Opaque selection of rights commissioner

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Open letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Anifah Aman

We, members of the Southeast Asia Women's Caucus on Asean in Malaysia (Women's Caucus), urge the Malaysian government to adopt an open, transparent, and inclusive process in selecting the next commissioner to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), who will serve from 2015 to 2018.

Asean continues to extend its engagement in human rights, reaching a significant milestone last week by adopting the Asean Human Rights Declaration.

Correspondingly AICHR, which drafted the declaration, will grow in significance, making it increasingly important that the government institutionalises a process to best select Malaysia's commissioner.

Not open, not transparent, not inclusive

Malaysia's AICHR commissioner selection process is not open, transparent, or inclusive.

The current commissioner, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, was nominated for the position by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and approved by the prime minister in 2009 for his first three year term.

The process through which the government nominated and approved Shafee is unclear. The government did not open nominations to civil society or the public, or disclose details about the selection process.

The Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman, said of Shafee's appointment, as reported by Bernama , that he was nominated as "Malaysia needed a man of integrity and who had the knowledge and passion for human rights" and that he "should be able to represent Malaysia well and defend allegations unfairly labelled against us."

Shafee has been appointed to a second term, through a similarly opaque process. He will serve until the end of 2015. Commissioners can serve a maximum of two terms.

Adopting good practices

Instituting an open, transparent, and inclusive process in selecting Malaysia's AICHR commissioner would be in line with good practices in other human rights commissions.

Members in other regional human rights commissions are generally nominated by their countries through a much more credible process.

Additionally, members of commissions like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) face competitive elections at the regional level through a secret ballot. AICHR commissioners are automatically accepted at the regional level, making the national nomination process even more crucial.

The government need not look further than at the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), the closest equivalent to AICHR at the national level.

In 2009, under threat of having Suhakam's "A" status downgraded by the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs (ICC), the government reformed its selection process of Suhakam commissioners.

The prime minister consults a five-member selection committee and advises the king on whom to select as Suhakam commissioners.

Invitations to nominate candidates to be commissioners were sent to several non-governmental organisations, though not shared publicly.

Adopting this process, which is far from perfect, is an acknowledgment that we should strive to fulfil international best practices.

The government should be consistent and build on this positive step by introducing similar reforms in the AICHR commissioner selection process.

AICHR is set up and operates differently from other regional human rights commissions and Suhakam.

But instituting an open, transparent, and inclusive selection process in selecting commissioners is still achievable.

Both Thailand and Indonesia extend calls for nominations to the public, and are transparent about the interview and selection process.

A more credible commission

The purpose of AICHR, as laid out in the commission's terms of reference, is first and foremost to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of Asean.

Commissioners are mandated to act impartially in carrying out their duties.

Yet AICHR has been largely criticised by civil society and scholars for lacking independence and credibility.

The United Nations has been critical of AICHR's handling of the Asean Human Rights Declaration, which falls behind universal human rights standards and had largely been drafted in secrecy.

Introducing an open, transparent, and inclusive selection process for Malaysia's AICHR representative is a step the Malaysian government can unilaterally implement to improve AICHR's credibility and build civil society's confidence in the commissioner.

The Malaysian government should not waste this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to human rights to the regional and global community.

Most importantly, an open, transparent, and inclusive process will give a greater number of candidates a chance to apply, ensure a fair selection process, and increase public accountability.

This process will help ensure that Malaysia is represented by the most suitable person in AICHR, taking into account impartiality, gender equality, integrity, and competence in the field of human rights.

The Southeast Asia Women's Caucus on Asean in Malaysia is a network of seven NGOs that engages Asean to advance women's human rights. It is part of a regional network of more than 60 organisations in the ten Asean member states and East Timor.

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