A Year of Paradoxes: Human Rights Triumphs and Challenges in 2023

The year 2023, marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a paradoxical period in human rights history. This pivotal year celebrated the strides made since the Declaration’s inception while also confronting the harsh realities of ongoing human rights crises across the globe.

Global Human Rights Challenges

Despite this milestone, we witnessed grave violations of human rights that shook the global community.  We condemn the attack and taking of hostages and killing of Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023 but the disproportionate attack and killings of more than 20000 civilians and the annihilation of Gaza by the full might of the Israeli army with full support from the United States is genocide.

The role of external powers, especially the United States, in the Gaza conflict has underscores the complex geopolitical dynamics and hypocrisy on international human rights and its universality. The United States unconditional support for Israel with a caveat that “killing of civilians in Gaza should be in a gentle and kinder manner” or “civilian deaths should be minimised” is shocking untenable and so obviously skewered that Palestinian lives matter much less than Israeli ones.

This stance, coupled with the United States’ complicity in providing military aid and support, exposed a harsh truth: even powerful states blatantly condone or escalate human right abuses whenever convenient or suitable for their political purpose.

SUHAKAM continues to fully support and endorse the Government’s initiative in advocating for international action against Israel. SUHAKAM shall rally support from National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) globally, at both regional and international forums, and through any other feasible actions necessary to promote this objective.

This commitment underlines the importance of collaborative efforts and international solidarity in addressing and resolving human rights violations on a global scale.

Human Rights Progress in Malaysia

We welcome the Government’s efforts to address human rights issues domestically, such as significant legislative reforms which includes the repeal, amendment, and enactment of various laws. Notably, the Government abolished the mandatory death penalty, expanded the scope and ambit of Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017, and proceeded to decriminalise suicide.

Additionally, the introduction of an anti-stalking provision under Section 507A of the Penal Code and the emphasis on mental health protection are examples of meaningful progress made in 2023.

The Federal Court has also been proactive through judicial activism in the strengthening of rights pursuant to the Federal Constitution in striking out ruling that Section 498 of the Penal Code which stated that enticing married women was unconstitutional as it violated the principle of equality.

Numerous decisions of the Courts in upholding citizenship rights of children that had long been neglected and ignored by the Government, have now been restored their citizenship as provided for under the Federal Constitution. We urge the Government to steadfastly proceed with institutional reforms especially in respect of citizenship provisions to ensure that our children would not be “punished” under the guise of national security.

The restructuring and separation of the role of the Public Prosecutor is ongoing and reforms to all the major enforcement agencies including the prisons must be carried out to enhance accountability and transparency.

The Government must ensure that there will be strict adherence to the rule of law and proceed to amend or repeal various provisions the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) and The Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (POCA) to ensure that rights of accused persons are protected to the full extent of the law.         

Institutional Reforms and Ambitious Goals

The amendments to SUHAKAM Act were a significant stride towards ensuring that SUHAKAM’s operation will be carried out independently and with integrity. This amendment underscores the Government’s dedication to human rights and reflects a commitment to inclusive and diverse representation such as gender balance and the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the Commission. Through the amendment, SUHAKAM aims to better safeguard and promote human rights within Malaysia, ensuring that all societal groups are adequately represented, and their rights are duly protected. Furthermore, the Bill also aims to strengthen the Children Commissioner’s role by institutionalizing and expanding the Office of Children’s Commissioner (OCC) within SUHAKAM.

As a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in Malaysia, it is important to maintaining a team of Commissioners who are not only knowledgeable but also deeply committed their work towards the protection and promotion of the rights of marginalised communities and vulnerable groups such as children, women, and persons with disabilities.

The Road Ahead for SUHAKAM

Looking ahead to 2024, SUHAKAM continues to focus on laying the groundwork for Malaysia’s accession to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED), the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Our goal for 2024 includes intensifying our efforts to address poverty among teenage girls and preparing white papers on climate change, prison reform, and refugees. We acknowledge the importance of community engagement in highlighting human rights awareness, and hence we will continue our work with communities and monitoring of all detention places.

At the international level, SUHAKAM, in collaboration with fellow Southeast Asian National Human Rights Institutions, will move forward with initiative to establish a public inquiry panel which has been designed to tackle cross-border human rights challenges effectively within the region.

SUHAKAM pledged to remain steadfast in our commitment to address the issues faced by all vulnerable groups.  We are also looking forward to delving into and exploring emerging issues, such as the interplay between digital rights, technology, and their impact on human rights.

Despite the complexities and challenges encountered in 2023, SUHAKAM would like to extend our greatest gratitude for the unwavering support to all of our stakeholders. Their commitment in creating a safer environment for human rights protection, both in Malaysia and abroad, remains, offering a beacon of hope as we grapple with intricate human rights issues in Malaysia and also worldwide. As we move into 2024 and beyond, SUHAKAM’s resolve to stand firm in the pursuit of a more just and equitable world underscores their dedication to protecting and upholding human rights for all.

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