Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mixed mood at human rights celebration

Dec 11, 2008

Cheer, scepticism at event to mark Declaration's 60th year

By Jeremy Au Yong

HUMAN rights will always take a back seat to other interests and no country in the world can be expected to have a consistent human rights policy, said Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh.

He gave his frank view on the issue yesterday, the day the world marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking at an event in Four Seasons Hotel celebrating the day the document was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, he said every country would have to balance human rights against its other interests.

'In the real world, no country, no matter how idealistic, can pursue a foreign policy based exclusively on human rights or even on human rights as a first priority.'

It was therefore unfair for anyone to criticise the West for inconsistent human rights policy because it is intrinsic in the nature of foreign policy, he said.

Professor Koh, who was speaking last night in his personal capacity, added: 'All of us, whether we are Europeans, Americans or Asians, are guilty of collective hypocrisy. We are all moral degenerates and we stand on a level playing field.'

But the ambassador had also praise for the human rights declaration, calling it a 'beacon for the oppressed and the persecuted'.

It was the declaration, and the charters and conventions it inspired, that made the world 'a more humane and civilised home for humanity'.

This mixture of optimism and scepticism was a theme that echoed repeatedly at the event attended by 150 ambassadors, civil society representatives and students to celebrate human rights.

Happy talk on what the declaration of human rights had achieved in six decades was balanced against more sombre points on how much work still needed to be done.

This mix was evident also during a wide-ranging panel discussion, especially when talk turned to human rights and Asean.

At the Asean Summit in Singapore last year, a charter was signed that, among other things, called for the setting up of a regional body to promote and protect human rights.

Political science don Reuben Wong said he thought the human rights body was simply an add-on to the charter and unlikely to have too much power.

But it could evolve later, much like the European Commission of Human Rights. 'If things do snowball, there is some hope,' said Dr Wong of the National University of Singapore.

The event was organised by six organisations, including the European Commission and the French Embassy.

If there was one thing they all agreed on last night, it was that having the celebration was in itself a sign of progress.

Said Mr K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, one of the co-organisers: 'I must say, to have this (event) in Singapore is in itself an advancement of human rights.'

He added: 'This has clearly been a landmark event but it should not be a one-off affair.'

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