National Human Rights Commission -- Too Little too Late

suhakam Malaysians first heard about the government's proposal to set up a National Human Rights Commission on 25 April 1999 when the Minister of Foreign Affairs Syed Hamid Syed Jaafar Albar announced it to the press. The Bill to set up the commission was tabled in the July sitting of parliament and passed (See Appendix 3). Although the government did not deem it fit to disclose details of the bill before it was passed, 34 NGOs and two political parties endorsed a "Memorandum on the Human Rights Commission" (See Appendix 4). The memorandum called on the government to immediately make public its detailed plans for the proposed commission and hold public consultations with citizen groups, relevant departments and interested parties.

The memorandum referred to the detailed set of principles on the status of national institutions developed by the UN-sponsored meeting of representatives of national institutions held in Paris in 1991. This set of principles -- commonly referred to as the Paris Principles -- was subsequently endorsed by the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly. The Memorandum called on Malaysia as a member of the UN General Assembly and former chair of the UN Human Rights Commission to honour the Paris Principles, viz.

  • Autonomy from government
  • A broad independence guaranteed by statute or constitution
  • A mandate based on universal human rights standards
  • Adequate powers of investigation, and
  • Adequate funding and resources
On 3-4 July 1999, HAKAM, ERA Consumer, SUARAM and the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism organised a forum on Malaysia's National Human Rights Commission. Criticism and ideas were raised leading to an effort to formulate a framework for human rights to best suit the needs and aspirations of Malaysians.
"All the NGOs that attended the forum subsequently adopted a resolution welcoming in principle the proposed human rights commission. They however expressed regret as regards the lack of transparency on the part of the government in the process of setting up the Commission and in particular its failure to make public the draft Bill. " (Sothi Rachagan and Tikamdas, 1999: 6)
HAKAM, ERA Consumer and SUARAM also issued a statement, urging the government to demonstrate its commitment to and respect for human rights by:
  • Passing resolutions in both Houses of Parliament to annul all subsisting Proclamations of Emergency and ordinances thereunder;
  • Reviewing and repealing all laws inconsistent with fundamental liberties and universal principles of human rights;
  • Ratifying the international instruments relating to human rights and in particular:
  1. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  2. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and
  3. The Convention against the Torture and Other Forms of Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The government was unmoved. The July sitting of Parliament passed the Bill without amendments. The Act received the Royal Assent on 27 August 1999 and was gazetted on 9 September 1999. The Commissioners were appointed in April 2000 and the chairman is Musa Hitam, Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister and also former chair of the UN Human Rights Commission.

The main criticism of human rights groups is that they fear the lack of independence of the commission and they are also disappointed with the failure of the Act to define human rights. The members of the commission are appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The members enjoy no security of tenure and hold office for only two years. The Act in effect gives the Prime Minister the right to disqualify a potential commissioner and even to remove him or her from office. Finally the decisions of the commission are to be made by consensus, failing which a two-thirds majority is required. (See Appendix 3).

Malaysia's formal stance on the national commission and human rights issues in general compares extremely poorly with some other countries of ASEAN such as Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Sothi Rachagan and Tikamdas (1999) cite the examples of Indonesia and Thailand:

"In Indonesia, the Presidential Degree which established the Commission also appointed a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indonesia to select the first members of the Commission. The members elected their own chairperson and their own successors. The new law in 1999 provides for the appointment of members of the Commission by the Legislature, the People's Consultative Assembly.
Thailand, which is like Malaysia, also currently establishing its own Commission, has provided for even more stringent safeguards for ensuring the independence of the Commission. The Chairperson and the other ten members of the Commission are to be appointed by the King upon recommendations of the Senate. A twenty-five-member search committee will nominate potential commissioners. The search committee itself will comprise the President of the Supreme Court, the President of the Administrative Court, the Attorney General, the President of the Lawyers Council, a member of the media sector, five representatives from private organisations in the field of human rights. The search committee will nominate twenty-two names of which the Senate will by secret ballot choose eleven to become the Chairman and members of the Commission."