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Malaysia: Bill on Peaceful Assembly Criticized

(Dec. 9, 2011) Malaysia's parliament has passed a bill on peaceful assembly that has been called a threat to the basic freedom in that country. The law has been described by United Nations' experts as designed to “arbitrarily and disproportionately restrict the right to assemble peacefully.”(Malaysia: New Bill Threatens Right to Peaceful Assembly with Arbitrary and Disproportional Restrictions, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] website (Dec. 7, 2011).)

The law would limit access of the media to public gatherings, ban street protests, and prohibit non-citizens and citizens under the age of 21 from peacefully assembling. (Id.) In addition, the draft puts in place broad restrictions and conditions on public assemblies, including a notification procedure for assemblies. The legislation has been attacked as having only a vague definition of “assembly” and for giving too much power to law enforcement officers and the Home Affairs Minister to record and control assemblies. (Id.)

The new law is designed to replace sections 27-27C of the Police Act of 1967, which required a police permit for any rally or march; anyone who organized or took part in a gathering without a permit or who did not follow police directions in connection with an assembly could be fined or imprisoned for up to one year. The new law will have more detailed provisions than the Police Act sections it is replacing. (Amanda Whiting, Malaysia – Assembling the Peaceful Assembly Act, NEW MANDALA (Dec. 6, 2011).)

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, stated that the law's restrictions were not justifiable under international law. He added that civil society groups and Malaysia's Human Rights Commission were not consulted in the drafting process. (Id.)

Margaret Sekaggya, who is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, was particularly concerned about the law's ban on assembly by citizens under the age of 21, noting, “[p]olitical and social participation through peaceful protests are not only an educational experience for children, youth and students but also an investment for society as a whole.” (Malaysia: UN Experts Warn New Bill Restricts Right to Peaceful Assembly, UN NEWS CENTRE (Dec. 7, 2011).) Other U.N. rights experts have focused on the law's restrictions on the assembly rights of non-citizen migrants and argued that the freedom to assemble peaceably is a key component of democracy. (Id.)

As a group, the U.N. human rights experts stated that “with this legislation, people in Malaysia may not be able to express their dissent in public spaces without fear of being detained or sanctioned.” (OHCHR, supra.) These experts serve without payment and report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, headquartered in Geneva. (UN NEWS CENTRE, supra.)