Welcome Address to the Bar Council Human Rights Debate

An edited version of Edmund Bon Tai Soon’s opening speech at the inaugural Bar Council Human Rights Debate delivered on 9 December 2008. In his speech, he explains the germination and eventual evolution of human rights and its development within the framework of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). He also discusses the qualities of human rights and deals with the cultural and political criticisms against human rights. Finally, he enjoins us to embrace human rights and use it as a weapon against oppression by government.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening. Welcome to the inaugural Bar Council Human Rights Debate.

60 years ago on 10 December 1948, the modern international human rights movement was unleashed in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) just 3 years after the end of World War II.

Many of us never experienced the War and it is difficult for us to understand what a truly significant achievement the UDHR was and how it has shaped our civilisation for the better.

The years since the adoption of the UDHR have witnessed significant gains for human rights across the globe – houses for the homeless in India, land for the indigenous in Nicaragua, food for the oppressed in Nigeria and medicine for the sick in South Africa. A common denominator in these examples is the advocacy and implementation of international human rights law and norms.

Today, the 30 articles of the UDHR reflect customary international law.

Today, the UDHR represents the international law of civilised nations.

Today, the UDHR is the world’s moral compass and our collective conscience.

Yet, many children still call streets their home, others still die from the cold of winter every year, and the indigenous still continue to document their traditions threatened with extinction. The situation is not ideal, but we have seen how human rights has given much power to the weak, comfort to the marginalised and strength to the dispossessed.

How did the UDHR come into being? It certainly did not develop in a linear fashion. It is a product of diverse thoughts, and influenced by various factors including concerns of politics and pragmatism. The intention to prevent the kind of atrocities committed against humankind during the War drove the UDHR project.

History clarifies the development of ‘human rights’, as we know of it today, from the time of ancient cultures such as the right to property implicit in the commandment that one shall not steal – to Greek methodology aimed at protecting individuals from abuse of power by governments – to the Roman articulation of the concept of jus gentium – to the natural law theorists who argued that everyone under the law of nature had the right to preserve oneself – to Locke who said that rational individuals agreed to live under a government which was under a duty to protect the natural rights of all through the rule of law – to the period of Enlightenment which saw an emphasis on freedom through the application of human reason – to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 which proclaimed that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights followed by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 – to Bentham’s critique of natural rights as being ‘nonsense upon stilts’ while at the same time introducing utilitarianism as a moral code – to Hegel’s ‘world spirit’ and Marx’s class struggle in unifying the masses – to President Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ in 1918.

The period of totalitarianism and the Holocaust in 1945 then conclusively directed political will towards the drafting of a ‘basic floor’ or of minimum standards recognising the fundamental dignity of the human person, and enforced by a united body of nations.

To the charge that the UDHR is a ‘Western’ document and inapplicable to Asians or Malaysians, let me say this: the UDHR emerged from a culturally diverse United Nations General Assembly including delegates from The Philippines, India, China, Lebanon, Egypt and Chile. 14 members of the 56-state Assembly were Asian, 4 were African and 20 were from Latin America. Articles 22 to 27 supported the interests of developing nations in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, based on shared communitarian values. There were in fact very few cultural divides, other than over the right to marry and change religion.

The UDHR therefore is a document which imported key concepts culled from various humanist philosophies, teachings and practices of world religions. It was drawn on the lessons learned in the wake of national revolutions, war, social, labour and activist movements.

The UDHR does not dictate a particular economic system or preach any particular political ideology. It merely prescribes fundamental humanist tenets – fair trial guarantees for an accused person, that neighbours should help each other in times of need, that the fortunate should feed the hungry, and that the rich should clothe the poor.

The UDHR transcends boundaries and supports the vulnerable in countries not of our own. It makes violations of fundamental rights a global concern. It terrifies oppressive governments.

Today, it is difficult to envisage countries credibly denying the core content of the UDHR. The UDHR has become our international compact. What is this compact?

