visit places of detention and make necessary recommendations. It can also issue public statements on human rights as and when necessary. Other powers include conducting programs, seminars and workshops.
Members of Suhakam
There shall be not more that 20 members. Members are to be appointed by the Agong, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Members hold office for a period of 2 years but shall be eligible for re-appointment.
Criticism against Suhakam
Suhakam’s powers of inquiry are somewhat restricted. For example, if a complaint is the subject-matter of any court proceedings or has already been determined by the court, Suhakam shall be required to halt the inquiry. Similarly, if during the inquiry, the allegation then becomes the subject of a court proceeding, Suhakam must immediately cease the inquiry.
Even after the inquiry shows an infringement of human rights, there is nothing that Suhakam can do. At most, it can refer the matter to other relevant authorities, presumably the police, with the necessary recommendations.
Compare this to the Philippines, for example. The Philippines Commission of Human Rights, back in 1986, has worked with the Department of Education to implement the study of human rights in school. The study has been integrated into the school subjects. This has also been done at colleges and university level, where subjects and courses of human rights are offered. Further, the Philippines Commission has also set up a Financial Assistance Program to provide temporary relief to victims and their families of human rights violations.
In Indonesia, the Indonesia Commission of Human Rights practice is to provide a public statement after an investigation. Two reports will be made available concurrently. An extended document will be submitted to the Government, whilst an abbreviated version will be released to the public through the mass media.
The Indonesia Commission of Human Rights also has the power to investigate even though a matter is under the jurisdiction of the courts, as opposed to the situation here.
Another criticism includes its procedure of appointment. The current process of appointment by the Prime Minister gives an impression of non-independence. In Thailand, the appointments of the members are made by an independent panel, to avoid bias.
Further, as a form of protection to whistle-blower, immunity should be granted to people filing complaints.
It is quite disheartening to read the proposed downgrade of Suhakam by the ICC. Had the Government taken due attention to the warning signs and had taken the appropriate actions, we do not have to face such embarrassing censure.
To make matters worst, we are actually far-behind in human rights implementation compared to our neighbors such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. I do wonder how much funds have been allocated for the current APF forum, of which we, as host country, are the laughing stock of the participating members. Truly embarrassing.
Updates 9.00am July 28th:
Suhakam cries foul over being downgraded
By FLORENCE A. SAMY & NURBAITI HAMDAN
KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Human Rights Commission ((Suhakam) is crying foul over the potential downgrading of its Grade A status by an international committee.
Read more here.