Relevance of Universal Periodic Review in Singapore’s case

31 Oct

In its report to the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD), an NGO promoting local and regional democracy and human rights, focused on the city state’s electoral system, which it claims, is the root cause of all human rights abuses. While this is a commendable effort in drawing attention to the shortcomings of the electoral system and appears to coincide with upcoming general elections, its appraisals and recommendations may be of little relevance to the review due to the tenuous and indirect links between free and fair elections and human rights violations. It remains at best, speculative, that open and independent elections would naturally create conducive factors leading to human rights promotion. Moreover, the UPR is tasked to deal with specific human rights violations. As such, NGOs should have chosen to focus on these issues such as the death penalty. While Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (UDHR) affirms the right of all peoples to representative government, this is not explicitly suggested by the SFD report. This article, divided into two parts, briefly describe the history, procedures, strengths and shortcomings of the UPR, before situating within the Singapore context.

The UN Universal Periodic Review

In 2006, the UN Human Rights Council was created to replace the Human Rights Commission with the passing of the General Assembly Resolution 60/251. This resolution states that the Council would have a mandate on issues related to addressing, preventing and responding to human rights violations. A year later, the UPR was established under the mandate of the Council which acts as a stakeholders’ forum with the aim to improve states’ human rights records. Within this mechanism, ‘expertise’ and ‘horizontal’ sectors input are solicited. The ‘horizontal’ aspects are the peer-reviews in which states are ‘reviewed’ by other UN member states in the UPR Working Group which consists of 47 Council members and other interested state parties. The expert opinions are derived from two groups. The first category is based on information provided by UN related bodies such as its internal agencies or Special Rapporteurs while civil society participants, mainly NGOs form the second group (OHCR, n.d.).

While the review process has highlighted certain human rights violations such as allowing victims to voice their concerns, for instance, with the Goldstone Inquiry, it has also been plagued with problems, mainly related to double standards and selectivity (Human Rights Watch 2010, p. 4 – 7). Furthermore, it has yet engender significant human rights improvements. In a Human Rights Watch Report, the international human rights organisation claimed that,

‘… the Council has failed to respond to a large majority of human rights crises and chronic situations of violations that need its attention, seriously calling into question its credibility… Most of the situations the Council has addressed are those inherited from the Commission, and even in those cases the Council’s response has often been weaker than its predecessor’ (Human Rights Watch 2010, p. 1).

Singapore’s review in UPR

According to the UPR calendar, Singapore is slated for this review in 2011 during the 11th session. To the best of my knowledge, only two NGOs, MARUAH and Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD) have tried to solicit expert and public opinion for  the UPR report, though only SFD has made public their submission on its website.

According to its report, the Singapore government has engineered an election system that is responsible for perpetuating human rights abuses within the state (SFD 2010). It is worth quoting at length, from the introduction, which links human rights violations to the biased electoral system,

‘Human rights abuses in Singapore have their roots in the city-state’s electoral system design. The current electoral system has been responsible for continuously returning the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) with super majorities over a period of 45 years in the last 10 general elections. Elections effectively vote the PAP in to all of the Executive and most of the Legislature. There is no independent oversight mechanism to review laws passed in Parliament. Hence, separation of powers and independent checks and balances on the PAP led government do not exist. Instead the PAP led government singularly dominates law making and in many instances rules by the executive decree of Cabinet. As a result of the PAP’s dominance over law making, its complicity in human rights abuses in Singapore are often a result of unjust and bad laws which infringe on basic human rights ideals for speech, assembly and association, etc’ (SFD 2010, p.1).

In short, the report suggests that the lack of viable electoral democracy is the main reason which allows the ruling party to create and justify unjust laws that lead to human rights violations. Logically speaking, redress would begin with electoral reforms such as proportional representation which would prima facie, lead to respect of human rights (SFD 2010, p. 4 – 6).

While the report and its recommendations are commendable, specifically pertaining to enhancing electoral openness, it is however, debatable if the relationship can be easily drawn. While it is generally believed that accountable government promotes human rights, it does not necessarily follow that such governments are free from human rights criticisms. Otherwise, generally democratic governments who conduct regular free and fair elections would never be faulted for violations. Yet, it is the case that even Western European states with a long-standing tradition of protecting human rights such as France have been taken to task for human rights abuses such as police brutality or the explusion of Romas.

Nevertheless, the report makes certain relevant points related to human rights violations, within the context of general elections. For instance, it highlighted the use of defamation suits by the PAP to silence critics, thereby threatening freedom of speech which is one of the rights enshrined in the UDHR (SFD 2010, p. 5).

Having said that, the SFD report is still wanting as its recommendations may prove difficult to be incorporated into the Summary of Stakeholders’ statement  which is compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is because the criteria for the UPR which reviews states are specific. It has to be based on the UN charter, UDHR, human rights treaties the state has entered into, applicable international humanitarian law and any other voluntary pledges and commitments the state has announced that it would adhere to (OHCR n.d.).

Electoral reforms do not normally fit into any of these criteria. This is especially valid with the report that does not make explicit such arguments. Perhaps, a more fruitful approach would be to make the claims that human rights violations are perpetuated during elections , though it needs to be supported by substantial evidence. This is not an unreasonable proposal since Article 21 of the UDHR proclaims universal and equal suffrage as a human right.

If there is no grounds for such claims, then, NGOs could certainly highlight  human rights abuses that the Singapore government has permitted. Detention without trial through Internal Security Act, the death penalty and discrimination against minorities, for instance, are three possible areas that could be singled out for attention.

Conclusions

It is unclear whether MARUAH or other NGOs would submit their report to the upcoming UPR. Given that the deadline for NGO submission has expired, it is possible that civil society actors has not learn to capitalise on this mechanism. Despite its current effective limitations, this UN mechanism is still a viable avenue for  civil society actors to highlight outstanding human rights abuses. While the next review for Singapore would occur only in four years time, NGOs should take this period to engage in preparatory work such as familiarising with the UPR and conducting extensive human rights research.

 

Works Cited

Human Rights Watch 2010, Curing the selectivity syndrome: the 2011 review of the human     rights council, June, accessed <www.hrw.org>.

OHCR n.d., Basic facts about the UPR, accessed 30 October 2010, <http://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/upr/pages/BasicFacts.aspx&gt;.

SFD 2010, Submission to Universal Periodic Review, accessed 29 October 2010, <sfd.sg>.

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