MALAYSIA – Human rights groups express concerns over Human Rights Commission
3 April 2009 1:12 am

On 25 March 2009, the Lower House of the Malaysian Parliament successfully passed a bill amending the enabling law on the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), despite strong opposition from civil society and opposition members of the parliament.

The government's haste in tabling the bill on Tuesday, 24 March and passing it the following day, generated vigourous debate in parliament which quickly descended into an exchange of insults that resulted in opposition member of the Parliament Lim Kit Siang being temporarily suspended from parliament for challenging the government's methods. "We were not given proper notice and there was no consultation. We should have been given a day's notice to review the amendments… this is totally against the Standing Orders of the House", Lim said.

The bill amends the rules on the composition of the selection committee for SUHAKAM Commissioners, stipulating that the committee be comprised of: 1) a cabinet member; 2) the chairperson of SUHAKAM; and 3) three persons selected by the prime minister.

Human rights advocates have expressed concern over the lack of consultation with civil society and the failure to incorporate the recommendations of Malaysian human rights organisations. The bill has also incurred strong condemnation from national and regional NGOs calling the proposed changes "superficial" and questioning the effort to "bulldoze" the amendments through parliament in time for a special review by the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC-SCA) which was scheduled to take place the very next day on 26 March.

In a letter to the ICC-SCA, the Malaysian human rights group SUARAM urged the Sub-Committee not to legitimise the government's efforts, saying: "We would like to state categorically that the amendments are mainly cosmetic and do not contribute to the improvement of SUHAKAM's independence as a nation human rights institution (NHRI)".

National human rights commissions are a part of domestic human rights protection mechanisms established by governments. They function independently in accordance with the "Paris Principles", a set of minimum standards adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. Their major mandate includes investigation into human rights violations and human rights education, as well as policy recommendations on human rights issues.