IBA defends Singapore conference choice

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel
28 Feb 07

The International Bar Association says Singapore is a fine place for an annual conference.

The group says holding a convention in the island republic is the best way of publicizing legal shortcomings. Others disagree.

The International Bar Association is defending its decision to hold its annual conference in October in Singapore, which critics say has one of the least independent court systems in the world.

In a Feb. 26 letter to Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, the IBA said: “It is not uncommon that countries selected to host IBA events are themselves challenged to adhere to international human rights norms and laws. The IBA has held, or supported, events in Nigeria, Mexico, Jordan, the UAE, Russia, Iraq, Peru, Malawi, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Swaziland, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, the West Bank and Gaza, Cambodia, Venezuela, and China, all countries struggling to uphold the rule of law.”

The international legal association’s presence, according to the letter, which was signed by six IBA officials, “has allowed us to engage the legal profession on the importance of governance, transparency and the rule of law.”

The meetings they refer to in the letter, however, are not annual conferences, the group’s showpiece event at which thousands of legal professionals attend, but smaller meetings and other minor gatherings.

Every annual conference the group has had, beginning with the first in Barcelona in 1999, has been held in a country with a functioning multi-party democracy. Last year’s gathering was in Chicago and the one before that was in Prague. New Zealand, the Netherlands, and post-apartheid South Africa have also hosted IBA annual conferences. The 2008 meeting is scheduled for Buenos Aires.

Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew remains influential as Minister Mentor and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister. The economic success of the island state has largely masked the fact that the media is tightly controlled and opposition politicians are marginalized and harassed.

The latest US State Department Human Rights report also notes “Significant problems” in Singapore with regard to executive influence over the judiciary. “Government leaders historically have used court proceedings, in particular defamation suits, against political opponents and critics,” the report states. “both this practice and consistent awards in favor of government plaintiffs raised questions about the relationship between the government and the judiciary and led to a perception that the judiciary reflected the views of the ruling party in politically sensitive cases.”

Meanwhile Chee, who wrote to the London-based IBA on Feb. 15 protesting the decision to hold the conference in the island state, was threatened with three weeks in jail after being found guilty the same day the letter was sent – Feb. 26 – and fined S$4,000 for attempting to leave Singapore without permission. Chee’s problem is that he was declared bankrupt after he failed to pay two former prime ministers S$500,000 awarded them in a defamation judgment in 2001. As such he is barred from traveling. It was the 12th time Chee was refused permission to leave the island, this time to attend the World Movement for Democracy conference held in Turkey in 2006.

Singapore government officials including current and former prime ministers Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong have sued opposition leaders scores of times for defamation after they made remarks critical of the government. No Singapore leader has ever lost a defamation case in a Singapore courtroom, including cases against the Asian Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and other publications. The Singapore press has never opposed the government on any substantial issue.

The IBA has come under fire from critics for their decision to hold the conference in Singapore. Birgitta Ohlsson, a human rights activist and member of the Swedish Parliament, wrote Fernando Pombo, the president of the IBA, on Feb. 23, saying, “human rights and the rule of law have come under severe attack by the Singapore Government” and “Opposition parties and civil society groups have almost no role to play.”

Nonetheless, the IBA, in its letter, said the 2007 annual conference was assigned to Asia and Singapore was selected in 2004 by a vote of the governing council “represented by the 195 member bar associations and law societies. Our host will be the Law Society of Singapore, the President of which is the distinguished writer and lawyer Philip Jeyaretnam.”

Philip Jeyaretnam is the son of Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, the former leader of the Singapore Worker Party, who was sued 27 times for defamation by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, bankrupted and driven from politics

Chee Soon Juan was unavailable for comment. However, his Australia-based lawyer, Tim Robertson, said that “I have not the slightest doubt that Singapore will use the occasion of the IBA conference as evidence of worldwide approval of its system of justice, it already claims that independent groups rate its courts as the best in the world.”

Just last week Robertson was denied the chance to represent the Far Eastern Economic Review in a defamation suit filed by Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew. In response, he said in an email: “I was denied entry to the courtroom on an entirely spurious ground. The proceedings took place in secret. It is an outrage that a case that had important implications for the development of international law and involved the PM and his father as litigants should have been held in secret. It is worse that entry to the courtroom in Singapore now depends on the court’s opinion as to the political views of the entrant. That is political censorship.”

The IBA, the officials said, would for the first time have a “rule of Law Day” which would encourage active audience participation to address a variety of issues around the importance of the rule of law including an Asian perspective on the subject.

IBA vice president Fernando Pelaez-Pier is quoted on the group’s website saying, “The 2007 Annual Conference in Singapore will be a great opportunity for our members to network with Asian lawyers and learn more about their practices and the development of that region.”

How much outside individuals might be allowed to interact with the visiting attorneys is problematical, however, if the experience of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at last September’s annual meetings is any example. Protesters and critics, even some invited to attend by the meetings?organizers, were mostly denied entry into the country and shunted to Batam, an Indonesian island 20 kilometers across the Singapore Strait. They were so effectively walled off from the meetings that leaders of the two organizations, normally chary of protesters, actually had to demand of Singapore officials that protesters be allowed.

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