Brave New World (The Star)
28 November 2012
Declarations look good at first glance, but read between the lines and one
will find escape routes to shirk the very responsibilities spelt out for those
IN the last couple of weeks I have been told that I am really quite a
pathetic fellow; out of touch, overly idealistic and generally quite sad.
This is quite a common accusation, one that has been thrown at me in the
past, and added to the fact that I work in a university, that old chestnut of
making my living quarters in an ivory tower often comes into play as well.
My comments on university rankings not being the be all and end all when
selecting where to study was dismissed as wishful thinking.
I was told in no uncertain terms that parents will look at rankings to choose
a university for their children.
Oh, incidentally, for the sake of accuracy, in my last column, I should not
have said Leeds was higher ranked than Nottingham. They are not. I should have
said Sheffield, or Manchester or Durham instead.
And at a talk where I said “meaningful public participation should occur in
developmental and environmental issues”, again I was painted as some trippy
hippy freak who really should just sit quietly in a VW van listening to Hendrix
and burning incense. Frankly, this sounds like a very enticing idea.
However, all these barbs (admittedly they were thrown at me in a gentle and
humorous manner) got me thinking. Why do I bother with these ideals? No one
seems to care any way. The world is a hard, calculative and oft times, a cruel
place. Pragmatism, not idealism, will ensure survival, both literally and
I guess this is true, if mere survival is what one aspires for. I can’t buy
into this thinking though. Yes, when one is floating in the clouds of principles
and ideals, one may lose track of the realities of the world and one’s ideas
become no more substantive and useful as “insignificant fluff”. But pragmatism
without the overarching and necessary restraints of idealism is dangerous,
If we live our lives without aspirations, then what is to prevent the strong
and the crass to rule? Without a higher ideal, then so many things become
A case in point is the Asean Human Rights Declaration. Personally, I view
this document as something positive. It has its problems, and I shall deal with
them later, but within the context of Asean.
It is important because for decades the issue of human rights was not really
part of the Asean agenda. It was only in the Asean Charter of 2007 did the
countries of Asean formally recognise human rights as an essential value. And
now, we have this declaration which spells out the human rights that in
principle Asean agrees has to be protected.
I say “in principle” because the Asean Human Rights Declaration is, in
international law parlance, a “soft law”.
By this, it is meant that it is merely a statement of principle, it is not a
binding law as say a treaty is. Therefore, legally it would be rather difficult
to insist that the Asean governments comply with this declaration.
This does not mean that they do not have a moral responsibility and it is up
to the people of Asean to keep pressing their governments to respect the
Declaration and to make the necessary domestic legislation to give legal weight
to these “soft law” principles and make them hard.
Surely our erstwhile leaders did not sign the declaration for fun.
They agreed to these principles, so let’s make sure they live up to them.
Aside from the lack of legal obligation, another criticism of the Declaration
is that it appears to provide loopholes for its signatories.
For example, Article 7 begins with the emphatic statement that “all human
rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.
So far so good, but it closes with “the realisation of human rights must be
considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different
political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious
The following article continues in this vein and states “the exercise of
human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations
as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for
the human rights and fundamental freedom of others, and to meet the just
requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety,
public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic
Suspicious, is it not? Signatories of this document have left themselves a
method of avoiding their responsibilities.
All they have to say is: “Oh, we are restricting your rights for the reason
of national security/public morality/general public welfare … take your
Now, only an idiot would think that human rights mean the rights to do
anything at all. I may have freedom of speech but I do not have the right to
defame someone; my freedom of assembly does not mean I can trespass on another’s
So, naturally there will be restrictions on rights, but the issue here is
that there must be restrictions on the restrictions.
And that is the crux of the matter. What prevents those in power from using
the excuse of morality or security or whatever else to place so many
restrictions on our rights that they become utterly meaningless?
The answer I submit is aspirations; idealism and principle.
Only when we have people in power, and by this I mean the legislature,
executive and judiciary, who have the aspiration of protecting rights as far as possible; who believe that human rights are an ideal, not an imposition on
governments; and who have the conviction to live and make decisions according to
these principles; only then can the Asean Human Rights Declaration have any
Maybe I am not being pragmatic; perhaps the thin air in my ivory tower has
made me light headed and foolish; but I don’t care, because the alternative to
living without aspirations, ideals and principles is not worth