UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaking at a press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on Sat (5 Oct). Photo: Danisha Hakeem/TOC

UN human rights chief supports M’sian govt moratorium on death penalty, urges withdrawal of stifling laws including Sedition Act

The United Nations’ (UN) seventh High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Sat (5 Oct) expressed her support for the Malaysian government’s moratorium on the death penalty, and welcomes its establishment of a special task force on alternative forms of punishment.

Speaking to reporters at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Bachelet said: “I encourage the Government to sustain the current moratorium on the death penalty, and welcome the announcement last month that a special taskforce will be set up to examine alternative forms of punishment to the mandatory death penalty.”

She added that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “stands ready to share evidence-based experience from other countries – both those who retain the death penalty and those who have abolished it”.

De facto Law Minister Liew Vui Keong announced the formation of the special task force last month, which he said was based on a Cabinet decision made in Aug.

The task force will be led by a former Chief Justice, and will comprise a former Federal Court judge, a former official from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, a former official of the Prisons Department, representatives of the Bar Council and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), academicians, and members of civil society.

Bachelet today also urged the Malaysian government to “roll back” legislation “which for a long time impeded freedom of expression and public debate” such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Official Secrets Act.

“I also welcome the steps to establish a new independent police complaints commission which will be an important step towards addressing long-standing problems of torture, ill-treatment and deaths in custody, as well as steps to upgrade some of the more antiquated prisons.

“I encourage the Government to follow up, in a transparent manner, on the important recommendations made by the Institutional Reforms Committee,” she added.

“Leaving no one behind” means identifying and “meaningfully” addressing plight of the most vulnerable groups: UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet

Referring to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which “emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all and leaving no one behind through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, Bachelet said that “the SDG imperative to leave no one behind means it is essential to identify and meaningfully address the situation of the most vulnerable, and to target affirmative action policies on the basis of need, using good, disaggregated data to identify the situation of specific communities”.

Such affirmative action policies, she said, encompass upholding the rights of indigenous people “including their land rights, through meaningful consultation”, the need for “gender equality and to prevent violence against women and end harmful practices, including female circumcision” as per the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women, and ensuring that individuals are “not subjected to violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity”.

Speaking both as High Commissioner and as a former Head of State herself, however, Bachelet acknowledged “the complexity and hurdles” faced by the Malaysian government in creating and implementing certain law reforms, particularly given Malaysia’s diverse multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society with differing interests among groups.

“Malaysia is a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with parallel legal systems and a federal system in which states have considerable powers and diverging approaches. There are strong aspirations for positive change but concerns about how the changes will affect the interests of different sectors of society.

“My meetings with civil society working on a wide spectrum of economic, social, cultural and political rights revealed very committed and well-informed groups that have high expectations for the Government to deliver on its human rights commitments and obligations.

“This is as it should be, and I encourage the Government to work together with civil society actors, religious leaders and local and state leaders in making the case for advancement of human rights for all Malaysians,” she urged.

Bachelet also emphasised the importance of protecting human rights defenders from “harassment or threats in relation to their important work”.

Touching on the Malaysian Parliament’s move to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 via the tabling of the Constitution (Amendment) 2019 Bill in Jul, Bachelet called upon the youth of Malaysia to “engage with political and policy-making processes, to hold their State institutions accountable and ensure decisions are made through meaningful consultation”.

The Bill, which was introduced for its first reading early last month by Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, will amend Clause 1 of Article 119 of the Federal Constitution if it is passed.

As a result, the voting age will be lowered from 21 to 18.

“With this amendment, more Malaysian citizens would be entitled to vote and elect a government through an election, which is in line with a progressive democratic system,” according to the Bill.

A two-thirds majority of 148 votes will be required in order for the amendment to be passed, The Star Online noted.

Other countries in the Asean region that have lowered their voting age to 18 include the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia. Indonesia’s minimum voting age is 17.

Bachelet’s visit to Kuala Lumpur marked the first ever visit to Malaysia by a UN Human Rights High Commissioner, during which she met with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Fri (5 Oct). Other Malaysian government ministers, as well as SUHAKAM and other civil society organisations, were also present during the meeting yesterday.

Prior to her appointment as the UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Bachelet served as the President of Chile from 2006 to 2010, before being re-elected for a second term from 2014 to 2018.