Human rights are indivisible. Civil and political rights are inter-dependent and inter-related with economic, social and cultural rights. A nation made up of starving citizens need a voice to seek redress. Even with a free press, citizens without a proper education or sufficient nourishment would not be able to speak out and seek help. One cannot do without the other.

Secondly, human rights are universal to all persons.

Thirdly, rights are inherent in each person.

The indivisibility, universality and inherent nature of human rights is now well-accepted. From 1788 to 1948, it was reported that 82% of national constitutions have adopted some provisions dealing with human rights. Today, after 60 years, and a relatively chequered but robust history, we have seen human rights imbued in virtually every national constitution in different forms.

In Malaysia, for example, Part II of the Federal Constitution titled ‘Fundamental Liberties’ lists certain core elements devoted to the protection of the human person. The following appear: Article 5 ‘Liberty of the person’, Article 6 ‘Slavery and forced labour prohibited’, Article 7 ‘Protection against retrospective criminal laws and repeated trials’, Article 8 ‘Equality’, Article 9 ‘Prohibition of banishment and freedom of movement’, Article 10 ‘Freedom of speech, assembly and association’, Article 11 ‘Freedom of religion’, Article 12 ‘Rights in respect of education’ and Article 13 ‘Rights to property’.

The internationalisation of universal human rights standards has also seen regional human rights protection mechanisms flourish in the form of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950), the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004). The recent promise of an ASEAN human rights body continues this upward trend for human rights.

The human rights project is THE idea of our time. It is the peoples’ project. It is our project. We will never be able to solve competing controversies but we will have to accept that without human rights no civilisation will flourish, and humanity will not progress.

Louis Henkin in ‘The Age of Rights’ (1990) wrote:

In this modern, modernizing world, the human rights idea may sometimes appear as an ideology competing with religion, as a threat to traditional societies, as an obstacle to totalitarian socialism or to development in a hurry. But the idea of rights is not a complete, all embracing ideology, is not in fact in competition with other ideologies. Religion explains and comforts, tradition supports, socialism cares, development builds; the human rights idea does none of these. In today’s world – and tomorrow’s – there may be no less need for what religion and tradition have promised and provided, what socialism strives for, what development will bring: the idea of rights is not inconsistent, not in competition with any of them. Rather, religion, traditional societies, socialism, developers, will find, I believe, that their values and goals, even along their particular path, depend on individual dignity and fulfilment, and in a modern world have to be firmly supported by the idea of human rights.

The UDHR is a living instrument, and it gives us a foundation to build our future on.

Governments are duty-bound to respect, protect and fulfil the obligations set forth in the UDHR.

We, the people, are entitled to a ‘rights-based’ approach in public governance.

We, the people, are entitled to a democracy which champions human rights.

Rights are not to be given to us on the basis of discretion of the State or by charity. We are not to beg for them.

We claim them.

What this calls for is for new and innovative ways to realise the ideals of the UDHR.

What this calls for, in the context of Malaysia, is for a mental revolution and a new political construct.

It is an opportune time for a new ‘Malaysian Human Rights Agenda’, and a new ‘issue-based’ political vehicle to further the human rights cause and the human rights story for the next 60 years.

We require a collective on a political platform and within our national political structure to continue the ‘pure struggle’ of human rights in the country, and to advocate the rule of law.

We require organised, united and concerted action which will sincerely speak rights to power – and which seeks to balance or re-distribute political power in the name of human rights.

This collective will not seek power for itself. Neither will it act like a traditional pressure or political group.

This collective is founded on the common belief and shared identity in human rights, and will lead a new political movement calling on a wide range of tactics, both direct and indirect, both inside and outside of Parliament, both inside and outside of Government and both inside and outside of the Courts to shape and improve the state of human rights in the country.

You and I – WE – have the power to end tyranny, the tools to force repression to go into hiding, the resources to eradicate poverty and the ability to abolish cruelty. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Finally, I would like to end by expressing my warm appreciation and gratitude to all the members of the Human Rights Committee and the HRD Organising Committee who worked tirelessly and are wholly instrumental to this event.

I hope you, the participants, will have a wonderful and enriching competition, and will continue with us our shared struggle for a better world.

Thank you.


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