Honouring human rights pledges in the new Malaysia

After some to-ing and fro-ing, the government has finally said it would study six laws and either amend or repeal them.

Jan 18, 2019

By Anil Netto
After some to-ing and fro-ing, the government has finally said it would study six laws and either amend or repeal them.

This was announced by the Home Affairs Minister on Jan 14.

The six laws are the Sedition Act 1948, the Prevention of Crime Act 1959, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) and the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.

The ministry would discuss these laws with the Attorney-General’s Chambers and then table the recommendations to the cabinet for approval.

This raises hopes after there appeared to be a lack of progress, even backtracking, in the pledge to repeal oppressive and undemocratic laws. If the laws are finally repealed, it would go some way in reassuring Malaysians that we are still on track to the new Malaysia.

There are three main reasons to abolish these oppressive laws.

First, the ruling coalition had solemnly pledged to repeal all oppressive laws in its 2018 general election manifesto. Such serious promises must be honoured in the new Malaysia.

Second, at the United Nations General Assembly last September, the prime minister solemnly “pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights”.

Third, the new Malaysia requires greater democratic space for the people here to express themselves and realise their full potential.

These six laws under scrutiny are clearly incompatible with UN human rights instruments. In particular, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 has the following key articles.

Article 9 asserts that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10 maintains that everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his or her rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him or her.

Then there is the presumption of innocence under Article 11: “everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence”.

Other articles that we must uphold are the right to freedom of expression (of course, apart from incitement to violence) and freedom of peaceful assembly.

The antiquated colonial era Sedition Act has to be repealed.

While these rights are familiar to many of us, perhaps less familiar are the socio-economic rights contained in articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

These articles provide for work under just and favourable conditions and the right to form and join trade unions.

Another basic right is that to an adequate standard of living (Article 11), which covers the right to adequate food, clothing and housing.

Under housing, countries are obliged to uphold the right of people to live in “security, peace and dignity”. These homes must have “adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities – all at a reasonable cost”.

Obviously, we still have a long way to go to fulfil all those conditions, especially in cities where home prices are beyond the reach of many.

Moreover, forced evictions are a violation of the UN Convention. A forced eviction is defined as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection”.

The right to health under Article 12 is another key right. People have the right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.

But are our overstretched and underfunded crowded general hospitals capable of meeting those expectations, especially for those who are unable to afford prompt private healthcare?

What happens plan to provide universal health coverage comes with a plan that would include private insurance companies? What happens if the hospital bill is beyond the coverage of the basic insurance plan?

This is why it is better for the government to focus on providing universal healthcare for our general hospitals by raising funding for public healthcare from the present low two per cent of GDP – instead of bringing in private insurance companies.

As for higher education, this should be made “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. Again, the converse seems to be happening as higher education becomes more and more expensive.

So really, the road to the new Malaysia has some way to go and the journey will not be easy. For a start, we need to repeal all oppressive laws as pledged, raise awareness of international human rights law, educate the public about how UN instruments are for their own benefit and then ratify the remaining covenants and conventions

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