(New York) - Malaysia should urgently adopt human rights reforms to justify its candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia is one of four Asia group countries seeking election to three-year terms on the council, whose members are required to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."
"Malaysia needs to show a stronger commitment to human rights if it wants to be taken seriously at the Human Rights Council," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should act swiftly to reform its laws, policies, and practices to show it respects the human rights of all the people in Malaysia. We don't want to see a repeat of 2006, when Malaysia made a series of promises while seeking a seat, then broke them all."
In its letter, Human Rights Watch called on Najib to revoke Malaysia's long abused Internal Security Act and other preventive detention laws, amend or revoke laws that violate the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and act to end abuses against migrant workers and migrants sent to immigration detention centers. Human Rights Watch also urged Malaysia to meet its commitments to the council by issuing a standing invitation to UN human rights experts to visit the country, ratify core international human rights treaties, and rescind Malaysia's reservations to the conventions on women's and children's rights.
Countries are expected to compete for the Council membership based on the contributions they will make to protecting and promoting human rights. Iran's withdrawal last week from the race left only four candidates for four Asian seats, making Malaysia's election likely. The process still requires that Malaysia win the affirmative support of at least 97 countries, a majority of the 192 members of the UN General Assembly.
To demonstrate the seriousness of its voluntary commitments and pledges made to the Human Rights Council in a March 9 memorandum, Malaysia should take a number of actions before the May 13 vote, Human Rights Watch said. Malaysia should issue a standing invitation - a pledge to accept all requests for visits - to all UN human rights experts under council mechanisms and immediately schedule visits from UN human rights experts who have made eight requests to visit since 2002.
The government should also immediately charge and bring to fair trial or release individuals held under preventive detention laws, including the Internal Security Act, Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969, the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985, and the Restricted Residency Act 1933. These laws should be amended or revoked, Human Rights Watch said.
"On and off promises to tinker with the Internal Security Act are not enough: it's time the law was scrapped," Robertson said. "Malaysia has for too long thought it could arrest anyone, jail them under a security law, and throw away the key. An effective criminal justice system cannot be rooted in a minister's whim to detain people indefinitely without trial."
Human Rights Watch also called on the government to revise or repeal the laws restricting the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression, among them the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, which requires annual licensing of publications; the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, which places restrictions on the media by prohibiting "content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person;" the overly broad Sedition Act; and provisions of the Police Act that require a permit for any gathering of three or more persons. Police have used all of these laws to obstruct peaceful political activities and bar rallies promulgating messages the government does not want aired.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the treatment of Malaysia's migrant workers, who make up approximately 30 percent of the country's workforce. These workers make major contributions to economic growth, but suffer under government policies that require them to stay with the employer that sponsored them and leave them vulnerable to systematic exploitation and abuse.
Malaysia also mistreats undocumented migrants, regularly caning male migrants for illegal entry, and ignoring legitimate claims for asylum by numerous migrants, especially those from Burma and victims of human trafficking. Instead, the government incarcerates undocumented migrants in immigration detention centers in horrific living conditions.
The seriously overcrowded detention camps suffer from lack of potable drinking water, poor sanitation, insect and rat infestations, insufficient and non-nutritious food, and inadequate health services, Human Rights Watch said.
"There's nothing good to be said about the Malaysian immigration detention centers," Robertson said. "The sad question is how many more migrants need to die from preventable diseases before the government fixes them."
Human Rights Watch also called on the Malaysian government to strengthen Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, by ensuring that its commissioners are chosen in a transparent process that includes civil society, and by having its reports receive timely debate in parliament.
"Malaysia's government has a long way to go to honor its voluntary commitments and pledges to the Human Rights Council," Robertson said. "The clock is ticking - and the question is whether Malaysia will use its three years on the Council to prove its commitments and pledges are not just empty words?"