S'pore's pragmatic approach to human rights not incompatible with ideals of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR implicitly recognises that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to development and the realisation of human rights.

Eugene KB Tan | December 19, 2023, 05:06 PM


Last week, the world marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Since its adoption in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948, the progress of human rights bears testimony to a “one step forward, two steps back” ritual. Recent events around the world remind us that we must not lose hope even amid the despair for human rights.

In thirty punchy articles, the UDHR sets out the rights and responsibilities that people across the globe possess. In the wake of the horrors of World War II, its drafters aspired to craft a foundational document that would shape the discourse and norms of, in the words of its chairwoman Eleanor Roosevelt, “why we have rights to begin with”.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The UDHR, however, has no mechanism for the enforcement of its provisions. It does not directly create legal obligations for countries as it is not a legally binding document.

Nevertheless, there is healthy academic debate on whether the UDHR gives rise to a real obligation on the part of nation-states. Some argue that the UDHR is now a part of customary international law because countries have consistently invoked the Declaration over the last 75 years.

UDHR as moral authority and influence

The very first words of the UDHR emphasise the “recognition of the inherent dignity” of its intended audience and beneficiaries. Promoting and protecting human rights underscore the centrality of human dignity. Dignity, in turn, engenders respect. Rights, responsibilities, dignity, and respect are the wellspring of our shared humanity.

To be clear, human rights did not begin with the UDHR. Although most countries were not at the UDHR’s adoption in 1948, there is no doubt that it commands significant moral authority. It is a basic document that embodies universal values shared by all members of the international community and has had a deeply profound influence on the development of international human rights law and even the constitutions of several countries.

Its progeny are the various core international human rights treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The UDHR has had a deeply profound influence on the development of other human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

In its avowed universality that seeks to transcend differences at a high level of generality, the UDHR implicitly recognises that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to development and the realisation of human rights.

The UDHR is not dogmatic even as it prescribes fundamental human rights. Each society has its own unique circumstances and rights need not have the same expression even as the essence of a right remains constant.

Yet, there is no mistaking that human rights is also inherently political where realpolitik and double standards abound. The capitalist and democratic hubris of the end of the Cold War gave rise to the “Asian values” debate of the early 1990s which was geopolitical at its core. Values were used strategically and with common sense to protect defensive interests such as how societies organise themselves and evolve will differ between Asia and the West.

UDHR’s relevance to Singapore

What is the UDHR’s relevance to Singapore?

Singapore respects the fundamental liberties enshrined in our 1965 Constitution and the fundamental human rights in the UDHR. Both basic documents conceive of the individual as the rights holder with the state or government as the principal duty bearer responsible and accountable for ensuring the rights of a rights holder. The UDHR has been referred to in Parliament and in our law courts.

To understand Singapore’s approach to human rights, it is necessary to appreciate the context in which Singapore exists. An improbable nation, we remain a state in search of a nation: The challenge of forging different communities into one people in a small, densely populated city-state.

The Pew Research Centre rated Singapore as the most religiously diverse country in the world in 2014. Its vulnerabilities notwithstanding, protecting Singapore’s sovereignty and independence and the pursuit of economic development and creating opportunities for all Singaporeans remain of existential importance.

But this commitment to the UDHR does not mean Singapore’s approach to governance and achieving human rights cannot differ from others. Neither does it mean that human rights are given lip service here.

Singapore seeks an even-handed approach to the rights of individuals and the interests of society. In addition, the protection of rights in Singapore is buttressed by a strong adherence to the rule of law.

Singapore’s approach to human rights is well known and is premised on two tenets. First, human rights do not exist in a vacuum but must take into account a country’s specific circumstances including its cultural, social, economic, and historical contexts. Second, the rule of law is an essential precondition and bedrock for promoting and protecting human rights.

Singapore's approach to human rights takes into account the country's cultural, social, economic, and historical contexts and based on an adherence to the rule of law. Photo by Jay Ang on Unsplash

Singapore’s pragmatic stance towards human rights also accords the imperative to pay attention to the outcomes of national policies and laws. This approach has generally worked well as Singapore is rated well in various human development indicators such as the UN Human Development Index and the UN Gender Inequality Index. However, there is always room for improvement.

Moreover, Singapore’s human rights record is presented, explained, and examined by her peers under the auspices of the various human rights treaty frameworks that Singapore is party to, especially the Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council which takes place every 4½ years.

There continues to be rigorous debates, both in Parliament and in the community, on domestic human rights issues. Issues such as the death penalty (crime), migrant workers (labour), artificial intelligence (technology) intersect to varying degrees with human rights concerns and protections. Moreover, civil society continues to advocate for what they believe passionately will make for our better angels.

In recent years, as the government and people seek to make Singapore more inclusive, cohesive and resilient, how we go about promoting and protecting rights in our public policies, laws, and governance outcome will matter even more. Individual rights even-handedly balanced against societal interests will add to the hard-earned political trust of the people in Singapore’s democracy and institutions and way of life.

It is seldom appreciated that the UDHR endorses the centrality of community in the rights framework: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible” and recognises the “just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”.

This margin of appreciation affords national authorities a measure of diversity and respect of democratic choices adopted at the domestic level in interpreting and fulfilling treaty obligations under various human rights treaties.

Promise of and hard work that human rights is

On the occasion of the UDHR’s 75th anniversary, the harsh and sad reality is that human rights are more often honoured in its breach than its observance. But the UDHR retains its timeless quality, its evocative universality, its undiminished importance, and its relevance even more pertinent.

Today, human rights cannot be wished away although the realisation of human rights remains a continuous and arduous journey, even more so when the concept of human rights is a dynamic one.

For example, business and human rights is a rapidly growing area and corporate entities ignore it to their peril. The corpus of human rights declarations and treaties and jurisprudence continues to grow, a testament to how rights matter immensely to a person’s and society’s well-being.

The realisation of human rights remains a continuous and arduous journey, even more so when the concept of human rights is a dynamic one. Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

The UDHR’s inherent strength is its power of ideas premised on human beings being “endowed with reason and conscience” and “born free and equal in dignity and rights”. We must avoid ideological ghettos and strive in “a spirit of brotherhood” to make this world better than when we found it.

Seen in this light, human rights is a means rather than an end in itself. Only then can humanity, rooted in three core values of life, peace, and solidarity, enable societies to flourish. Only then can the best of humanity overcome the worst of our species.

Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University. This essay is based on remarks delivered at the European Union Delegation to Singapore’s Human Rights Day Seminar on Dec. 5, 2023.

Top image credit: Max Oh on Unsplash