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Suhakam appointments: Window-dressing again?

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The process of appointments to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has been amended, but Yogeswaran Subramaniam is left wondering if the change in procedure is merely cosmetic.

In November 2009, Suhakam announced that the International Human Rights Committee of National Human Rights Commissions (‘ICC’) had retained Suhakam’s ‘A’ status as a national human rights institution.

Earlier, Suhakam faced being downgraded to ‘B’ status due to, amongst others, the lack of a clear and transparent appointment process for its commissioners. Despite its retention, the ‘A’ status will be subject to further scrutiny by the ICC later this year when it considers the application of the new selection process for commission members introduced by the Malaysian government.

Being downgraded to ‘B’ status would not augur well for a government seeking to portray the Malaysia as a progressive democracy. Joining the ranks of the Sri Lankan human rights commission in the protection and promotion of human rights cannot be seen, by any stretch of imagination, as a laudable achievement!
The government’s effort in avoiding the downgrade of Suhakam to ‘B’ status is contained in two amendments to the Human Rights Commission Act 1999 in March and July 2009. With respect to the appointment of commissioners, the Act was amended, albeit on the second bite at the cherry, to include a selection committee comprising a majority of members from civil society.

At first glance, the amendment seems to introduce a sound check-and-balance to the selection process. It is disappointing to note that there is one big catch. The Prime Minister is empowered to appoint the members of civil society to the selection committee!

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There are two qualifications for public membership of the selection committee. The first is that the person must have ‘knowledge’ of human rights matters. Arguably, this encompasses anyone in ‘civil society’, which itself is not defined in the Act. The second disqualifies any persons who are ‘actively involved in politics and registered with any political party’ and any person who ‘is or was an enforcement officer’. What about cronies who fall outside the realms of these provisos? To my mind, there is plenty of leeway for abuse of the power of appointment.

Allegations of bias, whether unfounded or not, can easily be dispelled through timely disclosure of and transparency in the Prime Minister’s deliberations. If this be the case, will the Prime Minister’s department ensure that there is a transparent and participatory appointment process for the appointment of the selection committee?

Regrettably, the question has been answered. In a recent letter to a local NGO, the  Suhakam chairman confirmed that the Prime Minister had already appointed the three members of civil society. Many of us in civil society are still shell-shocked with the covert, unilateral and non-inclusive manner in which these appointments have taken place.

This leaves me wondering if the amendments were just another ‘window dressing’ exercise by the Government. It is unfortunate that Suhakam would have to answer this very question come the ICC review this November.

Yogeswaran Subramaniam is an Aliran member

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