Saturday, 2 May 2015

Practical, not ideological, approach needed on human rights

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe partly because countries in the region are clinging to value systems based on an extreme ideological concept of the universality of rights, said Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador at Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who hopes South-east Asia and Singapore will learn from Europe’s mistakes and not fall into the same trap. Mr Kausikan made these remarks as guest of honour yesterday at a seminar on state practice on the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the region. Below is his speech, which he delivered in his personal capacity.
TODAY, 1 May 2015

Human rights are undoubtedly a very important subject. But if we were to do justice to their importance, we must take a practical and not an ideological approach. And the first premise of a practical approach must be to admit that not all rights are compatible or capable of simultaneous realisation. There is not one good but many goods, and not all goods are compatible.

A corollary to this is to dismiss from our minds the myth that all rights are really universal. This should not be understood as dismissing the importance of human rights or as an excuse for suppressing them, but as a simple description of reality. The fact is, all rights evolve according to specific circumstances and within the context of particular cultures, beliefs, values and changing historical contexts. How we understand rights today is not the same as we understood them 100 or 50 or even, say, just five or 10 years ago.

The idea that human rights have an autonomous reality or are somehow “natural rights” is, as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham said long ago, “rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts”. It is a civilising myth we choose to believe in so that we may at least occasionally live in a civilised manner. But we should not forget that beliefs are not stable; they change and they do not change in a teleological manner towards a single preordained destination.

Of course, all cultures and societies hold some values in common. But this is generally at such a high level of generality as to be practically meaningless as a guide to how specific societies or political systems actually organise themselves, or even as a guide to how they ought to organise themselves. Most rights, despite a superficial consensus, are, in fact, essentially contested concepts, both within societies and between different countries and societies. And it is, to my mind, pointless to console someone deprived of the basic necessities of life that his or her civil liberties are protected. It is at best naive, if not downright cynical.

An ideological approach to the universality of rights not only leads to a meaningless formalism, but also degrades the very values that are held to be universal. But this is too often the approach in the international human rights discourse. Anyone who has served at the United Nations would have, at some point, encountered the less-than-edifying spectacle of Western, usually European, diplomats threatening the withdrawal of aid from less developed countries if they did not support some human rights resolution or another. Curiously, these Western diplomats seem to see nothing hypocritical or even merely contradictory in their behaviour. But then no one is as intolerant as a Western liberal in full bray. Ironical, don’t you think?

When the Charlie Hebdo tragedy occurred, I was struck by the similarity of the mode of thought between the murderers and their victims. Both held some belief so absolutely that they thought it justified anything. The fact that the terrorists had a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is beside the point. The point is that they believed in it, believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in their right to freedom of expression.

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly, there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion? I do not often agree with (former Malaysian Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but he got it absolutely right when he said that killing is wrong and so is insulting someone else’s religion.

Circumstances do matter, and again, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is an apt case in point for the specific theme of this seminar: How the state can successfully balance the conflicting interests of different belief systems in society.

This is not, I think, in principle very complicated, if we do not lose sight of the general points with which I began.


Of course, implementation is everything. The conception of rights that is predominant in the West is one in which rights are held by the individual against an overly powerful state. But the essential problem in much of the rest of the world and, in my view, certainly in South-east Asia as regards freedom of belief, arises when the state is too weak to hold the balance between competing belief systems or too timid to be willing to resist political pressures to privilege one belief system over another.

This does not, of course, mean that South-east Asian or other non-Western states cannot be as oppressive as any other state. But it is a matter of what is regarded as the most urgent priority, and that, again, will vary according to specific circumstances. You cannot — or at least only very rarely can — do everything simultaneously, particularly when the state is weak. Perfection is not to be found this side of heaven, and to pursue perfection on earth usually results only in achieving very little all round.

The French state is certainly not weak. But it hobbled itself by its own absolutist belief systems and was unable to see beyond its own nose and admit that some values cannot be simultaneously realised and, therefore, need at least some degree of restraint to be enjoyed at all. France paid dearly for persisting in the delusion that all its citizens shared the same belief in the universality and pre-eminence of certain rights or values. And so the French state failed in the most fundamental duty of any state: To adjudicate between different conceptions of the good.

