Rights abuses revealed in EU free-trade candidate Malaysia

Malaysia stands accused by Human Rights Watch of limiting freedom of expression and assembly. [Zunar/HumanRightsWatch]

A leading candidate for a free trade agreement with the EU has been accused of a major crackdown on human rights, in what could be a test case for Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s new focus on an ethical dimension to FTAs.

Human Rights Watch, in a scathing 141-page report published Tuesday (27 October), accuses the government in Kuala Lumpur of creating a “culture of fear”, through what it calls the “criminalisation of peaceful expression in Malaysia”.

Brussels is currently exploring a possible resumption of FTA talks with Malaysia, which were launched in October 2010, but put on hold in 2012.

By comparison, negotiations with Thailand on an FTA were immediately halted in 2014, following the military coup in the country.

The HRW report – written over 17 months, and interviewing some 38 academics, lawyers, journalists and activists – claims that Malaysia is using a variety of laws to shut down free speech and the freedom of assembly.

Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, said: “Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government have repeatedly broken promises to revise laws that criminalise peaceful expression.

“Instead, Malaysia has gone on a binge of prosecutions of critics.”

>> Read: EU and ASEAN to jump start trade agreement talks

Earlier this month, Malmström outlined her vision of a “more responsible” attitude to trade,  in which new free trade agreements would espouse sustainable development, human rights, fair and ethical trade and the fight against corruption.

But the HRW report gives a litany of specific examples of the degenerating human rights situation in the 31-million strong constitutional monarchy.

It states that the government is “using and abusing a range of broad and vaguely worded laws to criminalise peaceful expression, including debates on a matters of public interest…[and] a disturbing trend of abuse of the legal process, including late night arrests”.

Among the examples cited are Law Professor Azmi Sharom, now on trial for sedition over a legal opinion he gave back in 2009.

Malaysia’s best known cartoonist, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, whose work is shown above, is on trial on nine counts of sedition – one for each tweet he sent criticising the Malaysian Federal Court for upholding the sodomy conviction of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

If convicted on all counts, he could face 43 years in jail.

None of the five government ministers HRW contacted for reaction to the report responded. EURACTIV has contacted the Malaysian embassy in Brussels for comment.

>>Read: MEPs condemn Thai junta

Malaysia is a member of the 10-strong Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), with which the EU is also negotiating an FTA, in addition to the bilateral one with Malaysia.

A spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström told EURACTIV that “Regarding human rights, trade policy should be seen as one component of a wider approach, where different policies and actions aim to address directly or indirectly human rights: among others: political dialogues, cooperation at multilateral and bilateral level, development aid and all the external dimension of EU domestic policies.

“Against this backdrop the EU and Malaysia are negotiating a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which will contain dedicated provisions establishing the respect, promotion and co-operation on human rights as an essential element of the bilateral relations.

“If and when FTA negotiations are resumed, the EU will push for an institutional and legal link between the FTA and the PCA, which will allow the suspension of the FTA in the event of severe and systematic violation of human rights.

“As in other FTAs, the Commission will pursue ambitious provisions aiming at fostering governments’ accountability and civil society empowerment – and thereby strengthening a supportive environment for human rights. This is the case, for instance, for rules on transparency and on the direct involvement of civil society in the implementation of provisions on trade and sustainable development. The European External Action Service is also in discussions with Malaysia on establishing a human rights dialogue.”

The Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, will play host to the next ASEAN conference – which US President Barack Obama will also attend – in November.

The EU, under Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, is currently at various stages of negotiation for Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and the 10-member ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) itself.

ASEAN is the EU's third largest trading partner outside Europe, after China and the US.

Malaysia is the EU's 23rd largest trading partner in goods, with Malaysian exports largely in machinery, electrical appliances, plastics, rubber, animal and vegetable fats.

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