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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

On budget wish list, human rights activists want Putrajaya to include civil rights education

BY EILEEN NG Published: 7 October 2014

 Human rights activists want Putrajaya to reverse its poor record with allocations for civil rights education and activities in Budget 2015 to show its commitment in fostering civil liberties in Malaysian society.

Activists singled out the police, calling for the force's exposure to other countries where enforcement officers practised civil rights in the course of their duties, and also suggested introducing the subject in schools. Yet, others noted that such commitment on paper would be meaningless without political will.

There has never been specific mention or allocation for human rights in the national budget although a wider notion of it is incorporated into other areas such as allocations for Orang Asli groups and for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). This is unlike the European Union which allocated 1.104 million euros for the period of 2007 to 2013 to fund the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, aimed at providing support to promote democracy and human rights in non-EU countries.

The Association for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham) feels the upcoming budget should have specific mention of allocations for civil society that undertakes human rights promotion and training work. Its secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria said this will show civil servants that the administration was committed to human rights, instead of dismissing it as the rhetoric of government critics.

"The federal government provides funds for social welfare, consumer and women-based organisations. However, those working on human rights and the environment are often viewed as anti-establishment. There must be this clear change in public policy approach. "These funds for human rights work by civil society could be given to Suhakam to manage and monitor the output and outcome of their work," he said. Malaysia, he said, must "popularise" human rights and show that the government administration is human rights-friendly.

Proham secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria says Budget 2015 should have specific allocations for civil society that undertakes human rights promotion and training work. "A specific mention (in the budget) will be useful and timely in the current global climate of increased radicalisation of religion and the global terrorist movement undertaken in the name of religion," he said. "The PM in his budget speech must send the right message that the federal administration is against extremism by promoting the human rights approach."

Over the years, activists and human rights watchdogs have rapped Malaysia for its human rights violations. These have included attacks against sexual minorities, persecution of Muslim Shia and Ahmaddiya Islamic sect and the ban on Christians using the Arabic word “Allah” to describe God.

Putrajaya has also come in for criticism for declaring the human rights coalition, Comango, an unlawful entity and more recently, for using the colonial-era Sedition Act against the government’s detractors. A damning report by Human Rights Watch released on September 25 highlighted various abuses suffered by the transgender community in Malaysia, including sexual assault by religious officers and prison guards, extortion, daily fear of arrest by the authorities and violations of their privacy rights.

Nisha Ayub, spokesperson for transgender rights group Justice for Sisters, said education is sorely needed to create awareness about the community, whose members were often persecuted by the authorities and discriminated by society just because they were different. "Education starts from home and we need more information regarding transgenders so that families can give the necessary support if one of their own is a transgender person," she said. Such awareness will slowly change society's perception of transgenders so that they will not be discriminated in the future.

Justice for Sisters spokesperson Nisha Ayub says education is needed to create awareness about the transgender community."The media plays an important role, if the media portray a negative perspective towards transgender people, then it will colour society's perspective as well," she added.

Pusat Komas board member Jerald Joseph suggested that a human rights education syllabus be introduced in schools. He also said enforcement agencies like the police and court officials should be exposed to human rights training in collaboration with the United Nations. "Cut down the budget for Special Branch and reallocate the staff resources there for crime prevention. Spend more research funds for developing a human rights discourse," he said. It was the government's duty to educate the public on human rights and equality, Joseph said. "They can't allow extremists like Perkasa and Isma to take centre stage, if Najib is serious for Malaysia to be a model of moderation for the world," he said, referring to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. "He can’t go to New York and talk hollow moderation framework and here, in Malaysia, allow the flames of extremism to rise," he said in reference to Najib's recent speech at the United Nations general assembly.

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen noted that political will is paramount if there is to be an improvement in Malaysia's human rights record. "How do we deal with serious human rights abuses perpetrated by the police especially custodial deaths? We know very few police personnel are disciplined or prosecuted for criminal offences even in blatant custodial death cases. "Of course, more budget for human rights training and CCTVs to be installed at police lockups are commendable but CCTVs are only useful if they work or maintained properly; training is only useful if they are complied with.

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen says political will is paramount if Malaysia's human rights record is to improve. "At the end of the day, there must be accountability for human rights abuses and in order for that to occur, there must be political will to set up structures to deal with such abuses," he said.

Paulsen said that the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), which the government has rejected in favour of an integrity commission, was still the best available solution. The IPCMC was proposed by a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2005 to look into custodial deaths but it never took off due to opposition from the police force itself.

Amnesty International Malaysia executive director Shamini Darshni noted that extending benefits to some people or areas in the budget does not necessarily mean human rights principles are being exercised. "National budgets present an opportunity for responsible governments to integrate human rights practices into policy and infrastructure development. "Governments should tackle their national budgets with a human rights lens. When that happens, the development and protection of its people automatically assume focus and priorities fall into place," she said. She said Putrajaya should consider weaving in human rights principles into the 2015 national budget in all areas, including infrastructure and policy development, to demonstrate its commitment.

Knowledge and Rights with Young People through Safer Spaces (KRYSS) co-founder Angela M. Kuga Thas said any discourse on the budget would be remiss if it does not include setting up independent mechanisms to address corruption. "No amount of funds dedicated to redress human rights violations will be sufficient if the environment is non-conducive to secure and protect the equality of all human beings in this country," she said. The country's developing status must go hand-in-hand with the wellbeing of its people, especially the marginalised, she added. – October 7, 2014. -

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