The Singapore government clings to the outdated doctrine of absolute national sovereignty. Under this principle, states have absolute freedom to decide their own internal affairs and foreign parties have no right to interfere. Casting themselves as holders of the electoral mandate to speak and act for Singapore, our government strongly rejects attempts by outside parties to take an interest in Singapore’s domestic affairs, challenging critics to a fight.
You see this principle at work when the government punishes foreign media for commenting critically on them. Punishment takes the form of defamation suits and restrictions on circulation. Under the radar, there’s also control in the form of licencing for foreign journalists trying to do interviews in Singapore.
More recently, gazetting of non-government organisations (NGOs) as “political associations” has been in the news. Once so gazetted, NGOs cannot receive help and funding from foreign parties.
Every year at the United Nations, when a General Assembly resolution on the abolition of the death penalty is debated, Singapore leads opposition to the resolution (and is regularly defeated by the majority of UN members). If you look at the arguments made by Singapore, you see a familiar refrain: National sovereignty means no foreign party, not even the UN, can tell the Singapore government what is right or wrong. If the Singapore government wants to go as far as to commit genocide, even that is an act of national sovereignty, and no one outside Singapore has any right to criticise.
The fact is, only authoritarian states cling to this definition of national sovereignty. The world as a whole has been moving away from this atavistic notion for close to a hundred years.
There is today a concept of international law that binds states’ behaviour. Just as an individual is a member of a community and to varying degrees is bound by the community’s laws and customs, so a state, as a member of the international community, is bound by international laws and conventions.
In May next year, Singapore’s usually prickly response to international evaluation will be tested, for that is when we will, for the first time, have our human rights record assessed by fellow members of the international community.
Universal Periodic Review
In 2006, the United Nations set up the UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva. The Council has all 192 members of the UN under its purview. At the same time, the UN also established a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by which the Council will evaluate and promote human rights in member countries.
The UPR operates over a four-year cycle, with one quarter of UN members being subject to review every year. Singapore is among the batch that will come up for assessment in May 2011. It will be Singapore’s first time under the spotlight.
The diagram at right gives you an outline of the UPR process. In preparation for 2011, the first stage has been done. Various local NGOs have submitted reports giving their views about the human rights situation in Singapore to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR).
These NGOs include People Like Us (discussing discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender persons), Singaporeans for Democracy (discussing shortcomings about our democracy and electoral system), Transient Workers Count Too (discussing treatment of migrant workers), Maruah (discussing capital punishment and detention without trial), and several others. I believe most or all of these groups have put their submissions up online for public perusal.
The next phases are now in progress. Various treaty bodies will also be submitting reports to the OHCHR regarding Singapore’s adherence to treaties that we have signed (not many), while the Singapore government is required to produce its own assessment of the human rights situation by 1 February 2011. No prizes there for guessing the tone of that report to come.
Then it gets interesting.
On Friday, 6 May 2011, between 9 a.m. and noon, Swiss time, Singapore will face the working group of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and take questions from other nations. The proceedings will be webcast.
From what I’ve seen of other countries’ experience, other governments will read the reports submitted or compiled and take up various points to interrogate Singapore over. For example, when Malaysia was under review in 2009, Sweden queried Malaysia about its poor record on gay equality. Britain asked about freedom of religion and “the right to leave a faith”. The Czech Republic’s questions included one concerning its treatment of detainees while the Netherlands asked Kuala Lumpur to elaborate on this point: “The existing right to freedom of assembly in Malaysia seems to be mostly applicable to groups supporting government policies, while groups opposing government policies are often denied permission or targeted for arrests and/or harsh crackdowns.”
You can expect Singapore to be dragged over the coals on similar issues.
After the interrogation session, which the UN calls, in diplomatic language an “Interactive Dialogue”, the Human Rights Council prepares and adopts a list of recommendations. Singapore is then given four years to implement them.
In 2015, another round of the UPR begins for us. Local NGOs will be asked to submit reports on whether the Singapore government has implemented the recommendations. The Singapore government will likewise have a chance to explain itself, and so on.
As you can see, the UPR process is designed to involve the voice of the people. The process can become, over time, a significant force for change provided citizens get involved, doing their part to point out to the international community where human rights are insufficient. It does not matter if you have missed the first stage, because the UPR process is a continuing, reiterative process.
Singaporeans for Democracy is holding a public forum to discuss action plans for the next stages leading up to May 2011. Do attend if you can. Here are the details:
Date: Saturday, 4 December 2010
Time: 10:30h to 14:00h
Venue: Hotel Grand Pacific (formerly Allson Hotel), Victoria Room, 2nd Level.
RSVP at SfD’s Facebook event page