Home Civil Society Voices NGOs cautiously optimistic about Malaysia’s new human rights pledges

NGOs cautiously optimistic about Malaysia’s new human rights pledges

The UN Human Rights Council - geneva.usmission.gov

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The Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the Universal Periodic Review process (Comango) congratulates Malaysia on its participation in the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review* (UPR) in January 2024, where it received 348 recommendations.

The recommendations encompass a range of longstanding and emerging issues on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and those pertaining to diverse marginalised groups. Of the 348 recommendations, 182 were accepted while 41 were partially accepted.

We commend the government’s acceptance of recommendations on institutional reform to establish an ombudsman to check upon the executive, as well as to set up permanent independent bodies such as parliamentary select committees to oversee appointments to oversight institutions.

Building autonomous, effective, accountable and inclusive state institutions is fundamental in ensuring equality and non-discrimination for all, as well as the elimination of arbitrariness and impunity in administrative actions and public service delivery, thereby upholding the rule of law.

Full acceptance of recommendations to incorporate the rights of women, children, people with disabilities and older persons in climate change strategies is encouraging. This will strengthen the development of an effective and inclusive national climate change act, national adaptation plan and other climate-related policies, aligning with Malaysia’s commitment to the rights to a safe, healthy and clean environment for all.

The state’s commitment to implementing the UN’s guiding principles on business and human Rights is encouraging, and we anticipate a clear timeline for finalising and implementing the national action plan on business and human rights.

However, we are concerned about the partially accepted recommendations, particularly regarding indigenous people’s land rights and freedom of expression. These issues could hinder the effective implementation and governance of the national action plan on business and human rights, especially in emerging sectors such as rare earth mineral mining, the carbon market and offsets, and the energy transition supporting Malaysia’s net zero-by-2050 aspirations.

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Legislative reform is thus crucial, namely to standardise the free, prior and informed consent process in indigenous land rights, as well as to repeal draconian laws that curtail freedom of expression such as the Sedition Act and enact anti-strategic-lawsuits-against-public-participation legislation to protect human rights defenders.

Comango welcomes the commitment to develop a comprehensive legal and policy framework for the recognition and protection of refugees and asylum seekers. This is a critical step to ensure that the government’s responsibility and obligations as a host country are met.

We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing rights violations faced by refugees and asylum seekers, including arbitrary arrests, detention and refoulement.

The government should make public the ‘newly amended’ National Security Council directive no 23 and take immediate steps, in consultation with refugee communities and civil society groups, towards the development of this rights-based framework without delay.

Whilst the government continued to accept recommendations to ensure access to justice for migrant workers and improve the recruitment system, implementation remains lacklustre. Examples include the longstanding lack of access by migrants to public legal aid services and recently, the irregularities between the Ministry of Human Resources and the foreign workers centralised management system. These issues can be addressed via a national policy that integrates intersecting migrant regulations and effectively implements them in a rights-based manner.

On the other hand, similar progress is not seen in other critical marginalised groups.

In the case of Malaysian mothers with overseas-born children, the government’s non-acceptance of related recommendations is especially disheartening, given the ongoing amendments to the Federal Constitution and explicit state commitment throughout 2023 to address the longstanding issue of gender-based discrimination in citizenship conferral rights.

The Universal Periodic Review urged Malaysia to halt the regressive amendments in its proposed citizenship bill. Whilst two were dropped in March this year, three others remain, with the government perpetuating the misconception that these remaining amendments can address statelessness.

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No attempts have been made to identify and address statelessness among Malaysian families through legal and procedural reforms, particularly those concerning children born before legal marriage, adoption, abandonment and foundling cases.

The government has continued to take note of LGBTIQ-related recommendations relating to the protection of LGBT people, repeal of anti-LGBT laws, and end of conversion practices and censorship, based on dangerous majoritarian views. The continued harmful position will undeniably further perpetuate an environment of impunity, discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ people in Malaysia.

Government response in addressing child marriage still lags compared to other forms of violence against children. Recommendations to fully implement the national strategic plan in handling the causes of child marriage are partially accepted, whilst those to raise the minimum marriage age remain noted.

These decisions call state commitment to eradicating child marriage into serious question, when implementation of the strategic plan is already ongoing, in which legislative reform is among the factors addressed. The dialogue on child marriage has gone on long enough – it is time to ban it.

On rights to health and education, reservations still concerningly exist for universal access to these services regardless of citizenship status, when all other recommendations that generally focused on improving access and infrastructure for these rights were fully accepted.

The government’s position on human rights instruments – including ratification of remaining core human rights treaties and withdrawal of reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) – continues to stagnate in the fourth Universal Periodic Review cycle.

Despite commendable consideration to ratifying the Refugee Convention for the first time since Malaysia participated in the review process, the state has also backtracked on becoming a party to the Rome Statute, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

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The government also noted recommendations related to the introduction of the gender equality bill. Article 8 of the Federal Constitution is insufficient to fully address gender-based discrimination, especially when Article 8(2) is confined to discrimination within the public sphere.

Domestication of principles of Cedaw, including that of non-discrimination, within the gender equality bill is thus necessary to combat direct and indirect gender-based discrimination in all contexts.

On another note, Comango is heartened by the government’s partial acceptance of recommendations to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, as well as full acceptance of recommendations to enhance protection of minority rights and eliminate propagation of hate speech against ethnic and religious minorities. We look forward to seeing the translation of this political will to more concrete legislative and policy reform that tackle discrimination against these communities at its root, such as the passing of the national harmony bills.

Overall, Comango recognises the government’s efforts in institutionalising engagement with civil society partners in the Universal Periodic Review process. Comango looks forward to building a close partnership with the government over the next five years to effectively implement and monitor all review recommendations, including in addressing the noted recommendations in a rights-based approach. – Comango

*The Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council, in which each member state (or country) undergoes a peer review of its human rights records every four-and-a-half years. Other member states provide recommendations to the state under review, and the state under review can decide whether to accept, partially accept or note the recommendations received. Once the decision regarding the recommendations is made, the state under review will then have till the next review cycle to implement these recommendations.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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