Call for the establishment of a civil society vigilante group to exercise continuous “oversight” over Parliament and Suhakam to monitor and assess their role in protecting and promoting human rights

- DAP Round Table Conference on Suhakam Report 2001 – “Human Rights or Wrongs”
by Lim Kit Siang

(Kuala Lumpur,  Sunday)First, let me thank all the distinguished panelists for their presence today to participate in the Round Table Conference on Suhakam Report 2001 – “Human Rights or Wrongs” despite the very short notice – as short as 36 hours’ notice and the longest less than five days’ notice. 

Everyone accepted the invitation although no one had seen or read the Suhakam Report 2001, as the delayed report was only presented in Parliament  last Monday  and up till today, no copy of the report is available to members of the public,  not even from Suhakam -  and this is why the DAP has decided to perform the public service of making copies of the Suhakam Report 2001 available. Everyone however  is fully conscious of the vital importance  that the incipient momentum of public awareness generated by the establishment of Suhakam should not be allowed to lag or lose steam despite the deterioration of the state of  human rights in Malaysia in the past two years, and in particular since the traumatic September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. 

The first Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Musa Hitam had given a grading of B++ for the performance of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission in the two years under his leadership.   Before reading the Suhakam Report 2001, I had tentatively given a grading of C+, and I am aware that many, including some panelists, would not be so generous. Tthe spokesman for the alternative media, Ahmad Lufti Othman, had  rated an “E” as there had not been one statement by Suhakam to protect press freedom, and I fully agree with Lufti that Suhakam deserves an “E” as far as its performance on the specific issue of freedom of speech, expression and the press is concerned. 

With the publication of the Suhakam Report 2001 – despite its public non-appearance – we are now in a better position to grade the performance of the first two-year Suhakam under Musa Hitam, whether over the whole range of human rights or specific areas like press freedom; arbitrary detentions;  police accountability;  a just rule of law and truly independent judiciary; ratification of international human rights covenants, instruments and standards; right to development; rights of workers, the indigenous people and the disabled; etc. and today’s Round Table Conference Suhakam Report 2001 may be a useful first step in such a  public assessment and grading. 

There is a need, however, not only to assess and grade Suhakam’s performance, but also to assess and grade Parliament’s oversight of Suhakam’s discharge of its statutory duty to protect and promote human rights  and the government’s responses to the  Suhakam reports and recommendations. 

This is why I had yesterday issued an open invitation to the Speaker of Parliament, Tun Mohamad Zahir Ismail to the Round Table Conference as Parliament seems to be headed for a second grave dereliction of duty in refusing to  debate or give any  notice to the Suhakam annual report 2001 to provide strong  “back-up” to  Suhakam to “protect and promote” human rights by  mainstreaming human rights issues through diligent and conscientious “oversight” over Suhakam. 

I am still at a loss how the Speaker could approve the urgent motion of PAS MP for Pokok Sena, Mahfuz Omar to debate the issue of non-Malay quota in matriculation courses and MARA colleges, but reject the urgent motion of the DAP MP for Tanjong, Chow Kon Yeow to debate the Suhakam Annual Report 2001. 

Under the Dewan Rakyat Standing Orders, the Speaker’s ruling cannot be questioned or challenged by any Member of Parliament, or the MP will suffer the fate which befell the young woman DAP MP for Batu Gajah, Fong Po Kuan, who was suspended for six months without parliamentary allowance – a vindictive and unprecedented penalty in Commonwealth Parliamentary annals for insisting on speaking up in Parliament about the Certificate in Legal Practice double examinations scandals of exam papers leakage and marks tampering. As an aside, let me observe that this is one  human rights violation – as MPs have also human rights which is why the International Parliamentary Union as a special committee upholding the human rights of MPs  – which Suhakam failed to “protect and promote”. 

This Round Table Conference should send out a clear message to the Speaker of Parliament  that in the 21st century era of openness, transparency and good governance, he cannot hide behind parliamentary privilege but owes an active  duty to explain to the Malaysian citizenry the reasons  for his decision in refusing to allow a parliamentary debate on the Suhakam Report especially when it is seen to be so  arbitrary and completely indefensible in the cause to protect and promote human rights.  

The failure of Parliament to establish an all-party Standing Committee on Human Rights to scrutinize Suhakam reports, recommendations and operations  is another failure of Parliament in its “oversight” responsibilities over Suhakam, especially as the submission of Suhakam reports to Parliament provides  a regular opportunity for the highest political and legislative chamber of the land to monitor and review the progress made by Suhakam in the discharge of its statutory duty to “protect and promote human rights”.

It is hoped that the Round Table Conference today could remind Parliament to discharge its national duty, before it adjourns next Thursday, to schedule a special debate on the Suhakam Report 2001.

In any event, it is clear that there is an urgent need for  the establishment of a civil society vigilante group to exercise continuous “oversight” over Parliament and Suhakam to monitor and assess their role in protecting and promoting human rights and it would be a great step forward in human rights development in Malaysia if the Round Table Conference today can reach a consensus on this proposal.

May be this civil society vigilante oversight group could be named Parliament and  Suhakam Round Table Conference, which could publish quarterly or monthly “monitor” reports overseeing Parliament and Suhakam’s role in the promotion and protection of human rights. 

I had sent an invitation to the Suhakam Chairman Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman to attend and participate in the Round Table Conference, as it will be a useful bridge between Suhakam and the NGO community and the civil society, but he has replied that he was unable to be with us. 

This is a pity, as in my 80-minute meeting  with him on 13th June 2002, I had impressed on him the need for Suhakam to reach out to the NGOs in view of the crucial role of the NGOs and the civil society to strengthen national capacities for the promotion and protection of human rights – as without full support and co-operation from NGOs and the civil society, Suhakam will be crippled from discharging  its statutory duties to protect and promote human rights. 


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman