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Suhakam Act amended under protest

KUALA LUMPUR, 2 July 2009: Amendments to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) Act were passed despite protests by opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) today who questioned the neutrality of some commissioners and of the selection committee.

The Act now no longer states that the prime minister is not bound by the recommendations of the committee that selects the commissioners.

This committee comprises the Chief Secretary to the Government, the Suhakam chairperson and members of civil society.

Opposition MPs protested that this amendment was not clear in saying whether the prime minister was now bound to follow the selection committee’s recommendations.

Another amendment involved the appointment of “three members of civil societies of human rights” that replaced the provision for “three eminent persons” to be appointed to the selection committee.

During the debate, opposition MPs had questioned why the Chief Secretary to the Government was on the selection committee.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, who wound up the debate, said this did not contravene international standards adopted by the United Nations (UN) on the functioning of national human rights institutions.

Under these standards, called the Paris Principles, a government department or its representative could participate in the selection of commissioners.

With the amendments, Malaysia can now avoid a downgrade of Suhakam’s status. It missed a 3 May 2009 deadline to improve Suhakam’s compliance with the Paris Principles, which put the commission at risk of losing its “A” status.

An “A” status accreditation means that Suhakam complies with the Paris Principles and is able to participate directly in all meetings of the UN Human Rights Council. “B” means it is not fully compliant and has observer status only, and “C” means total non-compliance.

Nazri said Malaysia had now been given till October to comply, and as such the amendments had to be passed in this parliamentary sitting. The House adjourned later today and will not sit again until late October.

Commissioners’ neutrality

Suhakam logoOpposition MPs also questioned the appointment of Umno’s lawyer Datuk Mohd Shafee Abdullah as a Suhakam commissioner.

In reply, Nazri said Mohd Shafee was not a politician and should not be seen as one.

“We should differentiate between his appointment as a commissioner, and his profession as a lawyer,” Nazri said.

Nazri himself appeared to doubt Suhakam chairperson Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman’s appointment when he said that Mohd Shafee’s role as an Umno lawyer was not as bad as Abu Talib’s comment on the Barisan Nasional’s takeover of the Perak government.

Abu Talib had commented on the Perak crisis in May, saying that voting was a basic human right and that fresh elections ought to be held in Perak to give voters there the right to select the government of their choice.

Nazri said such a statement was sub judice as the courts were in the process of determining Perak’s rightful menteri besar. He said Suhakam commissioners had to be careful with what they said, as they had to appear neutral.

“The Perak assembly is not under his (Abu Talib’s) jurisdiction. He didn’t need to make the statement. On the other hand, when Mohd Shafee was appointed as a lawyer, it is on a professional basis, to defend his client (Umno).”

However, Tian Chua (PKR-Batu) said there was a difference between Abu Talib and Mohd Shafee, as the former was interpreting human rights, while Mohd Shafee was acting on behalf of a political party.

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