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Suhakam: A political kill – defanged and rendered impotent?

The selection of two Umno politicians as commissioners brings into question the rationale for their appointments

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It must have taken many Malaysians by surprise that out of eight appointees to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), an overwhelming six are lawyers.

Why the need for the preponderance of lawyers in Suhakam has not been explained.

  1. Prof Rahmat Mohamad, professor of law at UiTM
  2. K Ragunath, former Bar Council president
  3. Mariaty Robert, former Sabah attorney general
  4. Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, UKM law lecturer (reappointed)
  5. Hasnal Rezua Merican Habib Merican, lawyer
  6. Nazira Abdul Rahim, lawyer
  7. Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim, former Islamic Development Department Malaysia or Jakim head
  8. Dr Chew Chee Ming, former president of the Malaysian Medical Association

Do these appointments reflect the criteria required under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999?

5(3) Members of the Commission shall be appointed from amongst prominent personalities including those from various religious and racial backgrounds.

Can all these appointees be considered as “prominent personalities” to qualify as commissioners? There is clearly a gross lack of representatives from “various religious” backgrounds.

Why are the appointments slanted in favour of lawyers? Are they the only ones who can contribute to the cause of human rights in this country? Or are they the only ones capable of thought?

Why is there a total absence of representatives from civil society? Aren’t there prominent, vocal Malaysians who have been speaking up for truth and justice for a very long time and who deserve to be considered for appointment as commissioners as well? Why were these torch bearers of freedom wantonly and completely ignored?

The selection and appointment of these eight commissioners seem to suggest that there was a deliberate political attempt to defang and render the commission impotent. Suhakam, as it is constituted now, can never be viewed or accepted as a body that is neutral, bold enough to be objective, and brave enough to discern issues from a broader perspective.

The last persons who should be considered for appointment to the commission should be politicians. The appointment of not one – but two politicians – from Umno brings into question the rationale for their appointments. It is common knowledge that when you represent Umno, you don’t champion the demands of human rights. Umno members, by and large, are not appalled by corruption or abuse of power.

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Has Umno condemned the convicted former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, as a felon who has brought shame and indignity to party and country? He is still being courted and treated as a celebrity!

The Umno president, Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 47 corruption charges, continues with his ploy to destabilise the country with his political manoeuvres to stay in power. He apparently commands support from Umno members. The bidding of the Umno president cannot be ignored or dismissed. There will be repercussions if his views do not receive the expected respect and obedience. He still wields considerable clout in Umno to force members to fall in line. Will the two Umno representatives in Suhakam be able to defy the Umno president and take an independent view in their deliberations?

It is from this discredited party that these two Umno leaders were appointed to the human rights commission. They are no ordinary members but influential division leaders. Where will their allegiance lie? Will they be beholden to Umno or to human rights principles? This is the troubling question!

Nazira is the women’s chief at the Kulim-Bandar Baharu Umno division and Bandar Baharu municipal councillor, while Hasnal is the Selayang Umno deputy division chief.

Obviously, these two represent only Umno – not Barisan Nasional; otherwise, surely a representative from one of the component parties would have been included as a mark of respect and solidarity. But this wasn’t the case.

In the absence of any representative from the other BN components, we need to question if these positions were solely and only meant for Umno representatives. It is for the BN components to state if this is acceptable to them or to be exposed as merely voiceless members who only put up a facade of projecting themselves as equal coalition partners.

Will these Umno appointees, as Suhakam commissioners, distance themselves from Umno policies that espouse discriminatory treatment of the non-Malays?

Will they denounce their party’s attempted policy of grabbing majority shares in non-Malay companies, which was recently stalled, temporarily only, because of outrage from the non-Malays?

Will they state that Umno’s pro-bumiputra policies are contrary to the Federal Constitution, which confers equal citizenship rights under the law?

Will they chastise Umno for not living up to the dictates of Islam which emphasises fairness and justice to all human beings?

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Additionally, appointing Mohamad Nordin, a former Jakim head, as commissioner is another backward step and a blow for human rights.

Way back on 13 December 2014, law lecturer Azmi Sharom declared it is “unhealthy” to allow the views of Jakim to become the only legitimate interpretation of Islam in Malaysia. “It is Jakim’s view or no view. Every other view, cannot. This is unhealthy,” he asserted.

Would Mohamad Nordin recant Jakim’s view that unilateral conversion is legitimate? Would he renounce the government’s denial of Lina Joy’s choice of religion as wrong and a violation of one’s universal human rights?

In 2013 during the UN’s universal periodic review of Malaysia, representatives from 104 countries took turns to grill Malaysia on its human rights record.

Many countries recommended that Malaysia sign and ratify six core human rights conventions and remove its reservations on the three it had already signed, and stipulate a time frame for their full implementation.

The call came not only from the West but also from countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Muslim-majority countries Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

What is Mohamad Nordin’s stand on this issue? His public announcement would be helpful to Malaysians who view his appointment as inappropriate and unacceptable and would assuage their fears that he will not live up to the ideals of human rights.

And last, Rahmat Mohamad’s appointment as commissioner and chairman of Suhakam has sealed the fate of Suhakam. He and three others had authored a paper that persuaded the Conference of Rulers to reject the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had been ratified by 123 states. They contended that the Agong, as head of the military, would be exposed to the jurisdiction of the ICC.

I’m no lawyer, but I think their position is absurd and ridiculous. Two caveats would take care of this unlikely eventuality.

First, Malaysia must be involved in “genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression”.

Is Malaysia capable of these crimes? We are not a superpower. We don’t have nuclear capabilities. We don’t have any ambitious expansion to take over countries. How then can we ever be guilty of these horrendous crimes against humanity?

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Second, “the ICC can only investigate and prosecute such crimes in situations where states are unable or unwilling to do so themselves.”

We will never ever be in a position where there will be a need to investigate us for such heinous crimes. So where is the danger of the Agong being “exposed to the jurisdiction of the ICC”?

As for the other nominees, except for Ragunath, what are their human rights credentials that qualify them as Suhakam commissioners? Have they been at the forefront of defending human rights and speaking up against human rights violations? What special needs did they fulfil for this selection?

Did their selection process go through the five-person committee that is supposed to be established under Article 5(2)? It is this committee that selects and recommends commissioners to the prime minister, who in turn submits their names to the Agong to be appointed according to Article 5(2):

(2) The members of the Commission shall be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the recommendation of the Prime Minister who shall, before tendering his advice, consult the committee referred to in Section 11A.

We wonder if such a committee even exists. If it had, then Suhakam commissioners would have been aware that the selection process was taking place and there would be no need for commissioner Mah Weng Kwai to express his concern that Malaysia might lose its seat on the UN Human Rights Council because of the delay in the appointment of vacancies. This is because the Suhakam chairman would have been a selection committee member and he would have kept his fellow commissioners informed of the ongoing selection process.

We also wonder if the full quota of 20 commissioners has been fulfilled or if appointments were only partially done.

In the final analysis, we fear that Suhakam will not be effective under the present circumstances. It is a real pity. Over the years, it has gained a formidable reputation for its uncompromising stand on controversial issues based on fairness and justice.

We lament, in the words of Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum: “Without strong watchdog institutions, impunity becomes the very foundation upon which systems of corruption are built.”

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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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Stephen Tan Ban Cheng
Stephen Tan Ban Cheng
11 Jul 2022 12.34am

How timely has this piece become! The new Suhakam chairman, Rahmat Mohamad, wants to give a Malaysian “mould” to the “universal” concept of human rights. I know he is a professor of law, but does he know about some sociological concepts forbid such relativity? God help Malaysia!

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