28 human rights groups and organisations, including MADPET (Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture) and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, have expressed their discontent over the delay in appointing new Human Rights Commissioners for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), and have urged Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his government to explain the delay.

In a joint statement made on Wed (26 Jun), the human rights societies also pushed for the reform of the SUHAKAM Act to “ensure a more independent selection process”, as well as to lengthen the tenure and increase the remuneration for Commissioners to make SUHAKAM a “more efficient and effective National Human Rights Institution”.

“The power of choosing HR Commissioners effectively lies with the Prime Minister alone, who is duty bound to consult (but not follow) the recommendation of the selection committee. The King appoints on the advice of the Prime Minister. One future reform could be an independent Selection Committee or process, who selects Commissioners and the King appoints,” the statement read.

Subsequently, the societies also called upon the government to promptly table all past SUHAKAM annual reports and special reports in Parliament for the purpose of debate and scrutiny in the interest of transparency.

“We, the 28 undersigned groups and organizations are appalled that Malaysia still do not have Human Rights Commissioners in SUHAKAM (Malaysian National Human Rights Commission) since the term of office of the last batch of Commissioners came to an end on 27/4/2019, which is about 60 days ago,” the statement read.

The former Barisan National government, as highlighted by the groups, also delayed the appointment of SUHAKAM Commissioners, whereby the appointment of the immediate past team of HR Commissioners was delayed by about 58 days, and a delay of 38 days in the case of the team prior to that.

“The end of the term of office of Commissioners is fixed, and as such the selection should have been done earlier, and the appointment by the King should have happened immediately, so that there will never be a time that SUHAKAM is left without any Human Rights Commissioners,” according to the statement.

Razali Ismail’s resignation on 16 Apr, just two weeks before the end of his three-year tenure at the Parliamentary body, marked the beginning of the gap.

Besides Razali, seven other Commissioners had also ended their term the same month. The last round of appointments was made in Jul three years ago, and were backdated to April that year.

“There have been many different batches of Commissioners to date, and this also makes the failure to appoint the new batch of Commissioners immediately unacceptable,” added the statement.

The 28 human rights groups also highlighted the consequences of SUHAKAM being left without Human Rights Commissioners for a substantial period of time in their statement on Wed.

“Without Human Rights Commissioners, there is no Human Rights Commission, and that is why we have not seen any media statements or any new public inquiries initiated. All that remains at SUHAKAM are the staff, who without the Commissioners cannot really do anything. Neither the Prime Minister, Minister nor can Chief Secretary to the government have the power to direct the work of SUHAKAM staff,” argued the undersigned.

“On the day, the term of office of past Commissioners expired, delegated powers also expire, which means SUHAKAM employees cannot anymore attend(or call for) meetings, organize talks, trainings, conferences and any other activities until we have new HR Commissioners, hence the Commission, who can thereafter delegate powers to staff and give needed direction to its staff,” they added.

The organisations also drew attention to the powers vested in the SUHAKAM Human Rights Commissioners, which includes “the ability to make unannounced visits to places of detentions, which is important to ensure strict compliance to human rights standards”.

“A pre-informed visit, may result in detention authorities, cleaning up and/or even hiding the truth. Now, without commissioners, this also cannot happen. Delay in appointment of Commissioners questions commitment of government to Human Rights,” the statement read.

“It must be pointed that the immediate past HR Commissioners have all, save for Prof. Dato’ Dr. Aishah Bidin, have only served their first term of 3 years, and as such, qualify to be re- appointed to serve their second and final 3-year term.

“As such, the delay in appointment of SUHAKAM Commissioners raises many questions,” said the 28 human rights societies.

One of the key questions raised in the statement is whether the delay in appointing Human Rights Commissioners for SUHAKAM lies in Mahathir and his government’s aim to seek “a new batch” of Commissioners due to Razali’s outspokenness regarding the government’s position in instances where it fails “to defend and promote human rights”.

Some of the instances, as illustrated by the statement, include the inquiry panel’s decision confirming the role of Special Branch officers who were responsible for the enforced disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo who was accused of proselytising to Muslims, and activist Amri Che Mat who was investigated for allegedly spreading the teachings of Shia Islam.

“SUHAKAM, if there were Commissioners, would have most likely responded to many issues in the past couple of months, including also possibly the issues concerning Orang Asli and environment pollution affecting health,” the statement read.

Former SUHAKAM Commissioner Denison Jayasooria told Free Malaysia Today: “Term periods are fixed and the government must have known the time needed for renewals. There should not be gaps.”

“For institutional reforms (to take place), these commissions must not be without their leaders,” he added.

Jayasooria, whose tenure took place from 2006-2010, also urged the Pakatan Harapan administration  explain why new commissioners and a chairman have not been appointed to take charge of Suhakam for two months.

Jayasooria urged the Parliamentary Select Committee for Rights and Gender Equality to look into the matter.

Jayasooria said the annual Suhakam report has yet to be debated in Parliament despite being part of Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto last year.

“This must be a priority for the coming Parliament meeting in July,” he said.

The Star Online quoted de facto Law Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Liew Vui Keong as saying that a list of proposed commissioners for SUHAKAM has already been submitted to Dr Mahathir last week.

“The list has been given to the Prime Minister for him to make the announcement,” Liew told reporters after opening the National High-Level Dialogue on Business and Human Rights in Putrajaya yesterday (25 Jun).