Saturday 22 June 2013

S'pore slams US report on human rights

MFA criticises 'hypocritical' report which contains 'gross inaccuracies'
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

THE Singapore Government has slammed the United States State Department's annual human rights report on Singapore, saying it was "hypocritical" and contained "gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations".

While the criticisms levelled at Singapore have been rebutted in detail "year after year", the US has chosen to ignore "even factual clarifications", thereby compromising the report's objectivity, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a stern statement yesterday.

The MFA also turned on the US' own human rights record, noting how the superpower "has been the subject of both domestic and international criticism regarding various allegations of egregious human rights violations".

It did not cite any examples.

The US, however, has come under fire for its continued detention of 166 enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - an arrangement Amnesty International has called "the gulag of our time".

Singapore's latest rebuttal comes two months after the US released its yearly assessment of human rights practices for about 195 countries around the world.

The report called Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) a form of "arbitrary arrest", although it added that the law has in recent years been used against alleged terrorists, not political opponents.

Other human rights "problems" it noted include caning as a form of criminal punishment, as well as restrictions on free assembly, union rights and opposition activity.

The MFA, zooming in on the report's mention of the ISA, said its criticism of the law represented the application of a "double standard" by the US.

"The US, in its own fight against terrorism, has at the highest level publicly articulated that certain trade-offs between rights and security are necessary and worthy," it said.

The MFA added that the repeating of inaccuracies and misrepresentations about Singapore shows the US is more interested in "imposing its own ideology, rather than making a genuine attempt to understand human rights practices as they actually exist".

Promoting and protecting human rights was something Singapore took seriously, it said, but "human rights cannot be considered in isolation from the circumstances of the society in which they are embedded".

"We do not claim that our system is perfect... However, our government is built on the rule of law and held accountable to our people through regular democratic elections.

"We have and will continually work towards improving the lives of our people and advance their rights, with or without the US Department of State's human rights report," it said.

Meanwhile, China and Russia also blasted a US report on human trafficking, which for the first time downgraded both countries to the lowest tier.

China yesterday called the assessment "unilateral" and "arbitrary".

Placing human rights in context
Editorial, The Straits Times, 28 Jun 2013

WITH or without the annual assessment of the human rights practices of other countries which the US State Department releases, human rights and democracy would remain high on the universal agenda. If world history has any direction, it is one in which these rights gradually have become central to people's understanding of themselves and of their systems in the flux of time. Universal rights provide a benchmark for nations to assess their practices against what they know should be their norms. Thinkers and activists have died, been jailed or exiled for pushing for inalienable human rights which, in a nutshell, are the rights of humans to be treated as humans.

The problem occurs when one country, situated at a particular stage of economic and political development, seeks to judge other countries on the basis of standards that it deems to be universal. This is the issue with the latest US report as well, which pays insufficient attention to national contexts in passing judgment on the state of human rights around the world. Context is essential because it determines how human rights are defined on a list of national priorities and weighed relative to other needs. Singapore therefore has reacted with annoyance at the portrayal of aspects of its system, such as the use of caning as a punishment for certain crimes and the Internal Security Act (ISA), which permits detention without trial.

What is galling is that such lofty moralising should come from the United States, whose treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay attracted so much criticism at home and abroad. Double standards aside, the US approach to human rights is open to criticism that it is unwilling to acknowledge circumstances and realities in countries whose ideological dispositions do not coincide with its own.

What the world needs, as the power transition under way reconfigures international relations, is greater and not less understanding of differences in domestic political cultures and systems among countries and regions such as the United States, China and Europe.

China's scathing human rights report on the US is an example of a country hitting back. It focuses on issues such as firearms-related crimes, the distorting effect of political contributions on the political process, eavesdropping on citizens and the growing income gap. There are, no doubt, Americans who would respond that these problems need to be kept in context and not be allowed to give the impression of an unjust and deeply divided society. That is what many citizens elsewhere will say about the portrayal of their own systems in America's magisterial assessment of the global state of human rights.

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