Thursday, June 29, 2006

Visit to Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission

Recently I visited Malaysia on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Malaysia Institute, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT).

That visit included meetings with a variety of political, cultural and religious groups and institutions. Our first visit was on held on the morning of Monday 19 June 2006 to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (known under the Bahasa Malay acronym of SUHAKAM).

My notes of the visit included information provided by SUHAKAM Commissioners and staff. This may be summarised as follows:

[01] We were first taken through a presentation of SUHAKAM’s objects by SUHAKAM’s head of Policy & Research. We were then briefed by a number of SUHAKAM Commissioners, including Dato’ Siva Subramaniam from Malaysia’s minority Indian community.

[02] SUHAKAM was founded by a 1999 Act of the Malaysian Federal Parliament as a statutory body. It plays a variety of roles, including education on human rights issues and advising the government and parliament on the human rights implications of Bills. Many (if not most) SUHAKAM staff have legal backgrounds.

[03] SUHAKAM does not have powers of execution. It can only recommend changes to legislation or regulations. It cannot enforce its decisions. It does, however, have substantial powers to hold inquiries. This includes the power to summons law enforcement and government officials.

[04] SUHAKAM receives referrals from NGO’s and from walk-in clients. It often finds itself having to turn people away whose matters do not come within its limited terms of reference. Within these terms, SUHAKAM is largely free to set its own agenda.

[05] It often proves difficult to promote human rights principles in a country which has signed itself up for so few international human rights treaties. The complications are compounded by the complex nature of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

[06] SUHAKAM must deal with many human rights issues facing indigenous communities in Sarawak and Sabah. These include land rights, housing and education. There is some provision in Sabah for courts to enforce indigenous customary law.

[07] Among SUHAKAM’s educational activities are: the production of school books on human rights which are now part of the state school curriculum, as well as leadership programs to instil human rights values in older students.

[08] SUHAKAM is publicly opposed to the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for extra-judicial detention without meaningful judicial oversight. Much of SUHAKAM’s work involves highlighting the excesses arising from the implementation of ISA.

[09] SUHAKAM has been asked to oversee the conduct of campus elections.

[10] SUHAKAM officials are concerned about the anti-terror laws in Australia and their possible impact on Muslim communities. However, of greater concern to them is the treatment of indigenous peoples.

[11] SUHAKAM also investigates mistreatment of foreign workers including Indonesians, Pakistanis and Filipinos. It also deals with cased involving attempts to tear down houses of worship (including mosques) by roads and other infrastructure/planning authorities. Generally, such cases involve houses of worship built without proper planning approvals obtained.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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