Malaysia: UN rights review must accelerate progress on human rights reforms

Civic Space 8 min read
ARTICLE 19
Malaysia: UN rights review must accelerate progress on human rights reforms - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS welcome the Pakatan Harapan government’s commitment at the UN to protect civic space and urgently expand protections for the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in Malaysia. We call on the government to follow through on its commitments, including by ratifying core international human rights treaties.

On 8 November, as part of its third cycle review under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) – 111 UN Member States made statements and provided 268 recommendations to the Malaysian government concerning the human rights situation in the country.

International standards

During the UPR, numerous States called on Malaysia to sign and ratify core international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR), and Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

Treaty ratification must be at the forefront of the government’s agenda in 2019. It will lay the necessary groundwork for planned legal and policy reforms and ensure that these are carried out in accordance with international human rights law and standards. We therefore welcome the government’s commitment to ratify the remaining international human rights treaties, and urge the government to demonstrate its political will by committing to a clear timeframe for ratification and by ratifying treaties without reservations.

We further welcome the government’s commitment during the UPR to engage fully with the UN Special Procedures. We urge the government to approve outstanding visit requests for the UN Special Rapporteur (UN SR) on freedom of expression – who last visited the country in 1998 – as well as the UN SR on peaceful assembly and association, the UN SR on freedom of religion or belief, UN SR on promoting human rights while countering terrorism, and the UN SR on human rights defenders. The independent assessments provided by these experts would lay out a valuable roadmap for implementing legal reforms in line with the government’s commitments.

Civic Space

In the weeks ahead of Malaysia’s UPR review, on 24 October 2018, the de facto Law Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department promised to review, amend or repeal 113 pieces of legislation including the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971.

These laws were used systematically by the previous regime to silence dissent and criminalise human rights defenders and activists. Whilst the Pakatan Harapan government released high-profile political prisoners and activists arbitrarily detained under these laws in the immediate aftermath of the May elections, social media users and activists critical of the government have continued to face judicial harassment in recent months.

It is therefore welcome that the government has announced a moratorium on the application of the Sedition Act 1948, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, with a view towards reforming or repealing those laws. The government further committed to repealing the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 and to forming a Special Committee to safeguard press freedom by reviewing other problematic laws, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Whilst these commitments, which were reiterated by the government spokesperson during the UPR, are encouraging, they must be backed up by swift and concrete action. We urge the government to accept all UPR recommendations aimed at expanding civic space in Malaysia, including those which explicitly call for the repeal and reform of restrictive laws that undermine the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. All individuals currently under investigation or arbitrarily detained under these laws for exercising their right to freedom of expression must be immediately and unconditionally released and their convictions quashed.

We further urge the government to develop a clear roadmap for the implementation of these recommendations, with the abovementioned laws tabled for reform or repeal during the current Parliamentary session, or in upcoming seatings.

The government must also ensure that any processes to review and reform legislation are fully transparent and ensure the full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society. All legislation must be brought into compliance with international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the government must take all necessary steps to create an enabling environment for all to express themselves without fear. Additionally, the government must implement measures to protect human rights defenders and other members of civil society from legal, administrative or physical harassment.

Pluralism, Inclusion and Diversity

We continue to be concerned about the deteriorating respect for pluralism, inclusion and diversity in Malaysia. Individuals from marginalised groups, including Shia Muslims, other religious minorities and LGBTI people have been acutely impacted by increasingly intolerant public discourse, fomented by the government, which has led to increased threats directed towards these groups in recent months.

During the UPR, several States called on the government to take the necessary measures and establish safeguards to protect minority groups, including the LGBTI community and religious minorities. In particular, States called for the repeal of all laws that criminalise persons based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the government to develop, with the full and effective participation of civil society and the national human rights commission (SUHAKAM), a national action plan to promote inclusion, diversity and pluralism, including by implementing the comprehensive recommendations contained in Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action. We also urge the government to enact legislation to protect individuals from bias-motivated crimes, including crimes motivated by individuals’ ethnicity, nationality, religion or belief, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Over the last six months, the new government has taken positive strides towards creating a right-respecting society. Accepting and implementing UPR recommendations will help accelerate this process. We encourage the government to follow through on its commitments to enhance human rights protections and initiate a comprehensive, inclusive and participatory program of reform.