60 years of UDHR and ISA

Charles Tan

10th December 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The story is familiar to those who know its history. It was created to prevent the atrocities that were committed in the First and Second World Wars and first adopted by 48 countries in the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1948.

As the years went by, Asian autocrats would dismiss human rights as a Western invention. Geoffrey Robertson QC, in his book, Crimes Against Humanity, countered these allegations by arguing that Asian states have in fact, been part of the process in the writing of the document.

The final draft, Robertson wrote, was elicited from a “geographically and culturally mixed committee on which major contributions were made by delegates from India, China and Lebanon… Many of today’s African and Asian countries had not at this stage been granted independence, but fourteen members of the 56 state General Assembly were Asian.”

The need to stress the universality of the UDHR cannot be over-emphasised for autocratic ruling elites in Asia, including Singapore, have made outrageous claims to denigrate its importance. Singapore’s Attorney General, Walter Woon, for example, has labelled human rights advocates as fanatics.

Ironically, in the same year that UDHR was adopted, human rights was dealt a significant blow when the British passed the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to combat against communism and nationalism. It allowed the High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya to detain individuals perceived as a security threat without giving them a fair and open trial. Suffice to say, this piece of draconian legislation would evolve to become what is infamously known as the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Over the years, the ISA has been wielded in these countries by the ruling elite for political gains. In Singapore, the mass arrests of journalists, unionists and oppositionists during Operation Coldstore virtually eliminated the Opposition, civil society and other opponents to PAP’s one party rule.

In the mid 80s, the government detained and extracted public confessions from a group of activists and social workers accused of being Marxist conspirators out to violently overthrow the state. The former solicitor-general, Francis Seow was subsequently arrested under the same Act when he tried to represent some of the detainees.

In recent years, the ISA has been used on alleged Jemaah Islamiah terrorists.

The propaganda and rationale for retaining ISA remains deceptively similar over the years, that is, the law is needed to safeguard the security of the state. But security for whom? The ISA has always appeared in the nick of time to either galvanise society against an illusory enemy or to crush a burgeoning and legitimate Opposition.

More importantly, has our society become any safer with the ISA? The Act prides itself on secret intelligence over the rights of individuals. It does not give the individual arrested under this Act the right to defend oneself, something explicitly promised in the UDHR.

At the core of this debate is the balance between national security and the basic human rights of an individual. Singapore’s law books are already armed to the teeth to deal with terrorists and others who will resort to violence.

Recently, when the UK government tried to extend its detention period for alleged terrorists from 28 to 42 days, LIberty, an NGO, and Penguin Books campaigned against the measure by inviting 42 writers to contribute to an online project, aptly titled, 42 Days. The government dropped the idea.

The episode is a sombre reminder of the importance of human rights, in particular, the right of an individual to not be subject to arbitrary arrest and the right to a fair trial. Perhaps, the writers are cognizant of the greater threat of giving the state too much power. They recognised that an assault on civil liberties affects not just the politicians and activists but also the lives of ordinary folks.

As UDHR and ISA approach their 60th anniversaries, the campaign to raise the awareness and elevate the importance of the former and to repeal the latter appears to be even more urgent. In an increasingly interconnected and globalised world where cross-border transnational issues such as trafficking or climate change will significantly impact national and domestic policies, human rights becomes more fundamental as an integrative pillar for any effective solutions to these problems.

Even as human rights declarations and treaties have progressed to various stages and to include minorities and the more vulnerable in recent years, Asian autocrats have remained unapologetic in marginalising them. Indeed the progress of international human rights standards cannot be fully realised until repressive acts such as the ISA are consigned to the historical graveyard.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UDHR, we need to take stock of the battles that we have won and loss over the years. On the losing end, it is regrettable that a veteran opposition politician, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, recently passed away though his legacy and fighting spirit remains with us.

On the other hand, our sacrifices and losses have not been in vain. The world has taken greater notice on the climate of political repression in South East Asia, including Singapore.

For example, Dr Chee’s case has drawn significant worldwide attention whereby even Russian activists have been motivated to petition statements of solidarity. The Tak Boleh Tahan and other non-violent campaigns have started to take root in our little red dot, firing up the imaginations of those who are campaigning in their own way for change, or at least, try to hold the government accountable for its numerous human rights failings in the various sectors.

The fight has to go on.

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