In fact, all of Europe is tying itself into knots by clinging to systems of values, systems based on an extreme ideological conception of the universality of rights, taken to ridiculous lengths — a reductio ad absurdum of values — and which, moreover, are out of sync with societies that are evolving under demographic or other pressures in entirely different directions. The result, among other consequences, is the revival of fascism or, at least, extreme-right-wing political movements. Is it an accident that anti-Semitism is on the rise in France and some other parts of Europe? I don’t think so.

I do not think that Europe can easily get out of this conundrum of its own making, because that would require a redefinition of what European elites have decided it means to be European. They are not prepared to confront this, particularly at a time when the conception of Europe as Europe — as distinct from France or Germany or the Netherlands or Sweden or any other individual country — has been shaken and its place in the international order is in question. I wish Europe well.

But I even more fervently wish that South-east Asia in general and Singapore in particular do not fall into the same trap. Here, at least, we can learn from Europe’s mistakes, if we maintain the self-confidence to pursue our own course and ignore advice that may be well-meaning but is too often utterly inappropriate.

Freedom of speech: Europe has measures to curb abuse

IN HIS commentary, ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan said France, and Europe in general, is living in a system "based on an extreme ideological conception of the universality of rights taken to ridiculous length" ("A practical not ideological approach to human rights"; Monday).

He added that in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris, both the terrorists and the cartoonists were wrong and held strikingly similar modes of thought. He then rounded off his assessment with generalised observations about a revival of fascism and anti-Semitism as a result of an unrestrained values-based concept.

We beg to differ: The level of "intellectual" understanding for militant extremists is misguided.

We do not see a "conundrum" in calling a murder a murder, or that doing this would be ideologically extreme. Paris did not witness a clash between conflicting human rights - it was horrified by a criminal act.

Societies may feel a need to draw the line of acceptable freedom of press differently, often for very valid historical reasons. However, to justify a narrower bandwidth with a terrorist act is disingenuous.

France, as all European countries, does have constraints in place against the abuse of freedom of speech - the most stringent ones, in fact, are on the expression of anti-Semitism, incitation to racial violence and hatred, and glorification of fascism.

The fact that France has had such laws since 1881, and has continued since then to fine-tune them, shows that, far from being "absolutist" on the issue of freedom of expression, lawmakers have deemed it necessary to frame this freedom.

Actually, Charlie Hebdo directed most of its satirical pieces at a very broad array of political, public as well as religious figures, but not against a particular religion.

The European Union does not instrumentalise its position as the world's largest donor of development aid. Our aim is, however, to improve the livelihoods of people, both in economic terms and in their aspirations for a self-determined life.

Terrorism is a global scourge which affects us all; and virtually no part of the world, including South-east Asia, has been spared from terrorist attacks.

In these testing times, the priority is to focus on how all partners can share experiences to effectively counter radicalism and terrorism. Now is the time to show solidarity and to work together.

Michael Pulch (Dr)
European Union Ambassador to Singapore

Benjamin Dubertret
Ambassador of France to Singapore
ST Forum, 9 May 2015

Take care not to head down false path

LAST Saturday's letter by the European Union and French ambassadors to Singapore ("Freedom of speech: Europe has measures to curb abuse") was meant as a rebuttal of a speech

I had made, an excerpt of which was carried in The Straits Times ("A practical not ideological approach to human rights"; May 4).

Ironically, the rebuttal provided further evidence of how, in pursuing an absolutist notion of free speech, the EU in general and France in particular have tied themselves into knots and courted grave trouble, as exemplified in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

The letter pointed out that France has strict laws against anti-Semitism.

This is certainly highly commendable, even if not very effective in practice.

But why throw the weight of the state against discrimination against one religion or group, while acquiescing in the systematic vilification of another religion, Islam, in the name of freedom of speech?

This is, at least, a stark inconsistency and a double standard, if not worse.

And, of course, terrorism is a global scourge.

But how is this relevant to my point that Europe has taken freedom of speech to ridiculous extremes? Do the writers mean to say that Charlie Hebdo's lampooning of Islam had nothing to do with its being targeted, rather than, say, Le Figaro?

I take no joy in pointing out the inconsistencies of the European position.

But when a young Singaporean defends his vicious attacks on Christianity by appealing to the same extreme ideology of freedom of speech that has landed Europe in a dangerous conundrum, the false path that Europe has taken needs to be exposed and pondered by all Singaporeans.

Bilahari Kausikan
ST Forum, 12 May 2015

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