A LOT of us still remember the night of May 9. I, for one, remember it for what it eventually presented – an opportunity for necessary reforms to better respect and protect human rights.
Now that 100 days have passed since the new administration was installed, we must now ask: Has the new Malaysian government made progress on human rights, an area so undermined by its predecessors?
Ahead of the general election, Amnesty International shared with every parliamentary seat candidate the organisation’s Eight-Point Human Rights Agenda.
We urged candidates to put human rights at the forefront of their campaigns, regardless of their political background.
Our recommendations were simple – repeal and amend laws used to crack down on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; end capital punishment; implement police reforms; and uphold and protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous peoples, and LGBTI individuals.
Small steps in right direction
When Pakatan Harapan won the majority of parliamentary seats, we were encouraged by its election manifesto, which included human rights reforms as an integral component in the country’s development.
However, we became disappointed to see that policy and law reforms addressing the main human rights concerns were not included among the government’s 10 pledges for its first 100 days in office.
One notable development was the release and full pardon of long-time Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Cartoonist Zunar, another individual whom Amnesty had been campaigning for, had his travel ban lifted and all nine charges of sedition withdrawn; sedition charges against other human rights defenders were also dropped.
Charges against political activists under the Peaceful Assembly Act were rescinded, and Parliament repealed the hastily gazetted Anti-Fake News Act last Thursday.
Slow to end repressive laws
However, there has been almost no action taken when it comes to putting an end to repressive laws. Although the Prime Minister has stated that the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 9 (Sosma), will be abolished, Deputy Home Minister Datuk Mohd Azis Jamman said it might just be amended. And although there have been statements that the government is taking steps to abolish or reform the other problematic laws, there appears to be a lack of a clear plan and transparency as to how this will happen, presenting a worrisome prospect that these laws may continue to be used by the new administration.
Moreover, human rights defenders and other activists have continued to be targeted through these laws.
For example, human rights activists Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi have been called for questioning under the Sedition Act. Fadiah is facing a second investigation for allegedly violating the Peaceful Assembly Act.
The government’s stated commitment to reform laws that stifle the people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is certainly put in question when human rights defenders are still harassed and intimidated for their peaceful work.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the government would consider doing away with the mandatory death penalty. Amnesty International Malaysia welcomed this statement as the campaign against the death penalty is something we hold close to our cause.
Days after, we commended the announcement that 17 executions had been put on hold. However, since then, we have not heard any official statement on a moratorium on executions to include all cases and cover all stages of Malaysia’s journey towards abolition.
Malaysia carries out executions in a secretive manner, notifying family members only a few days in advance.
This month, another family member of a person on death row informed us of their loved one’s scheduled execution. While the hanging was put on hold, it is distressing that executions continue to be scheduled when the Cabinet had announced a suspension of the implementation of the death penalty.
And there is also much that remains to be done to address cases of torture and other ill-treatment. The new government must make good on its commitment to ratify international human rights treaties, including the United Nations Convention against Torture.
It must also take real action to tackle police impunity, including addressing the alarming number of deaths in custody and establishing an independent and external body to oversee complaints of police misconduct.
Marginalised communities need protection
Putting an end to attacks against LGBTI people should be a matter of priority. The Terengganu syariah court case of two women sentenced to six strokes of the cane for attempting to perform “lesbian sex”, for example, is deeply cruel and an appalling act of discrimination.
Similarly, attacks and discrimination against migrant workers continues. The Ops Mega 3.0 raids on migrant workers are putting their rights at risk and must end immediately.
Instead, the authorities must coordinate with ministries, agencies, and civil society organisations to formulate a policy that fully guarantees the workers’ rights, in line with international law and standards.
The Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of the Temiar community in Kelantan – during a meeting with five Indigenous rights activists – is a step in the right direction but action must follow promptly. The experience of the Temiar people is emblematic of the human rights violations and entrenched discrimination faced by indigenous peoples in Malaysia.
Pakatan must live up to promises of hope
All hope is not lost, however. The upcoming Universal Periodical Review of the human rights records of UN member states in November presents an important opportunity to really show the government’s commitment to human rights by reviewing and implementing the recommendations made by different civil society organisations, including Amnesty International.
It is imperative for the Pakatan government to swiftly implement human rights reforms and usher in a new era of respect for human rights in the region.
It would be a terrible shame if it fails to live up to the promises with which it was catapulted to power. Amnesty International Malaysia looks forward to working with the government to create lasting progress on human rights in the months and years to come.
- Gwen Lee is interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.