(Sept 8): I was an undergraduate student at the University of Malaya when I first heard Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, being mentioned. The country at that time was going through political turmoil with the sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Public anger was high, and not surprisingly, the government was experiencing a trust deficit.
Many were critical towards the establishment of Suhakam and eyed it with suspicion. Some questioned its ability to be impartial and devoid of political interference. Hence, it was a surprise that on September 9, 1999, the Malaysian Parliament gazetted the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act without any dissent. The speed of the establishment of the Commission was even more surprising, for within six months Malaysia had a fully functioning Commission. As of April 24, 2000 Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia or Suhakam was established with the appointment of 13 Commissioners. The first chairperson being Tun Musa Hitam who happened to be the person who first mooted the idea of Suhakam in 1994, during his tenure as Malaysia’s representative to the United Nations Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR).
At the time of its establishment, not all segments of society welcomed Suhakam. Even today some still feel that it is a Western-centric institution not compatible with local culture and religious beliefs. However, if we were to look back at the 1990s, it was the decade when the world saw a surge in demand for human rights never seen since the end of World War II. The fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the democratisation of Latin America that steadily gave rise to demands of accountability and transparency and the brutality of the Balkan wars that shocked the world with crimes against humanity and genocide, spurred the discourse of human rights globally.
I recall being in Moscow for a semester during the height of the Kosovo war and seeing the rise of toxic nationalism affecting the region first-hand. It was impossible for Malaysia not to be affected as the whole world was gripped by what was happening — the demand for human rights was coming from all corners of the world.
Over the years, Suhakam has proved that it is able to stand its ground albeit with some hiccups here and there. It has worked tirelessly in raising awareness about human rights issues in the country and has been consistent in advocating for the protection of fundamental freedoms. It has collaborated closely with the government in advocating for our national laws to be aligned with international human rights standards. Among the laws that we played a role in are the Employment Act 1955, the Persons with Disability Act 2008 and the Anti-Trafficking and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, to name a few.
In terms of international treaties and conventions, the ratification of the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are among the most notable, though more work needs to be done on removing reservations and improving implementation.
Being the only independent body able to conduct an investigation into human rights violations signifies the importance of Suhakam for the public, particularly for victims and their families. On average, during the pre-Covid years, Suhakam received more than 1,000 complaints yearly. The cases that have come to Suhakam include police misconduct, custodial deaths, and indigenous land rights. Among the well-known cases are the Wang Kelian report, the national inquiry on indigenous land rights and the public inquiry on forced disappearances.
Hence, it is without doubt that Suhakam is important for the country. By having a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), it shows the country’s commitment in safeguarding the fundamental rights and freedom of its people. Its seriousness in promoting equality and social justice and accepting the importance of human rights in the development of a fair and inclusive society are important guideposts for the nation.
To me, Suhakam is the product of our time, a much-needed institution to champion and defend the rights of all, but especially more so, the vulnerable and the weak. These past 24 years, we have had several successes and achievements, though it should be noted that assessment can be subjective. Nevertheless, Suhakam’s reaccredited status of 'A' by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) is proof that we are on the right track. GANHRI is the largest network of NHRIs representing 110 NHRIs and is a trusted partner of the United Nations. While NHRIs are defined by national law the guidelines that set the minimum standards required for an NHRI is known as the Paris Principle.
The work of Suhakam is not easy; it faces many challenges. Malaysia is a diverse country with people of various ethnicities, religions, and cultural backgrounds. This diversity can sometimes lead to tensions and conflicts related to human rights issues, such as religious freedom and minority rights. While not denying the tension and conflict, this does not erase the universality of human rights principles.
Clearly, more effort is needed for Suhakam to engage with all segments of society. This is why the proposed new amendment to the Suhakam Act which is waiting to be tabled to Parliament will further strengthen Suhakam’s role as well as bolster the relationship between Suhakam and Parliament in line with the Belgrade and Paris Principles.
Despite the challenges faced, I envision Suhakam to not only continue playing a crucial role in advocating for human rights in Malaysia but further grow and evolve in tandem with the expansion of human rights issues. The aftermath of the global Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us back. According to the report 'Unprecedented and Unfinished: Covid-19 and Implications for National and Global Policy' published by the International Science Council, one critical example is education; lost education is one of the worst consequences of the pandemic, and its effects could be felt until the end of the century.
The World Health Organization foresees that the economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic will put tens of millions of people at risk of falling into extreme poverty. This year, over 122 million more people are facing hunger in the world since 2019 due to the pandemic and war in Ukraine, according to the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report. This will make the role of human rights in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals even more critical, not to mention the threat of climate change, which is basically threatening our very existence as a species and the future disruption of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
While AI technology can help development it also has the potential to negatively impact human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The saying goes that we are borrowing the planet from our children but what kind of world are we leaving for them? Post-Covid-19, our youths are becoming more disillusioned and do not see much hope in the future. A 2021 study by Unicef Malaysia showed that 20% of inner-city children have lost interest in schooling and do not plan to return.
So as Suhakam enters adulthood, my hope is that it will reach out to more youths, by working together to address the old and new challenges of human rights for a better future. Including the voices of youths is important if we are to make meaningful and sustainable changes in protecting the rights and dignity of all.
To quote the honourable President Mandela, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
So, with that, I wish Suhakam a happy 24th birthday and may you continue to uphold and protect human rights in Malaysia.
Altaf Deviyati is the Secretary of Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia.