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Some questions about Suhakam’s new chairman and commissioners

The opaque and controversial appointments of the commissioners are all the more disappointing given the fact that Malaysia recently secured a seat in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, pledging to the international body that it would uphold human rights issues.

Sevan Doraisamy
4 minute read

Suaram expreses its concern and disappointment over the recent appointment of Suhakam chairman and commissioners. We are of the view that these appointments made by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob do not reflect the independence and core values of Suhakam as the national human rights institution (NHRI) of Malaysia.

The opaque and controversial appointments of the commissioners are all the more disappointing given the fact that Malaysia recently secured a seat in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, pledging to the international body that it would uphold human rights issues.

Suaram has strong doubts that the newly appointed Suhakam chairman, Rahmat Mohamad, can carry out his duties to fulfil Suhakam’s mandate. He was reported to have opposed Malaysia ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as he was one of four academics who co-authored a paper which convinced the Conference of Rules to reject the Rome Statute.

The paper was instrumental in forcing the Pakatan Harapan government to pull out from ratifying the Rome Statute which undermined Malaysia’s commitment in the global peacekeeping mission. The academic views of Rahmat on the Rome Statute might adversely affect Suhakam’s mandate because as it is stated in the Suhakam act, one of the main functions of Suhakam is to make recommendations to the government with regard to the subscription or accession of treaties and other international human rights instruments.

Secondly, the two other new commissioners are publicly known to be strongly affiliated with Umno. Hasnal Rezua Merican Habib Merican is the chairman of Umno’s Selayang branch, and Nazira Abdul Rahim is the chairman of the women’s division at Kulim Umno and the Bandar Baharu branch, and the current local councillor appointed by her party for Bandar Baharu.

Suaram maintains that both the chairman and the commissioners should be politically neutral to ensure that Suhakam remains an institution independent from political influence and therefore is able to discharge its duties without fear and favour. By appointing two commissioners with substantial political influence, Suaram is worried that the power given to Suhakam to inquire into human rights complaints and assist the government in human rights legislation will be severely compromised. For instance, if the Umno government is allegedly involved in human rights violations, questions would be rightly asked about Suhakam’s ability to hold an inquiry independently and whether the findings would be credible in the eyes of the public and civil society. 

Lastly, the appointment of the former director-general of the Islamic Development Department (Jakim), Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim, also raises more questions. Jakim previously demanded answers from Suhakam regarding the recognition of a third gender research project, and Suaram is concerned about whether appointing a former Jakim director-general would again hamper Suhakam’s ability to conduct research that may prove sensitive and controversial to the executive branch, but which completely aligns with Suhakam’s core objective of defending and promoting human rights in Malaysia.

Finally, the root of these controversial appointments stems from a lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight on the entire selection process of Suhakam commissioners. Throughout the selection process, the public and civil society was left in the dark. According to the Suhakam Act 1999 11A(1)(c), a committee must first be formed to be consulted with regards to the appointment of commissioner and three members of the committee must come from civil society who have knowledge of or practical experience in human rights matters.

However, civil society is mostly unaware of the formation and composition of the committee and the selection criteria and meritocratic basis of appointing this new batch of commissioners. It was only known after the appointment process had been announced publicly where the identity of the chairman and commissioners was finally revealed and the decision was presented as a fait accompli.

The method for the appointment of commissioners and the criteria for selection should be made more transparent to ensure the independence and public confidence in Suhakam. The sub-committee on accreditation (SCA) of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institution (GANHRI) which recently re-accredited Suhakam as an A-status institution made it clear that the appointment process should include requirements such as promoting broad consultation and/or participation in the application, screening, selection, and appointment process.

After decades of effort from past and present Suhakam staff, Suhakam was finally recognised internationally as a credible NHRI, but we are afraid the recent appointments threaten to roll back the recent success Suhakam has achieved in making the institution more independent from the executive. It also turns out that the idea of #keluargamalaysia which consists of inclusivity and common ground that the prime minister has espoused so much is not applicable in the field of human rights in Malaysia.

It is indeed a sad day for human rights and Suhakam that the principles of public accountability and transparency were not practised during the recent selection and appointment process which in turn produced commissioners that may not be equipped to fulfil the mandates of Suhakam.

Sevan Doraisamy is executive director of Suaram.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.