Suhakam chair: Malaysia wasn’t ready to sign Rome Statute, ICERD in 2019, but have to start preparing

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Three months after being appointed to chair the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), Prof Datuk Rahmat Mohamad finally broke his silence on why he co-authored a paper objecting to the country’s ratification of the Rome Statute in 2019.

In an interview published today, the law professor at Universiti Teknologi Mara told news portal Malaysiakini that he did it because he felt the country was not prepared for the legal implications of ratifying the international treaty at the time.

“People misunderstood me, [they think] that I am an opposer of the Rome Statute. No, it is not that. I am never against [punishing] those four big crimes,” he was quoted as saying.

Ahmad Zamzahuri

Rahmat was referring to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression as set under the Rome Statute, which empowers the International Criminal Court (ICC) to charge individuals for those four big international crimes when a member state is unable or unwilling to do so.

The Rome Statute was among the international treaties the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government ratified after winning Election 2018 but was forced to reverse the decision a month later in April 2019 following claims that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong would be made liable for prosecution as the supreme commander of Malaysia’s armed forces.

In the interview with the news portal, Rahmat said that while the government of the day’s intentions were good, the country was just not ready to sign the treaty at that point.

“If you become party to the Rome Statute, you need to domesticate local laws. When they announce it, it is not immediately applicable.

“In our case, we have to go to Parliament to do the necessary laws to ensure the provisions in the Rome Statute are applicable,” Rahmat told Malaysiakini.

Another international treaty that the PH government sought to ratify and failed was the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Rahmat told the news portal that Malaysia lacked sufficient preparation to go through with the ICERD too, saying the country’s judiciary needed to be educated on its local application and the Conference of Rulers had to be consulted.

“So, are we in that situation [of preparedness]?” he posed in the interview.

“When you talk about ICERD, there is the Federal Constitution with sensitive issues. So how do you resolve this? We cannot simply sign.

“As far as ICERD is concerned, we are not ready but we have to start preparing. The preparation is the process,” he was quoted saying, adding that Suhakam would be contributing to it.

Rahmat, who has eight years of experience as the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation secretary-general, had previously been criticised as being one of the impediments to Malaysia’s move to improve its human rights record.

In 2018, he penned an open letter highlighting that Malaysia should prioritise legislating international human rights instruments into domestic law before ratifying international human rights laws.

In it, he claimed that many African nations he worked with were sceptical about the Rome Statute, concerned about the bias from the ICC as leaders from their part of the world were more susceptible to being prosecuted.

Rahmat also received a lot of public flak since co-authoring a document that was said to convince Malaysia’s Malay Rulers to reject the ratification of the Rome Statute. – MMO