Malaysia: Fulfill UPR commitments, end attacks on freedom of expression

The Malaysian government failed to commit to the full range of reforms necessary to protect human rights during the review of the outcome of its Universal Periodic Review, ARTICLE 19 said today. Nevertheless, Malaysian authorities should take immediate action to implement recommendations made by UN member states and move forward with a broad programme of reform to protect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.  

“The Malaysian government’s limited commitments before the Human Rights Council are not only unacceptable in terms of compliance with international human rights standards, but also fall short of promises made by the Pakatan Harapan during last year’s election campaign,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Malaysia’s reticence to firmly commit to reforms is deeply worrying, although not entirely unexpected given the disappointing human rights record of the government to date.”

Appearing before the Human Rights Council in Geneva during its 40th Session, the Malaysian government today formally responded to the 268 recommendations made by UN member states during Malaysia’s UPR in November 2018. The government accepted 147 recommendations in full and 37 in part, while “noting” a further 84 recommendations.

The Malaysian government accepted several recommendations to review laws that are incompatible with international human rights standards, including the Sedition Act, Communications and Multimedia Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, Official Secrets Act, Anti-Fake News Act, Peaceful Assembly Act, Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, Prevention of Crime Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act and Penal Code. However, the government only accepted in part more specific recommendations to amend these laws, citing the ongoing work of a Special Committee tasked with making recommendations on legal reform as a reason for not fully accepting these recommendations.

Legal reform must remain a top priority for the Malaysian government. Since the change in government last year, authorities have continued to use repressive laws to prosecute activists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression and the right freedom of religion or belief. Earlier this month, four individuals were arrested and charged under the Penal Code and Communications and Multimedia Act for allegedly insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in Facebook posts. One of the four received a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty. Police authorities have reportedly received hundreds of complaints concerning supposed insults against Islam and have confirmed that they have recently opened investigations into several of the cases.

The Malaysian government also failed to accept numerous obligations concerning the rights of women and the LBGTQI community, citing religious belief and “moral consensus” in Malaysia. Recent events highlight the pervasive discrimination faced by women and sexual minorities in the country. Earlier this month police officials initiated an investigation into an International Women’s Day march that included participation by women’s groups, students, LGBTQI activists, and others, citing the lack of a permit to hold the event.  A few days later Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail responded to the march by stating that it is improper for Muslims to support the LGBTQI community. Other senior officials echoed these comments.

ARTICLE 19 recognizes the Malaysian government’s stated commitment to ratifying relevant international human right treaties but regrets its unwillingness to accept recommendations concerning treaty ratification made during the UPR. The government’s reference to the incompatibility of domestic law provisions with international human rights treaties merely underscores the need for a comprehensive program of legal reform, and should not stand in the way of a firm and time-bound commitment to treaty ratification. ARTICLE 19 further regrets the Malaysian government’s refusal to commit to the withdrawal of reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Prior to winning elections in May 2018, the Pakatan Harapan coalition campaigned on a platform that included ratification of human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the government’s commitment to engage UN Human Rights Council special procedures, including by extending an open invitation to visit the country to all special procedures. The government should prioritize arranging visits in response to requests by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression – who last visited the country in 1998 – as well as the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Ahead of Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review, ARTICLE 19 and 14 other Malaysian civil society organisations made a joint submission to the UPR Working Group highlighting threats to freedom of expression and the right to information in the country. On 1 March, ARTICLE 19 responded to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on her visit to Malaysia during her presentation to the 40th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.

“Since coming to power almost a year ago, the Pakatan Harapan government has repeatedly walked back its commitments on human rights reforms,” said Matthew Bugher. “Malaysia’s leaders should address the country’s status as a laggard on treaty ratification and take bold steps to dismantle the repressive legal architecture that encumbers rights protections in the country.”


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