Human Rights Day Virtual Forum 2020 was held on December 10, 2020 from 9.00am to 12 noon.

In the midst of the COVID-19, the Human Rights Day Virtual Forum 2020 focused on the various challenges faced by different actors with the theme of “Recover Better”. Discussions at this year’s forum examined the various challenges faced by different actors during the pandemic, weighing the protection of human rights versus recovery and the preservation of life, as well as exploring best practices in moving ahead and rebuilding better together.

International human rights standards can strengthen the effectiveness of interventions, bringing attention to people often left behind, such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and internally displaced people, and, in particular, older people. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed during her recent briefing to the Human Rights Council that in every stage of this pandemic, including the recovery, it is imperative to involve National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), as well as civil society and human rights defenders.

The forum began with welcoming remarks by Tan Sri Othman Hashim, Chairman of SUHAKAM, and an opening address by H.E. Stefan Priesner, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Minister of Foreign Affairs then officiated the virtual event. The eminent speakers reiterated the importance of global solidarity in the promotion, protection and advocacy for economic, social and cultural rights of vulnerable communities, as well as to address racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, towards a more sustainable planet and just society.

After the speeches, three videos were shared. The first was a video presentation of Malaysia’s bid for a seat at the Human Rights Council for the term 2022-2024. The second was a special video message by António Guterres, the UN Secretary General. He stressed the importance of promoting human rights to build a better future for all. Finally, a video titled “Community Voices: The COVID-19 Effect” presented a compilation of personal testimonies of community representatives from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, recounting the impacts of the pandemic and movement restrictions.

The virtual forum then commenced, consisting of two sessions. Session 1 discussed “COVID-19 and Human Rights”, moderated by Dato’ Mah Weng Kwai, Commissioner of SUHAKAM. Datuk Dr Hartini Zainudin, Co-Founder, Yayasan Chow Kit; Vice President, Voice of the Children, provided harrowing accounts of difficulties faced by parents and marginalised children, particularly stateless, refugee and migrant children during the pandemic. She emphasised the significance of building alternatives to detention (ATD) for children and stressed that policies and legislations in Malaysia must be reformed to leave no child behind.

Dr Lo Ying-Ru, Head of Mission and WHO Representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore, then discussed the role of the UN and the WHO in responding to the pandemic, how can human rights principles support public health priorities in the context of COVID-19, and also access to vaccines, medicines and treatment. She expressed confidence that Malaysia has the capacity to deliver and administer the COVID-19 vaccines.

Next, Dr Asiah binti Ayob, Deputy Director, Disease Control Division (Surveillance), Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH), delivered a speech on behalf of Dato’ Dr Chong Chee Kheong, Deputy Director General of Health (Public Health). She shared how the MOH have been working with the National Security Council and other stakeholders to manage the pandemic, without discrimination, prejudice or stigma, and also drew attention to the serious challenge of combatting fake news.

After that, Session 2 continued the conversation discussing the topic “Recover Better, Rebuild Together”, moderated by Prof Dato’ Dr Noor Aziah binti Mohd Awal, Children’s Commissioner of SUHAKAM. Mr Kolony Anak Gunting, Deputy Undersecretary of Community Development, Senior Citizen and Disabled, Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) kick started the session by presenting the challenges of movement restrictions faced by the government during the pandemic.

Ms Shivani Verma, Human Rights Officer, OHCHR Southeast Asia Regional Office, followed by highlighting two lessons from this pandemic: the profound value of human rights-based approach rooted in non-discrimination, and inclusion and participation. She presented an existing vaccine to hunger, poverty and inequality, and possibly to climate change and other ills faced by humanity – Human Rights. Only when this vaccine is accepted can lessons from this pandemic be fully understood and applied in the future.

Following from that, Ms Allison Low, President, Protem Petaling Jaya Child Council (PPJCC); President, Child Consultative Council under Office of the Children’s Commissioner, SUHAKAM, shared that children now face many dangers online and increasing stress from online education. She called for better communication between children and parents.

Last but not least, Mr Jufitri Joha, President, Malaysian Youth Council (Majlis Belia Malaysia, MBM); Chairman, National Federation of Youth Workers (Federasi Kebangsaan Pekerja Belia, FKPB) offered insights into the work of the MBM in creating platforms for the voices of youth, including from marginalised groups, to be heard at various levels of decision-making and policymaking. The Human Rights Day Virtual Forum was brought to a close by Dato’ Takiyuddin bin Hassan, Minister In Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law), who reiterated the importance of the UDHR in recognising that all human are born free and equal in dignity and rights, regardless of their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

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