Malaysia: International Labour Day assembly held peacefully amid excessive restrictions

Kuala Lumpur, 2 May 2023. Following the monitoring of the International Labour Day march and rally in Kuala Lumpur, international observers urge Malaysian authorities to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to refrain from carrying out reprisals against organisers and participants.

International observers were deployed for the pilot observation of the Asia Assembly Observation Network (AAON), an initiative by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) to ensure independent monitoring of public assemblies in Asia.

On 1 May 2023, at least 400 members of civil society, including from marginalised groups, participated in a peaceful march in the center of Kuala Lumpur. The annual International Labour Day march had been postponed because of pandemic restrictions since 2020, and this year the event resumed under the theme of “dignified salary and food security.”

The participants expressed messages in support of a broad range of workers’ rights and social livelihood issues, including enforcing and raising the minimum wage, ending the system of private contracts for government sanitation and security workers, and supporting land rights for agricultural workers.

The AAON notes that Malaysia’s prior notification system under the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) does not adequately uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Law enforcement authorities imposed the starting and ending locations of the march, and organisers agreed to march in only one lane of traffic, rather than taking up the entire street. Organisers followed the PAA and additional stipulations stemming from the negotiations with the authorities, which ensured that the event was carried out peacefully and safely for those present.

However, the restrictions the authorities imposed on organisers regarding the location and modalities of the assembly were neither necessary nor proportionate in relation to the nature and size of the march, and the event did not threaten public safety. Under international standards, peaceful assemblies should be permitted in public spaces and their modalities should not be unduly restricted.

Authorities are responsible for facilitating an enabling environment for the assembly so that organisers and participants may exercise their rights. However, minutes prior to the start of the march, authorities attempted to further restrict the procession of the march by limiting it to pedestrian areas. Organisers asserted the initial agreement to occupy a lane of traffic and conducted the march in a safe manner for both participants and the public. In fact, the march and rally were entirely peaceful, and organisers effectively and safely facilitated traffic flows during the march.

Additionally, the presence of police, including members of its Special Branch, and the deployment of Kuala Lumpur City Council officers during the march were obtrusive and did not substantially contribute to the safety of the march. Overall, the security presence led to an environment of unnecessary surveillance on the participants.

Even if the authorities may later deem that domestic laws have not been strictly followed, the conduct of the organisers and participants was exemplary.

The subsequent summons of organisers by police on 2 May follows the principle that authorities should permit the march to go forward despite some objections to the modalities of the event. However, AAON is concerned that this procedure may be used to harass or intimidate organisers for their participation in a peaceful assembly. In addition, criminal or administrative sanctions should be proportionate and not based on ambiguous or overly broad offenses – and in this case, any sanctions would be entirely unwarranted.

AAON recommends that no criminal or administrative sanctions be placed on organisers of this peaceful assembly. It also calls on the authorities to refrain from using surveillance data to harass, intimidate, or become grounds for sanctions against participants or organisers exercising their internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

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