Suhakam Commissioners should exercise their human rights and statutory duty to overrule Musa Hitam’s recommendation to put democracy and human rights in the backseat in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang, Wednesday): A week ago, I had called on the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) Tan Sri Musa Hitam to end the eight-month  Suhakam inertia on the most serious human rights violations in the country  since its establishment and to institute a public inquiry into the  Kampung Medan riots in March this year which claimed the lives of six persons with 78 others severely injured.

I find it most shocking that instead of responding to my call, Musa has come out with a proposal which is a recipe for the  indefinite inertia of Suhakam when he announced that he has recommended to Suhakam to put democracy and human rights in the backseat as a result of the worldwide economic and political crisis following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to give the  government the benefit of the doubt in these troubled times to deal with the  threat of possible terrorist activities in Malaysia.

For how long is Musa proposing that Suhakam should put democracy and human rights in the backseat, especially as United States President Bush has said that the “international war against terrorism” could take years and even decades?   Is Musa seriously suggesting that we should be contemplating years or even decades for democracy and human rights to take a backseat in Malaysia?

Explaining that  his proposal was not the result of pressure from the government “but reality has hit us and reminds us that  terrorism is real and has to be tackled first before  anything else", he said:

"I hope people don't misunderstand me but I am  nationalistic enough to realise that these matters  dealing with security of the country should be given precedence before we start talking about democracy and human rights."

This statement by Musa is most unfortunate with its implication that those who disagree with him that Suhakam should put democracy and human rights in the back seat in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks are “un-nationalistic” or even “un-patriotic” - opening the way for a witch-hunt by overzealous or bankrupt political desperadoes in government.  Such a statement is particularly unbecoming from a Human Rights Commissioner.

I am as “appalled” as the   Suhakam  Commissioner Mehrun Siraj by Musa’s statement and fully agree with her that  human rights and democracy should never take a back seat particularly in troubled times like these. (Malaysiakini 30.10.2001)

Does Musa’s proposal mean that the government can now legitimately and indefinitely pigeonhole the Suhakam public inquiry report on the Kesas Highway gathering and findings of widespread police violations of human rights, relieving public pressures on the Cabinet as to why it had failed to take any action on the Suhakam report after the lapse of more than two months?

And does this mean that this is now “field day” for the police, who do not have to concern about respect for human rights in the discharge of their duties, as exemplified by what happened in Taiping on Saturday, when the police arrested 48 peaceful protestors on the 14th anniversary of the Operation Lalang mass ISA detentions, when there  was completely no justification for such police action as the crowd was   dispersing and  many  were arrested in  a nearby restaurant when having food and refreshments!

The high-handed and arbitrary police arrests of 48 peaceful protestors in Taiping last Saturday was an open slap in-the-face for  Suhakam  for its Kesas Highway inquiry report and recommendations but  instead of Suhakam standing up for  its statutory rights, the Suhakam Chairman is flying a “white flag” of retreat from  the front of democracy and human rights.

It is most  distressing that  Musa’s explanation contains the further   implication that the two earlier batches of Internal Security Act arrests this year -  the reformasi activists for a militant conspiracy for the violent overthrow of the elected government and those for KMM links - are now regarded by the Suhakam Chairman as understandable and  acceptable in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks although no iota of evidence has been produced nor a White Paper issued.

Surely, before Musa makes such a far-reaching assumption, which demolishes the very basis of the existence of Suhakam, he should have asked for a full briefing from the police authorities to satisfy himself  and the other Suhakam Commssioners  that these ISA detentions are not gross violations of human rights.

The inevitable consequence of putting democracy and human rights in the backseat will be to transform Suhakam into an "alibi" body to legitimise  rampant violations of human rights in the country, which will be a sad end for Suhakam which, despite many weaknesses,  has been able to capture the imagination of Malaysians as the statutory protector and promoter of human rights.

Suhakam’s statutory role to “protect and promote” human rights is particularly relevant and important in the post-September 11 scenario,  when all over the world, human rights are in retreat and authoritarianism on the ascendance.

In the United States, a panicked Congress has approved  Bush’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that civil liberties groups said could violate the Constitution and basic rights.

When Parliament enacted the Malaysian Human Rights Commission Act 1999, it never authorised Suhakam to put democracy and human rights in the  backseat, as democracy and human rights are guarantors and not menace to  national security and stability.

The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had asked the United States to deal with the root causes of international terrorism, in particular political repression and economic injustice as best illustrated by the 50-year Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Malaysian government should not therefore be speaking the language of democracy and human rights in international forums while using a different language of political repression and economic injustice for the domestic front.

I have checked the Human Rights Commission Act 1999 and received confirmation that democracy and human rights are written into the  functions and operations of Suhakam, and that the Chairman has no powers to issue directives to the other Suhakam Commissioners.

Section 7(1) of the Act states that the Chairman shall preside at all Suhakam meetings, while Section 7(4)  stipulates that

“The members of the Commission shall use their best endeavours to arrive at all decisions of the meeting by consensus failing which the decision by a two-thirds majority of the members present shall be required”.

Suhakam Commissioners should exercise their human rights and statutory duty to overrule Musa Hitam’s recommendation to put democracy and human rights in the backseat in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and continue to be in the very forefront to “promote and protect” human rights in Malaysia.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman