World lawyer gathering in S’pore attacked by Swedish lawmaker

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel
25 Feb 07

Birgitta Ohlsson, MPThe International Bar Association’s October meet runs into more flak as questions are raised about judicial independence in the authoritarian city state

Lawmaker wonders what got into these lawyers. Singapore? Please. In a scorching public letter to President Fernando Pombo of the International Bar Association, Swedish parliamentarian and human rights activist Birgitta Ohlsson has asked that the legal confederation not hold its 2007 annual convention in Singapore this October.

The Asia Sentinel reported on Feb. 21 that the IBA is drawing fire from critics who say the city-state’s courts are among the least independent in the world. The bar association prides itself on believing “in the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary and for judges and lawyers to practice freely and without interference.”

“Human rights and the rule of law have come under severe attack by the Singapore government,” Ohlsson wrote on Friday. “Opposition parties and civil society groups have almost no role to play which leaves democracy in a shambolic state in the island-nation.”

Ohlsson is a member of the Swedish Parliament representing the Liberal Party and is the party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs. The Liberal Party is part of Sweden’s ruling coalition.

“Given the circumstances it is important that the IBA, with its bright and proud reputation of defending human rights and the rule of law throughout the world does not tarnish its good standing by holding its meeting in Singapore,” Ohllson wrote. “I urge you to send a strong message to all undemocratic regimes that the IBA will not compromise its principles by moving this conference elsewhere.”

Olsson added that she has been following political developments in Singapore closely. “I am working with groups there that are extremely concerned about the continued repression in their country. Please assist them by not conferring on the Singapore government the accolade of hosting an IBA conference that it certainly does not deserve.”

On Thursday, Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Right Commission, said in an interview that “I can’t believe these people are going there.” He noted that increasing numbers of countries across Asia are taking their cues from Singapore to sue reporters for defamation in an attempt to prevent them from reporting independently. Just Thursday, a Singaporean high court judge ruled in a defamation case against the Far Eastern Economic Review that the magazine didn’t have the right to outside counsel.

The IBA represents some 30,000 individual lawyers and more than 195 Bar Associations across the world. It professes to “influence the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession,” according to its website.

In a 2000 report on Malaysia the IBA criticizes that country’s use of defamation: “We recommend that courts should not allow claims for or awards of damages in defamation cases to be of such magnitude so as to be a means of stifling free speech and expression,” states the report, titled “Justice in Jeopardy.”

Repeated attempts to contact Mark Ellis, the London-based executive director of the IBA, have failed. A spokeswoman said Ellis was traveling.

Some 3,000 lawyers are expected to attend the conference. On its website, the association said it is “delighted to announce Singapore as the destination of its Annual Conference 2007. Singapore is a unique and dynamic city, filled with culture and brimming with energy and finesse.”

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