New law needed to protect human rights defenders, reforms committee told

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Source: The Malaysian Insight

IN the new Malaysia, the state must recognise the need to protect human rights defenders and stop treating them as troublemakers, activists told the Committee on Institutional Reforms (IRC).

“Human rights defenders face threats from police and non-state actors like companies for speaking up for human rights, doing their job,” Josef Benedict, from Johannesburg-based global non-profit Civicus Alliance, told reporters after a meeting at Ilham Tower in Kuala Lumpur today.

“There is no (legal) protection mechanism for them, unlike in countries in Africa, Latin Africa and parts of Asia, where they are treated with greater respect. Here, they are still seen as troublemakers.”  

He said Malaysian human rights defenders who face state and corporate harassment and intimidation have nowhere to go to seek recourse and justice.

“The Orang Asli land rights activists who were arrested for defending their (customary) land… Who can they go to?”

Since the 1980s, the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia, and Orang Asal in Sabah and Sarawak have often been at loggerheads with the government, logging or oil palm concession owners, and dam builders over land disputes.

In 2016, Orang Asli activists in Kelantan were arrested for putting up blockades against loggers.

Josef said complaints on the violation of human rights can be submitted to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), but having a specific law to protect human rights defenders is important.

He added that the new government should smoothen the registration process for civil society organisations and trade unions, to create an environment in which civil society can thrive.

Under the former Barisan Nasional regime, it was difficult for civil society organisations, such as Bersih 2.0, Tenaganita, and Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, to obtain formal recognition as non-profits from the Registrar of Societies.

As a result, most got registered as private entities with the Companies Commission of Malaysia.

E. Nalini, a representative from global human rights organisation Article 19 and a former Suara Rakyat Malaysia executive director, said the IRC was responsive to their recommendations.

Together with Josef and V. Gayathry, from the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, the trio made recommendations on institutional reforms to uphold the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the media.

IRC was formed by the Council of Eminent Persons. The five prominent figures in the committee are retired Court of Appeal judge K.C. Vohrah, retired Court of Appeal judge and Suhakam commissioner Mah Weng Kwai, National Patriots Association president brig-gen (rtd) Mohamed Arshad Raj, National Human Rights Society president Ambiga Sreenevasan and constitutional law expert Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi.

They have been meeting civil society groups, political scientists and lawyers to collect feedback and recommendations on the institutional reforms that the Pakatan Harapan government should enforce. – June 4, 2018.