Call for new international standards and norms to enable the  international community to carry out the Vienna Declaration mandate to promote and protect human rights anywhere in the world without being accused of interfering in the domestic affairs of nations

International human rights conference on "Universal Rights and Human Values" 
sponsored by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation
Lim Kit Siang  

(Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Friday): Two events which took place in two completely different corners of the world in the past two days have given special meaning and significance to this international human rights conference in Edmonton, Canada to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the rejoicing of human rights activists in different parts of the world at these events powerfully underscore the timeless universality of human rights - the House of Lords decision in the United Kingdom on the Pinochet case on Wednesday establishing the great precedent that there can be no diplomatic immunity for genocide and crimes against humanity like mass murders and tortures; and the Singapore Government’s lifting of all restrictions on one of the longest-serving prisoners of conscience in the world, Chia Thye Poh, whose 23-year detention once put him in the same league as Nelson Mandela, and who was subject to a variety of restrictions and disenfranchisement of his civic rights for another nine years after his formal release from detention under the Internal Security Act  (ISA) in 1989.

Chia Thye Poh’s reaction that the Singapore Government’s release of all restrictions on him had come to late was most apt, as the best part of his life - 32 years - had been taken away without charge or trial.

This is a gross injustice of iniquitous legislation like the ISA in Singapore and Malaysia which allows for detention without trial.

The Singapore Home Ministry threatened yesterday that despite the lapse of restriction order, Chia would be "dealt with firmly under the law" should he in future reinvolve himself in activities "prejudicial to Singapore’s security".

It is the Singapore Government which owes the international community a full explanation as to how it could be so cruel, heartless and inhumane as to politically detain a person and restrict his political and civil rights on grounds of "activities prejudicial to Singapore’s security" for over three decades, when there had been a complete change in the political, economic and security landscape of the island republic in  the last 32 years since Chia’s first arrest.

The international human rights scene, however, has never been a smooth and easy passage, as these two positive developments cannot relieve the long sad tale of continued flagrant human rights abuses in many countries in the world, whether West, East, North or South or the emergence of new black spots of human rights violations.

Malaysia is one such example. In the past three months, Malaysia has suddenly become the new "bad boy" in the world of human rights, hogging the international media with a long-running saga raising disturbing questions involving fundamental principles like the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which had been accepted half a century ago as universal rights  in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as:

When a person who had just held the second highest political office in the land, heir-apparent/ designate to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and a well-known international advocate for human rights and the civil society, could be stripped of the most basic rights and fundamental liberties embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights within 24 hours of his ouster from government and the ruling party, how could there be justice, honour, dignity and respect of human rights for the ordinary people of the country?

It is no surprise that there is widely-held international perception that Malaysia had transformed  overnight from a civil society into a rogue society which had stopped according respect for basic human rights and fundamental liberties.

The shabby treatment of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and the deprivation of his most fundamental rights were in the news in the international media almost every day, starting from his trial and conviction by the local media of the most terrible charges ranging from sexual misconduct to corruption, being pawn of foreign powers to high treason;  the utter disregard of the pricniple that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty; the overnight transformation from the No. 2 leader in the the country to be the No. 1 criminal in the country; the commando-style of his arrest as if his private residence had become the headquarters of an international terrorist network although his lawyers had earlier offered co-operation to the police in any arrest; his detention under the infamous Internal Security Act; his subsequent release under this law when he was charged in court under another law, but denied bail; his turning up in court with a "black eye" which he alleged was the result of police assault when handcuffed and blindfolded until he lost consciousness on the first night of his arrest ten days earlier; the refusal of the government to commission an independent investigation into Anwar’s "black eye" or to  release the report of the police "black eye" investigations; the high-handed police action in using chemically-laced water cannons, tear gas and downright police violence to deal with peaceful assembly of people demonstrating support for Anwar.

There was indiscriminate use of the Internal Security Act and abuse of police powers  to systematically humiliate detainees, with top police officers admitting in the trial of Anwar that they have special techniques to "turn over" and "neutralise" people who are recalcitrant, even  to alter or retract their earlier statements given to the police.

Futurist Alvin Toffler had written about the plight of his Pakistani scientist friend, Dr. Munawar Ahmad Anees, who was detained under the Internal Security Act and was "broken" so completely in a few days that he appeared in court to plead guilty to a serious offence, which got him jailed for six months as well as making him the sole key witness in a serious charge levelled against Anwar Ibrahim.

The  statutory declaration made by Munawir two months later, which is available on the Internet, is a most damning document of the blatant violation of human rights and dignity in a year dedicated to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Malaysia is a microcosm of a multi-religious and multi-cultural diversity, with strong followings of the great religions and sages of the world, whether Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikkhism or Confucius and it is legitimate to ask how an  Asian tiger economy until the recent  international financial meltdown and which had enjoyed generally  high regard in the international community could degenerate with such suddenness to trample on all the basic freedoms and fundamental liberties enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In actual fact, the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Malaysia had long been under siege - well-before the ouster of Anwar, except that it had not attracted international attention although all the facts were there for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Malaysia is undergoing a multitude of crisis - not only the worst economic and political crisis in the nation’s history, but also the crisis of confidence in the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and the entire system of democratic governance - highlighted and symbolised by the cases and trials of Anwar , the NGO woman activist Irene Fernandez and the jailing of the Opposition Member of Parliament, Lim Guan Eng, for  discharging his parliamentary duties to defend the honour, women’s rights and human rights of an underaged 15-year-old girl, the victim of statutory rape when  the accused  was the most powerful political leader in her state.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 made the important statement that the promotion and protection of human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community, whether international organisations, national players or individuals.

This statement has been profoundly vindicated by the Pinochet case, establishing the principle that the violation of human rights - whether of individuals or the peoples of a community - cannot be the sovereign right of nation-states but is a legitimate concern of the international community.

The time has come for the international community to develop new international standards and norms whereby the international community can carry out the (VDPA) mandate to promote and protect human rights without being deflected or distracted by protests or allegations of interference in the domestic affairs of nations.

The development of such new international norms and standards for the promotion and protection of human rights by the international community will be a significant movement forward in the next half century of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong