By Susan Loone
A regional human rights organisation has expressed concern about the ‘significant delay’ in response by Malaysia to sexual violence against Penan women and girls by workers attached to a private logging company in Sarawak.
Pooja Patel, the Forum-Asia representative in Geneva, acknowledged that Malaysia had set up a national task force.
However, the NGO remains deeply concerned that “no concrete measures have been taken so far to act upon its findings and recommendations or bring perpetrators to justice”.
Patel said thatForum-Asia, together with local indigenous support groups in Malaysia, have since documented new cases of sexual abuse.
“We have also conducted research on the wider structural causes to the issue of persistent sexual violence and exploitation faced by Penan women and girls,” she said during a dialogue yesterday with James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples.
“These include denial of their land rights and basic citizenship rights as well as defunct mechanisms for redress and remedies.”
A copy of Patel’s statement was made available to Malaysiakini.
She said Forum-Asia, based in Bangkok and representing more than 40 human rights organisations, has requested the special rapporteur to remain vigilant on human rights violations against the Penan.
Anaya was asked to follow up with Malaysia on the alleged incidents of sexual violence, and to develop comprehensive programmes that serve the needs of Penan women and girls.
It is learnt that he had communicated with the Malaysian government in November 2008, but has not received a response .
In July, the Penan Support Group, a coalition of 36 NGOs, had released a detailed report, describing the ordeal of the Penan women and their communities.
The logging company Samling Global, which has consistently denied the allegations, immediately reminded employees in a circular that it does not tolerate criminal acts or inappropriate behaviour, and that offenders will be reported to the authorities.
Explanation of delay
In a related development, the Malaysian delegate’s office in Geneva has issued a statement explaining the delay in responding to Ananya two years ago.
Read on behalf of the government by Johan Ariff Abdul Razak, it attributed the delay to official action in progress at the time.
A high-level task force chaired by the women, family and community development minister had only just been established at the time, and was undertaking its own investigation on the issue of alleged sexual violence against Penan women, said the statement.
The task force report, initially kept under wraps by the cabinet, was finally made public in September last year after coming under pressure from PKR Women’s chief Zuraida Kamaruddin.
“It was only appropriate that the findings of the task-force be included in its response to the special rapporteur’s communication,” said the statement.
“For its part, the government remains committed to ensuring that the Penan continue to reap the same benefits as other communities from the nation’s continued progress and development.
“In this connection, it is unfortunate that certain quarters, both domestically and internationally, have sought to politicise the situation of the Penan, which is not necessarily the most constructive approach.”
According to government data, 97 percent of the Penan community have adopted a settled lifestyle, with the remaining 3 percent – numbering several hundreds – have retained their traditional nomadic way of life.
It is this latter group which is at greater risk of potential human rights violations, including sexual abuse, said the government.
It claimed that, like other indigenous communities in Malaysia, the full range of human rights of the Penan are constitutionally protected. — Malaysiakini