The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) should be able to function under eight new commissioners despite its budget being reduced, a minister in charge of human rights said Thursday.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” Paul Low, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, told BenarNews. “The purpose of the budget cut is in line with our current financial state as a nation and does not only affect SUHAKAM.”
Until this week, the eight-member body had been without commissioners since the terms of the last commission expired on April 25. Since then, reports had indicated that its funding could run out in October after the government moved to slash SUHAKAM’s operating budget by half.
The commission is tasked, among other things, with opening inquiries into complaints about alleged human rights violations in Malaysia, where rights advocacy groups have accused the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak of undermining free speech by arresting and charging some of its critics with sedition.
During these lean budgetary times, the government expects the commission to dip into its 4.5 million ringgit- (U.S. $1.1 million-) reserve, Low said.
“The government hopes SUHAKAM will exercise some financial discipline in times of austerity like this,” he said. “[T]his is the sort of thing reserves are for, for times when we have to tighten our belt.”
Members of new panel
The new commissioners, who were appointed by the government on Tuesday, are headlined by veteran diplomat Razali Ismail, its new chairman.
Razali previously served as president of the United Nations General Assembly and as chairman of its Security Council. He also served as the U.N. Secretary General’s special envoy to Myanmar, playing a role in the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
Two commissioners, Aishah Bidin, dean of the law faculty at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and Francis Johen Adam, honorary secretary of the Society for Disabled Sarawak, were reappointed to the commission.
Rounding out the membership list are retired Malaysia Court of Appeal judge Mah Weng Kwai, Borneo Development Corp. (Sabah) Director Godfrey Gregory Joitol, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia senior lecturer Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Salleh, veteran human rights activist and trainer Jerald Joseph and Lok Yim Pheng, secretary general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP).
Low praised the skill sets of the new team, pointing out that Razili’s background with the U.N. would benefit the commission because many human rights issues have an international dimension. Adding an NGO leader, Joseph, who heads Pusat Komas, will empower NGOs and allow their voices to be heard.
“I hope the new commissioners understand that they don’t need more power. They are a commission, they advise the government, but the government might see things differently,” he said.
SUHAKAM was established by parliament under the Human Rights Commission of Act 1999 and held its first meeting on April 24, 2000. Apart from inquiries into rights cases, the commission says it promotes awareness of and education about human rights; advises and assists the government in formulating laws and procedures, as well as negotiating international treaties in that area.
‘Extensive and excellent experience’
Former SUHAKAM Chairman Hasmy Agam whose term ended in April, praised the new members, saying they would be able to carry out the commission’s mandate.
“The new lineup has extensive and excellent experience with admirable characters,” he said.
Before their dismissal in April, previous members had voiced concern that the commission needed more funding from the government to get through the year.
Hasmy said the commission’s budget had been cut from nearly 11 million ringgit (U.S. $2.75 million) in 2015 to 5.5 million ringgits ($1.378 million) this year.
At the time, Low said SUHAKAM might have to confine its operation within the Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur and Selangor) because of the cuts.
Eric Paulsen, who heads Lawyers for Liberty, one of Malaysia’s leading human rights groups, said he looked forward to working with the new commissioners, but hoped that they would emulate their predecessors and work independently.
“In order for that to happen, at a very minimum, SUHAKAM's budget should be restored to the original amount,” Paulsen told BenarNews.
Haireez Azeem Azizi and Fahirul N. Ramli contributed to this report.