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Where’s the UN pressure on Malaysia over rights?

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Real people are getting badly hurt, while Malaysia keeps promising and procrastinating on real human rights protection, says Mickey Spiegel.


A sense of urgency about the need to reverse Malaysia’s deteriorating human rights situation went missing from its second Universal Periodic Review – the United Nations Human Rights Council’s critique of member countries.

Three years down the road since its first review, Malaysia’s response gave a sense of déjà vu. The government is still defending its repressive laws and policies on grounds of stability, security and ethnic tensions, and hasn’t moved on ratifying core human rights treaties like the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Recently enacted laws reassert the government’s ability to silence protests and dissenting voices.

There are important cases pending involving just about every repressive law.

For starters, check out the Peaceful Assembly Act, which forbids “moving” assemblies and allows excessive intrusion by the police.

There’s the Prevention of Crime Act, which can put you away for two years renewable ad infinitum, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which requires newspapers and magazines to obtain licences.

Then there’s the Societies Act, which decides which groups of seven or more are legitimate, and the loosely worded Sedition Act, and the Film Censorship Act.

Despite this repressive legal infrastructure, Malaysia had an easy pass at its UN review. Many countries praised health, housing, and educational initiatives or promised initiatives while overlooking curbs on civil and political rights.

True, a number of countries took on the issues of free expression, association and peaceful assembly, the right to a fair and open trial, and freedom of religion. Some mentioned ending abuses against detainees in police custody, abolishing the death penalty and ending discriminatory criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual activity. But they needed to go further.

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Whether the Malaysian government has a genuine commitment to human rights will be measured by real change on the ground, not by a string of promises. Real people are getting badly hurt, while Malaysia keeps promising and procrastinating real human rights protection.

Mickey Spiegel is a senior advisor and researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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