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Suhakam sans commissioners

The work of the national human rights commission is too important for the vacant positions not to be filled immediately

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Klang MP Charles Santiago, like many other advocates of human rights in the country, has good reason to be concerned about the delay in the appointment of new commissioners for the Malaysian human rights commission, Suhakam.

It has been close to two months since these posts were left vacant after the last crop of top officials completed their terms.

This delay has possibly given rise to a backlog of cases and prevented the institution from attending to urgent matters, particularly those pertaining to infringements of human rights.

It would be an injustice to people, such as the Orang Asli and other vulnerable communities, who desperately seek help from the human rights commission, and yet have to wait before the new commissioners are appointed.

As rightly pointed out by a few MPs, the delay makes a mockery of Malaysia’s current membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

A country that is part of the council ought to have been quick to address this issue, as any human rights advocates would expect.

The delay not only suggests the government’s lack of commitment to human rights, but also undermines the political significance of the human rights institution in a social context where human rights ought to be a priority.

It is obvious that having Suhakam in our midst is not for window dressing.

The commission plays an important role in a multi-ethnic society, particularly where the inclusivity of various ethnic, cultural, gender and indigenous groups, among others, is vital.

Such inclusiveness is in line with the notion of the “Malaysian family” concept, as promoted by the Ismail Sabri Yaakob administration, which would then help it to not run the risk of being regarded as an empty slogan.

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It is in this context that Suhakam’s work is important as it assesses to what extent such things as healthcare, education and employment have been made accessible to the various groups in our society.

The right to these resources is vital as it would determine the quality of life that the diverse groups of people attain. Any form of discrimination would be clearly a transgression of human rights that we could do without.

Despite its limited powers and resources, Suhakam strives to conduct investigations into potential abuse and violations of human rights, and to raise red flags to the powers that be in the hope that the latter would take notice and action.

For example, the commission conducted a public inquiry into the violation of the people’s right to public assembly, as with the Bersih rally of 2011. 

Of similar importance, the commission also advises and assists the government in crafting laws and procedures, and recommends necessary measures. Such counsel is useful as it comes from an agency whose ear is kept to the ground.

The role played by past commissioners is testimony to Suhakam making important strides in raising awareness and providing education about human rights among members of the Malaysian public and civil servants.

This goes a long way towards making the people sensitive to the rights of, say, children, Orang Asal and persons with disabilities, as well as to the exploitation of migrant workers and deaths in custody.

Such public awareness and concern are partly due to the deep commitment and passion for human rights, and the grit of the commissioners concerned –  which goes to show that the selection of commissioners is equally crucial.

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Incidentally, this reminds us of the proposal to amend the Suhakam Act 1999 so that the commissioners are appointed by Parliament rather than by the executive, as the practice now.

Suhakam ploughs on despite successive governments not responding to its annual reports and recommendations, ever since it was established in 1999.

The exception to this is one of its reports debated in Parliament for the first time on 5 December 2019, when Pakatan Harapan was in power.

It is high time for Suhakam’s annual reports and recommendations to be debated by MPs and heeded by the government of the day so that the human rights situation in the country can be further improved.

This would be a significant way of showing appreciation for the good and required work of the commissioners and their institution.

The importance of its work demands that the empty positions in Suhakam be filled as soon as possible. – The Malaysian Insight

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